Season Preview: Harvard Crimson

Brandyn Curry, finally healthy after playing through knee problems the last two seasons, looks to have a breakout year in the Crimson backcourt. (Photo Credit: Associated Press)

 

Harvard enters this year with few unknowns. Returning its entire roster from last year’s Ivy League co-champions, anything less than an NCAA tournament appearance would be a massive disappointment. But that’s not to say reaching March Madness will be a cakewalk for Tommy Amaker’s crew. The Crimson faces a difficult non-conference slate before squaring off against the strongest field the Ancient Eight has seen in recent memory.The gauntlet begins in earnest the week of Thanksgiving, as the inaugural Battle 4 Atlantis will provide some measure of exactly how Harvard stacks up against premium competition. It begins the tournament with a matchup against Pac-12 newcomer Utah, and an opening win would probably pair the Crimson with Florida St., which is coming off a Sweet Sixteen appearance. Reigning national champion UConn looms as the top dog of the eight teams in the tournament, though in all likelihood Harvard would not face the Huskies in the Bahamas unless it reaches the final.

But the Crimson will face UConn in Storrs in early December, looking to avenge a 29-point loss at the XL Center a year ago. This game, the centerpiece of Harvard’s non-conference slate, is bracketed by a pair of road tests against America East favorites BU and Vermont (and a game against independent Seattle). The schedule hardly softens as it enters the holidays. Harvard hosts Sun Belt contender (and fellow NIT participant) Florida Atlantic in a student-bereft Lavietes on Dec. 22, and then it shoots for its annual “upset” of Boston College a week later. The Crimson rounds out its non-Ivy schedule against a trio of middling Atlantic 10 schools—St. Joe’s, at Fordham, and George Washington—as well as a gimme at Monmouth.

Of course, November and December are only a preamble to the games that actually matter—the 14-game tournament. Almost across the board, members of the Ancient Eight have improved, and each will save its best shot for the prohibitive favorite from Cambridge. The road to March will be difficult for Harvard. Rarely has a team been such a consensus preseason pick; rarely has a team had so much room to fall short of expectations.

Backcourt:

Outside the paint, the ball is in sure hands for the Crimson. Junior Brandyn Curry has proved to be one of the best distributors in the conference, averaging the most assists (5.9 per game, and 7.0 per 40 minutes) and boasting the best assist-to-turnover ratio (2.29) among Ivy players last season. Curry was at his best the last weekend of the regular season when he posted 13 points and 14 assists against Penn and then 10 points and 10 assists in the banner clinching win over Princeton. Bob Ryan gushed afterward, “Somewhere in America a ballyhooed power conference point guard might have exceeded Curry’s mastery of the position this weekend. But I doubt it.”

This year, Curry is finally healthy after healing from a knee injury that has nagged him the last two seasons. At times, the Harvard guard struggled finishing around the rim, shooting just 47 percent from two (en route to posting the lowest effective shooting percentage of all the Crimson’s major contributors), but if he regains some explosiveness, you should expect his scoring and his assists numbers to improve.

Joining Curry in the backcourt is co-captain Oliver McNally. The senior has perfected the art of doing the little things. He shoots over 90 percent from the stripe (after shooting 75 percent as a freshman); he turns the ball over just 1.5 times per game (the lowest rate among the top 15 league leaders in assists); and he only takes, and usually makes, good shots (a team-best 60.4 effective field goal percentage). This leadership is evident on the court as well as the stat sheet. McNally has a knack for drawing the tide-turning charge and draining the run-capping bucket. The great chemistry between him and Curry allow both players to stay on the court at the same time, and most Ivy opponents have a difficult time defending two All-Ivy caliber guards.

McNally and Curry generally combine for 80 percent of the backcourt minutes (with at least one of them on the court for an even larger percentage of game play). The small remainder of the ball-handling duties will fall to sophomore Matt Brown, who distinguished himself as a defensive specialist last year, and freshmen lookalikes Corbin Miller and Max Hooper (though Hooper might prove to be more of a wing player). Technically, sophomore Laurent Rivard is called upon to join the backcourt in free-throw situations as well.

Frontcourt:

Nominally forwards or off-guards, junior Christian Webster and Rivard provide wing play for the Crimson offense. Webster is primarily a slasher, unafraid to drive into the lane, though he also knocks down threes at almost a 40 percent clip. Webster’s aggressiveness is a crucial ingredient to Amaker’s offensive philosophy, as it earns the junior frequent trips to the charity stripe (123 free throw attempts on 246 field goal attempts) where he makes 89.4 percent of his freebies. This style of play makes Webster the most consistent perimeter scorer on Harvard’s roster: he was held to fewer than eight points just three times all season.

Though Rivard also showed a willingness to venture into the lane, he primarily specializes as a shooter. His 39.6 percentage from deep betrays the extent of his impact on the court. Rivard is a threat to shoot from as deep as 25 feet, denying defenses the choice to pack the middle. The Canadian emerged as an early contender for Ivy League Rookie of the Year after a torrid December and January, but his production dipped in the middle of conference play enough for Brown’s Sean McGonagill to pass him. Regardless, Rivard was, and will remain, one of the most feared shooters in the league as well as perhaps the Ivy’s best sixth man.

The Crimson’s true frontcourt consists of junior Kyle Casey and co-captain Keith Wright. Last year, Casey was a trendy preseason pick for Ivy League Player of the Year, but a well-documented foot injury hampered him all season. Still, he gutted out a 10.7 points, 6.0 rebounds per game line that earned him an all-league second team nod. This year, Casey returns at full strength. His combination of athleticism and size is unmatched by anyone in the conference. His ability to score in a variety of ways—off the dribble, catch-and-shoot, post ups—make him Harvard’s most interesting and fun-to-watch player. He has the highest ceiling of anyone on the Crimson and could be primed to make the same kind of leap we saw from Wright last year.

Wright’s transformation was the biggest reason for Harvard’s success a year ago. He became the go-to guy in place of Jeremy Lin and carried the Crimson further than it’s ever gone, averaging 14.8 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks per game en route to being named Ivy League Player of the Year. His ability to stay on the court last year (upping his minutes from 21.4 per game to 32.3) was perhaps the biggest reason for his success, and, continuing a trend throughout his college career, Wright has shown up to camp in tremendous shape yet again. For what he lacks in explosiveness, Wright makes up for in strength. Yale’s Greg Mangano was his only equal last season; until we see more competition, we can only assume Wright will provide more of the same dominance.

Barring injury, Harvard’s rotation is largely set. As a result, the much-heralded freshman class will likely play a complementary role and compete for minutes off the bench alongside veterans Andrew Van Nest, Jeff Georgatos, and Ugo Okam. Still, the Crimson is rightly excited to see exactly what it has in Steve Moundou-Missi, Wesley Saunders, Kenyatta Smith, and Jonah Travis. They provide some relief against the inevitable attrition from the Ivy League’s grueling schedule, as well as a glimpse into the future of Harvard hoops.

Final Thoughts:

If you could have any team’s frontcourt, you might pick the Yale or Princeton bigs over Harvard’s. If you could have any team’s backcourt, you might pick the Quaker or Big Red ball handlers ahead of the Crimson’s. But no team comes close to matching the talent from Cambridge in both areas.

Of course the season will surprise us in a million different ways, but right now, my guess is that Tommy Amaker feels like a man holding ace-king suited at the poker table. Who knows, maybe he’ll get screwed on the river, but pre-flop—before the first tipoff of a long season—he wouldn’t trade hands with anybody.

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