The Puzzling Decisions Behind Harvard's Defeat

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At first, I couldn’t believe the officials signaled a charge on Kyle Casey in the final moments of Saturday’s loss to Penn. But after watching the replay, I begrudgingly admitted that the referees were not crazy to have called an offensive foul. As my anger towards the officials gradually subsided, I slowly realized the true cause of Harvard’s loss: Tommy Amaker coached the Crimson out of a victory. 

Now, Amaker has gotten a lot of undue criticism for his coaching. The crux of the argument is that his teams too often lose to supposedly less talented squads. I’ve never bought in to this reasoning. Over the last few years, his teams have actually done a fantastic job of avoiding losses to the bottom feeders of the Ivy League. The fairer argument is that Amaker has failed to win the big games against very good teams—2010 against Cornell, 2011 against Princeton, and 2012 against Penn—but even this criticism is usually not grounded in specific errors on the part of Harvard’s coach.

In order to criticize a coach, you need to offer concrete examples of what he did wrong. On Saturday, for the first time that this Amaker apologist can remember, the Crimson’s head coach had specific miscues that were serious enough to cost his superior team the victory.

Much of what went wrong wasn’t Amaker’s fault. He can hardly be blamed for the 20 instances that Harvard turned over the ball or the two-of-11 shooting from behind the arc. But I do think that it’s fair to hold him accountable for the disgraceful end to the first half.

After a Wes Saunders jumper gave the Crimson a 30-22 lead with 3.3 seconds left, Jerome Allen called a timeout to set up one last play before the break. The situation is usually a simple formality of heading off the guard racing up court and forcing a wild attempt, but for some reason Harvard was totally unprepared. Laurent Rivard must have had the notion that he ought to prevent Miles Cartwright from shooting a three because he let the Quaker guard drive all the way to the hoop uncontested and the Crimson conceded an easy two points.

Of course, nursing a nine-point lead midway through the second half, Cartwright’s bucket seemed inconsequential. Harvard was exploiting the Penn big men, as it forced Henry Brooks to the bench with foul trouble, and the home team seemed poised to win a game of free throws and attrition. But the Quakers made a run by scoring nine points in a little less than two minutes, and Amaker responded by throwing common sense to the wind.

At 3:46, he subbed out his reigning POY Keith Wright (on Senior Night, no less) for freshman guard Corbin Miller. The rest of the game was played with Miller, Saunders, Oliver McNally, Brandyn Curry, and Kyle Casey on the floor: a lineup of two

freshmen and three guards, which, to my knowledge, had not played meaningful minutes together.

After the game Amaker said he wanted more “ball handlers” and “defense” on the court. To be fair, Saunders had played his best game of the season to that point. But Miller’s replacement of Wright was mystifying. With McNally and Curry managing the guard positions on the offensive end, Miller’s “ball-handling” skills (which had apparently eluded me all season) were unnecessary, and on the defensive end Miller was actually a liability.

Penn immediately seized upon the mismatch. With Curry guarding Zack Rosen and Miller guarding Cartwright, the Quakers had the latter set ball screens to switch Miller onto Rosen in isolation. Saunders meanwhile (an outstanding defender) was stuck off the ball watching these sets. This situation unfolded every time down the court, and Rosen scored six straight points. (At the very least, I would have tried Saunders on Cartwright; he stood a better chance one-on-one against Rosen than Miller did).

To make matters worse, the size that Harvard sacrificed for “defense” would have been useful in keeping Rosen from driving into the paint and in securing a key rebound which gave Penn an extra possession in the final minute. And all that “ball-handling” earned the Crimson was one turnover, three long-distance misfires from three, and a pair of free throws.

Not only was the strategy of abandoning your normal lineup in the most pivotal moment of the season obviously flawed, the failure was also compounded by Amaker hoarding his timeouts. Up by one entering the final minute, Harvard was forced to settle for a long three at the end of the shot clock. On the other end, Cartwright missed a three, but a Fran Dougherty rebound gave the Quakers another chance,

and Jerome Allen called a timeout to set up a play. Amaker, whose team needed a stop, had the opportunity to put in his best defensive lineup, but he instead stuck with the five on the floor (I guess because of their free throw shooting?).

After Rosen got to the line and hit both free throws, Amaker had the chance to get the ball to midcourt and call a timeout to diagram a go-ahead play like Allen did. He chose not to, and the Crimson got an errant three-point shot from Miller instead (to be fair, it was an open look, but do you really want your season riding on a freshman who had taken one shot all game?). The Crimson was fortunate to get the out-of-bounds call, but, for some reason, Harvard rushed to inbounds it. Given the stakes of the situation, I was surprised that the Crimson would not want to talk it over, but before anything could happen, Penn called a timeout.

The inbounds play worked like a charm, but Casey did not get the call; Penn called a timeout to diagram an inbounds play, the Quakers got the ball down court, and the rest is history.

It was a disappointing night in Cambridge, as the Harvard faithful saw a 28-game home winning streak snap, the seniors walked out of Lavietes for the final time as losers, and the Crimson watched a share of the Ivy title slip through its fingers. Worst of all, though, was the sickening feeling that Coach Amaker was the one responsible.

1 thought on “The Puzzling Decisions Behind Harvard's Defeat”

  1. C. River,

    May I call you “Charlie”? At the risk of merely agreeing with everything that you said, I agree with everything that you said.

    (Actually, I have one small quibble with your complaint that “Amaker has failed to win the big games against very good teams.” You know, it’s harder to win the games against very good teams.)

    But I agree wholeheartedly it’s certainly odd that Amaker sat the reigning conference player of the year at the exact moment when a reliable inside scoring threat would have seemed most valuable. It’s not like Harvard needed three-point shooting at that point in the game.

    All I can think of is that Amaker thought Wright would be a liability at the free throw line. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think that Wright was also on the bench at crunch time during the previous night’s Princeton game. And the Crimson went 8-for-8 at the charity stripe to seal that critical win.

    Maybe Amaker simply doesn’t want to put Wright on the line with the game depending on it. Because I agree with you that taking the all-time Harvard blocked shots leader out doesn’t exactly square with trying to get more “defense” on the court. Especially when you’ve got enough time-outs to make offense-for-defense substitutions on every change of possession.

    For all that many basketball fans have complained about some coaches micro-managing the last minute of every game, it was amazing to see Amaker decline to call a time-out on the final trip down the court. Did he really just want his team to wing it on a possible season-deciding possession?

    Do you think that Amaker consciously decided to do this? Some coaches will pass on a final time-out if they’ve got the defense unsettled, preferring to let an experienced point guard improvise against a disorganized, back-pedaling team. But Amaker let the Crimson dribble deliberately down the court and set up across the half-court line, then let the seconds tick down toward zero. It almost felt as if Miller took a mediocre shot because he couldn’t believe that the clock was still counting down. I’ve never seen anything like it.

    Not calling a scripted play on the final inbounds pass? I don’t even have words to describe that. Does Amaker have that much confidence in his team, their maturity, their creativity? Or was he simply a deer frozen in the headlights?

    I’m not trying to be insulting. I’ve watched a lot of basketball over the years. I’ve never, ever seen a head coach in the final seconds of the most important game of the year sit back in his seat and say, “let’s see what the boys come up with.”

    At Seton Hall and Michigan, the rap on Amaker was always, “great recruiter, poor game-day coach.” After Saturday’s game, it’s hard to come to any other conclusion.

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