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Saturday, March 12, 2011
Wait ... can the Crimson still get a bid?

By Eamonn Brennan

By now, you've probably seen what happened in New Haven, Conn., on Saturday. If you're a Harvard fan, you don't want to see it again.

(In case you missed it, video is here. Crimson supporters click through at their own risk and assume any and all responsibility for repairs to their smashed laptops. Deal?)

Yes, Harvard was seconds away from its first NCAA tournament appearance since 1946. The Crimson led 62-61 with three seconds left. And then the unthinkable -- a leaning, last-second, no-he-did-not-OH-MY-GOD buzzer-beater by Princeton guard Douglas Davis -- happened. Princeton students rushed the floor, Harvard fans tore up their hilarious signs, and the Crimson lost out on the Ivy League's automatic bid in the most heartbreaking manner possible.

So here's the question, one yours truly was asked on Twitter within seconds of Davis' shot: Can the Crimson still get a bid?

It's not a totally ridiculous idea. As of this writing, Harvard's RPI is 32. The Crimson are 21-6. They have a win over an NCAA tournament team (Colorado) and a full-fledged bubble team (Boston College), and that latter victory came in a true road game. There's also one win over Princeton, whose RPI is currently hovering around the top-50 threshold. Nor do the Crimson have many unsightly losses; Feb. 26's loss to Yale (RPI: 157) is the only loss outside the RPI top 50 on this profile. So, hey, why not? Why can't the Crimson get in?

Unfortunately, Harvard's gaudy record has been boosted by a disconcerting number of bad wins. Sixteen -- yes, sixteen -- of the Crimson's 21 victories this season have come against teams ranked below 150 in the RPI. Eight of those teams have RPI figures below 240. On some level, Harvard deserves credit for beating the teams on their schedule, and it's not like head coach Tommy Amaker's team can control how low its conference competitors sink in the Ratings Percentage Index.

(Not to go on a tangent about RPI here, because pretty much everyone agrees that the RPI, while occasionally helpful, is mostly crude and outdated. But if you needed yet another anecdotal example of why the RPI is often deceptive, look at Harvard. With wins over Colorado, Boston College and Princeton -- as well as a whole mess of unremarkable victories over sub-150 teams -- the Crimson have somehow garnered a top-40 RPI figure of their own. Is Harvard one of the 40 best teams in the country? Or, for those who praise the RPI as a good measure of "accomplishments," does Harvard have the 36th-best "list of accomplishments" in the country? If so, why? Because the Crimson haven't lost to horrible teams? Can you tell I'm tired of talking about the RPI?)

Anyway, back to the question at hand: Is Harvard's résumé good enough to get an at-large bid in the NCAA tournament? The answer, it seems, is no. Harvard's competition on the bubble line -- teams like Virginia Tech, Penn State, USC, Colorado, Alabama and even Boston College -- all have their fair share of bad losses and variably shaky RPI numbers, but all of them have also proven capable of playing and beating some of the nation's toughest teams. Harvard, through little fault of its own, hasn't.

That's a bit unfair; Amaker only has so much control over his team's schedule. At some point, you'd like to reward a team for getting wins. You'd also like to reward a long-suffering team that just suffered one of the most brutal do-or-die tourney-berth losses since, well, ever. But it's hard to imagine Harvard leapfrogging the rest of the well-established bubble now. Unfortunately, it appears the Crimson's century-long tourney absence will continue for another year.

Sorry, Harvard fans. Tough day. The good news is most of you are already running the country or you will be in the near future. That has to make it a little better, right?