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Monday, November 28, 2011
Mid-major report: Crimson expectations

By Myron Medcalf
ESPN.com

Few coaches suffered as much heartbreak last season as Harvard's Tommy Amaker, who guided his program to a share of its first conference title and a one-game playoff for the Ivy League's NCAA tournament slot. The Crimson hadn't danced since 1946. So the buildup to their matchup against Princeton drew sizable buzz for Amaker's squad and the conference.

But Princeton took the game -- and the NCAA tournament berth -- on a buzzer-beater.

That was a bittersweet finish for a team that managed to reach the postseason, albeit the NIT, for just the third time in school history.

Based on its sizzling start, however, Harvard might not have to settle for anything less than the NCAA tournament this season.

The Crimson won the inaugural Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas with Saturday's 59-49 victory over Central Florida, which upset then-No. 4 UConn in the semis. Harvard topped Utah and then-No. 20 Florida State to reach the title game.

The Crimson's 6-0 start is the team's best since 1984. But this season's finish is what's on their minds.

Keith Wright
Keith Wright's Crimson won the Battle 4 Atlantis title and are off to their best start since 1984.

"The tournament in the Bahamas didn't get a lot of coverage. But this was a big-time tournament for us," senior Oliver McNally told ESPN.com. "We won a championship. We're learning how to win a championship, and this will help us in the long run. Connecticut winning the Maui Invitational [last year] taught them to be closer and to win a championship. We're hoping this will help us win the Ivy League championship."

There's definitely a psychological benefit to winning the tournament that could help Harvard down the stretch. Amaker's squad is undefeated because of its defense, as none of its opponents scored more than 49 points in the Bahamas.

Every key player from last season is back, including reigning Ivy League player of the year Keith Wright, so the Crimson possess a brand of maturity and experience that could become vital in March.

Other than a Dec. 8 matchup at UConn, the Crimson might be favored in every game the rest of the way. Last season's record 23-win season may not be the program's high mark after the next few months.

"It's a process. We're fortunate that we've been pretty good," Amaker told ESPN.com. "We've played well defensively lately. We've taken advantage of the moment. We're recognized what's in front of us, and we're not afraid to go after it. That's a sign of a mature team, one that has shown maturity. We're a veteran team that has gained confidence."

The Crimson will travel to Vermont on Thursday, and Amaker knows there's danger in overlooking any opponent, especially after a big win.

"It's going to be another huge moment for us [going to Vermont]," Amaker said. "They are a very good team and had good success in the past. They're going to be very, very tough to beat. This has raised the profile for us, and hopefully, we'll show that we're prepared and compete hard.''

Editor's Note: Please keep in mind that we do not consider the Atlantic 10, Mountain West and Conference USA to be mid-major conferences, thus they are not includes in this report.

Five individual performances you might have missed

• Robert Morris' Velton Jones scored 38 points and recorded three steals in Tuesday's 82-77 victory at James Madison. He also hit 15 of 19 free throws and grabbed 4 rebounds.

• Iona's Scott Machado had 33 points, 10 assists and 4 steals in a 104-99 win over Saint Joseph's on Wednesday.

• Santa Clara's Evan Roquemore scored 24 points, snatched 4 rebounds and recorded 5 assists in a 79-76 win over New Mexico on Thursday. He was a perfect 8-for-8 from the free throw line.

• Creighton's Doug McDermott finished with 31 points and 11 rebounds in a 104-81 victory over Campbell on Friday. The sophomore has hit 61 percent of his 3-point attempts this season.

Marshall Bjorklund finished with a career-high 27 points in North Dakota State's 78-65 victory over Fresno State on Saturday. The 6-foot-8 forward also had 14 rebounds.

Five scores you might have missed

Iona 104, Saint Joseph's 99 in 2OT (Wednesday): This was a one-point game with 19 seconds remaining in the second overtime. But Scott Machado (33 points) was too clutch down the stretch, hitting four free throws in the final seconds to seal the win.

Denver 70, Saint Mary's 58 (Wednesday): Few figured Saint Mary's would lose before its Dec. 22 matchup at No. 10 Baylor. But the Pioneers hit 50 percent of their 3-point attempts (10 of 20) and committed only six turnovers in the win.

Santa Clara 79, New Mexico 76 in OT (Thursday): Kevin Foster scored 26 points for the Broncos in the 76 Classic win. Santa Clara shot 44 percent from the field. The Broncos later beat Villanova in the third-place game.

UC Riverside 64, Washington State 63 (Sunday): The Highlanders had lost four in a row but overcame a 14-point deficit with 7:05 remaining. And the Pac-12's fall continues.

No. 13 Alabama 72 , VCU 64 (Sunday): The Rams held Alabama to a 1-for-11 clip from the 3-point line, but the Crimson Tide pulled away late with clutch defense. Still, the feisty matchup might have been the boost that Shaka Smart's 3-3 squad needed.

Five games you don't want to miss

Long Beach State at Louisville (ESPNU, 7 p.m. ET on Monday): After its Nov. 16 upset at Pitt, Long Beach State lost two of its next three games. But the 49ers will have a shot at their second road victory over a top-10 opponent when they play the Cardinals.

No. 25 Creighton at San Diego State (10:30 p.m. ET on Wednesday): Many wondered how San Diego State would perform this season without Kawhi Leonard. Well, the Aztecs are 7-1, and they defeated a nationally ranked Arizona team on the road last week. Creighton, which leads the country in assists, gets an opportunity to pick up a good road win against a Mountain West contender.

Northern Iowa at Iowa State (ESPN3, 8 p.m. ET on Wednesday): The Panthers have lost only one game this season -- a 57-41 defeat at Saint Mary's on Nov. 15. Despite losing key scorers from last season, they're on a four-game win streak. Northern Iowa will face a talented Iowa State team that's beginning to find a rhythm. The Cyclones haven't lost since Nov. 15.

Cleveland State at Detroit (2 p.m. ET on Saturday): It's clear that Detroit needs Eli Holman, who's on a leave of absence. The Titans are a surprising 3-4 on the early season, but they entered as favorites to win the Horizon League. Cleveland State is off to a 6-1 start that includes a road win at Vanderbilt.

Akron at Middle Tennessee (2 p.m. ET on Sunday): Middle Tennessee State has the top field goal percentage (54.5) in the nation, a clip that helped the Blue Raiders cut UCLA down Nov. 15. The early mid-major sleeper faces an Akron squad that's coming off an 81-63 victory against Detroit and also owns a road win agaisnt Mississippi State.

Myron Medcalf covers college basketball for ESPN.com. He can be reached at mmedcalf3030@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter: @MedcalfbyESPN