SALT LAKE CITY — Arizona against Harvard: not exactly the matchup any reasonable person expected.
But that’s March Madness. Expecting anything less than the unexpected is just plain naive.
On Saturday, the Wildcats will take on Harvard at 3:10 p.m. The game will be televised on TNT.
After the 14-seeded Crimson pulled off a stunning 68-62 upset of the third seed New Mexico Lobos, I immediately began searching for Harvard’s locker room to gather player reactions.
I couldn’t find it, so I kept walking.
Right when I was about to ask a security guard if he knew where it was, I heard a loud roar to my right, followed by a person shouting at the top of his lungs “Let’s [expletive] go!”
I safely assumed that it wasn’t a New Mexico player.
“Pandemonium,” said guard Christian Webster, describing the post-game scene in the locker room.
“Jubilation,” said Wesley Saunders, also a guard.
“I don’t know any other words for that,” added Laurent Rivard, with a laugh.
The assumption was that Arizona, a six seed, would face the Lobos for a chance to advance to the Sweet 16 in Los Angeles.
“Whoever wins Harvard-New Mexico is gonna be a great team,” Arizona forward Kevin Parrom said before the Harvard-UNM game. “We gotta bring it defensively, or we’re going home. I think everyone understands that.”
It could have been the Lobos’ first-ever Sweet 16 appearance; instead it was Harvard’s first-ever tournament win.
“It feels amazing,” said forward Kenyatta Smith, who had a team-high seven rebounds. “Nobody thought this was going to be the upset. Everybody had other upsets on their bracket, I’m sure. Everybody looked past Harvard. So it’s just amazing for us.”
Odds are, unless you can claim to be from Cambridge, Mass., you don’t know much about the Crimson.
“I mentioned to our players,” head coach Tommy Amaker said, “that people root for underdogs, but they follow top dogs.”
Here are the facts about this particular underdog.
Tommy Amaker isn’t a no-name by any means.
He was an All-American at Duke and eventual assistant coach for Mike Krzyzewski. After working on Coach K’s staff for nine years, he was head coach at Seton Hall for four years and at Michigan for six years before being hired by Harvard in 2007.
Amaker has a career record of 287-203, and this marks his third NCAA tournament appearance. Two of those came at Harvard — this year’s and last — and mark the Crimson’s first appearances since 1946.
“He’s given us a huge boost,” Smith said. “He told us to lay it all out there, and he’s always had faith in us. How much he’s behind us, he really believes in this team.”
Two of Crimson’s best players — guards Wesley Saunders and Siyani Chambers — are underclassmen.
Saunders, a sophomore, is the Crimson’s leading scorer, getting 16.5 points per game along with 4.1 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.9 steals.
As a freshman, Chambers was named to the All-Ivy-League first team, along with Saunders, on the heels of an impressive first year where he led the Ivy League in assists (5.8 per game).
“He’s proven that he’s the man for the job all year,” Webster said. “He’s the leader on our team … I don’t know where we would be without him.”
Harvard has its own spot-up shooter, too. Remember that time Arizona had a bad 3-point defense?
Rivard connected on 2.6 threes per game coming into Thursday night. Against the Lobos, he hit five.
“I consider him the best shooter in New England,” Amaker said. “We used to tease him that he was the second-best shooter in Boston behind Ray Allen when he was with the Celtics. But he can shoot the ball with the best of them.”
In the low post, Harvard trots out the 6-foot-8 Kenyatta Smith (4.2 rebounds per game, seven against UNM) and a 6-foot-7 Steve Mondou-Missi (5.1 per, four against UNM).
Harvard’s win was cool on Thursday night, but if it pulls much of the same against Arizona, things won’t be so rosy in Tucson.
The Sweet 16 looked like Arizona’s ceiling a few weeks ago, even on Selection Sunday. Now? That’s an expectation.
Game on, Arizona.
•This story was courtesy of the Arizona Daily Wildcat.