Harvard, Long Beach State & Three CAA Bracket-Busters

It’s been Bracket-Busters Week this week at TheSportsNotebook, as we look at the best of college basketball’s midmajors, and its Jeremy Lin Day today. So why not start with Lin’s alma mater at Harvard to lead up our look at five teams who hope to bust up brackets in March? We’ll also look at Long Beach State, along with three contenders in the Colonial. And if you missed it, be sure to check out previous posts this week on Conference USA and the Missouri Valley, along with earlier commentaries done on the West Coast Conference trio (Gonzaga, BYU, St. Mary’s) and Murray State.

Harvard (21-3, 7-1) leads the Ivy League by a game over Yale and Penn, and with no postseason tournament, the regular season champ takes home the bid. The Crimson stands at 21-3 overall and is projected as a #10 seed by ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi. One thing to note is that an at-large selection is highly unlikely. The Ivy League plays off ties, so for Harvard to miss the automatic would mean losing  at least two more games and with only one really good win on the schedule (Florida State back in November) that’s probably not enough to get in.

The good news is that the schedule works well for Harvard down the stretch, as they have both Yale and Penn at home the next two Saturdays and a sweep locks up the championship. Harvard’s primary strength lies with the forwards, where 6’7” junior Kyle Casey and 6’8” senior Keith Wright each average 11 ppg and are pretty good rebounders. Laurent Rivera is the prime backcourt threat, also scoring 11 ppg, and being an above-average outside shooter. Brandyn Curry, a 6’1” junior is the point guard who oversees it all and his passing skills are solid.

What I don’t like about Harvard as far as NCAA Tournament matchups go is that there’s no real consistent three-point threat, and Curry is a very poor shooter, meaning defenses can back off on him and the better talent he’ll face is more likely to cut off passing lanes than Ivy League competition is. What I do like about Harvard is that, like most good midmajor teams, they’re experienced. If they draw a young team in the first round, I could see picking them. But on balance, I don’t put them in a class with the Cornell team that made the Sweet 16 in 2010.

Long Beach State (19-6, 12-0) doesn’t have the dazzling overall record, but this is a team that went out and tested themselves in the non-conference portion of the schedule. They beat Pitt and Xavier, while losing to Louisville, North Carolina, Kansas, Kansas State and San Diego State. The Xavier win came when the Musketeers had their key players suspended, so that won’t help much if the 49ers have to plead for mercy after losing a conference tournament game. But the rest of that schedule will, as well as the fact that for the most party LBSU played well.

Long Beach State has got a good three-point marksman in Larry Anderson, and Casper Ware is a 17 ppg scorer in the backcourt. There’s no natural big man, but the trio of James Emmis, Eugene Phelps and T.J. Robinson all score in double figures. The 49ers are currently a projected #11 seed and they have a big game against Creighton on the road Saturday night. If Long Beach can get that win, I think they’re in the field regardless of what happens in the conference tournament. A loss leaves things a little shaky, but if they make it, this is a team that’s got the scoring balance, three-point shooting and mental toughness to win two games.

No midmajor conference is more synonymous with Cinderella, thanks to the work of George Mason in 2006 and Virginia Commonwealth last season. Both schools are in a hot three-team race along with Drexel this time around. But there will only be one bid for the CAA and that’s going to the conference tournament champion. The non-conference resumes are bleak, with VCU’s win over South Florida being the best the Colonial has to offer. Lunardi has Drexel, the first-place team of the moment, as a #14 seed, so it’s all about the conference tournament. Here’s a quick look at the three teams…

Drexel (22-5, 14-2): Frantz Massenat, a sophomore guard scores and distributes, and is lights-out from behind the arc. Size is what hurts the Dragons, as they’re only reliable rebounder is Samme Givens at 6’5”.

George Mason (22-6, 14-2): Senior forward Ryan Person carries this team with an 18/9 average each night, while another senior forward Mike Morrison is the top supporting player. Mason can win this league tournament, but sophomore guard Bryan Allen has to expressly forbid from ever attempting a three-point shot, where he hits only 18 percent.

Virginia Commonwealth (22-6, 13-3): Brandon Burgess is the best holdover from last year’s Final Four team, and while he’s good, he’s not a standout. 6’9” sophomore Juvonte Reddic is a potential game-changer in a tournament environment, but the Rams are another team that has to do all their offensive work inside the three-point line. On an intangible level, they are the more tested team, having played Seton Hall and Alabama, along with South Florida.

Beyond name recognition for George Mason and VCU, it’s tough to take any of the teams seriously as a March threat, but the conference tournament in Richmond promises to be a fun one. It goes March 2-5, while the power conferences are still finishing up their regular season. I give VCU the edge based on home-city advantage and being more tested.