Season Preview: Harvard Crimson

Harvard”s quest to repeat begins at UMass at 10AM on November 13th, as part of ESPN”s 24-hour Tip-Off Marathon.

In 2011-12: 26-5, 12-2, Ivy League Champions

A Look Back: 2011-12 was a breakthrough year for Harvard, as the Crimson won its first outright Ivy League title and reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1946. By most measures, it was one of the great teams in league history, perhaps not as memorable as the league”s former March Madness darlings, but certainly belonging in the pantheon of

all-time Ancient Eight squads.

Harvard began the season by reeling off eight straight wins and even took home some hardware at the inaugural Battle 4 Atlantis, where the Crimson beat Utah, then-No. 20 Florida St., and NIT-bound UCF over the course of three days. The hot start earned Harvard a Top 25 ranking, but the Crimson stumbled to its first loss in Storrs, Conn., after a 17-3 Huskies run to start the second half was the difference in 67-53 loss to UConn.

Harvard closed out 2011 with four straight wins to reach 12-1 and climb to No.

21 in the polls before it suffered an embarrassing defeat to a Fordham squad that finished the year 10-19. The loss was the first real sign of vulnerability for a Crimson squad that many were claiming would run roughshod over its Ivy competition, and though Harvard would win its next nine contests, that defeat was a harbinger of what became a nail-biting race through the 14-Game Tournament.

The first stumbling block came at Princeton (of course) where the Crimson lost for the 23rd straight time thanks to a 20-point performance from Tiger forward Ian Hummer, but Harvard still controlled its own destiny two weeks later when it hosted the Killer Ps. On Friday, the Crimson overcame a seven-point deficit midway through the second half and outlasted Princeton down the stretch to eke out a 67-64 win, but on Saturday, Harvard had no such luck. Nursing a nine-point lead in the final minutes of the second half, Harvard saw a determined Zack Rosen throw a wrench into the title race. The eventual Ivy League Player of the Year scored 11 points in the final six minutes to give the Quakers a 55-54 lead. The Crimson had a chance to score in the closing seconds, but a Kyle Casey bucket was waved off after Penn forward Tyler Bernardini slid under him to take a charge and effectively ice the victory.

The loss meant Harvard had to win out in the final weekend to at least force a playoff, which the Crimson did after surviving in overtime against Columbia and holding on late against Cornell. So the season came down to the final game of the conference schedule between Princeton and Penn, with the Quakers needing a win to force a one-game playoff. One year after the Tigers knocked Harvard out of the tournament with a buzzer-beating jumper in New Haven, they nudged the Crimson into the tournament with a 62-52 win over Penn.

Its 26-4 record earned Harvard a 12-seed and a match-up against a hot Vanderbilt team that had just beaten eventual national champion Kentucky en route to winning the SEC tournament. The Crimson hung close early before a 13-3 run to close the half gave the Commodores a 33-23 halftime lead. The lead ballooned to 16 at one point, but some sharpshooting from sophomore forward Laurent Rivard helped Harvard chip away. The lead shrunk to five points with just under two minutes to play, but time ran out on the Crimson”s comeback, and its season ended with a 79-70 loss and a first-round exit.

Still, it was a banner year for Harvard. And despite the graduation of forward Keith Wright and guard Oliver McNally, the future looked bright for a rising Crimson program. That is, until a cheating scandal involving roughly 125 undergrads rocked the Harvard campus this fall. The allegations included several Harvard basketball players including newly-elected co-captains (and potential All-Ivy First Team players) Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry. Rather than risk losing a year of eligibility, the pair decided to take a leave of absence from Harvard until their cases are reviewed by Harvard”s Administrative Board.

Instantly, the picture in the Ivy League changed. The Crimson has gone from top-dog to underdog, after Princeton claimed the mantle of preseason favorite to win the league. With his rotation in sudden disarray, head coach Tommy Amaker faces what will be his most difficult season as he tries to return to the NCAA Tournament with a very talented, yet very inexperienced Harvard team.

Players to Watch: Wesley Saunders, Sophomore – The 6″ 5″ forward improved mightily over the course of his freshman season, and, although he averaged just 3.3 points and 1.6 rebounds in 13.9 minutes per game, he showed flashes that seemed to indicate a bright future. This potential was hinted at further during the Crimson”s trip to Italy this summer when Saunders led the team in scoring (a squad that included Curry and Casey). With the graduations of Wright and McNally and the departures of Curry and Casey, Harvard has lost over half of its scoring. Someone will need to fill the void in production. Although Saunders has not proven he can be a primary scorer (he took around 10% of his team”s shots when he was on the floor) and has struggled at times taking care of the ball (he had the worst turnover rate on the team), he will be the person that the Crimson needs to step up the most.

Siyani Chambers, Freshman – The Minnesota freshman was supposed to have a year to learn under Second Team All-Ivy guard Curry, but with Curry”s absence combined with the graduation of McNally and the Mormon mission of Corbin Miller, Chambers has been thrust into the spotlight. The only other ball handler besides the rookie is sophomore guard Alex Nesbitt, who played all of three minutes last season. As a result, the 6″ 0″ lefty will be called on to act as Harvard”s floor general immediately. He comes to Cambridge as a decorated high school player—a former state champion and Minnesota Mr. Basketball—but if his game does not translate on college courts, it could be a long season for Harvard.

Christian Webster, Senior – What happened to Christian Webster last season was the most puzzling subplot of Harvard”s season. One year after averaging 13.0 points per game, Webster suddenly could not find a way to score. It wasn”t simply poor shooting, though his wayward jumper was certainly part of the problem (Webster saw his two-point field goal percentage, three-point field goal percentage, and free throw percentage dip by around 10 percentage points each). The guard who had formed his game around an ability to drive the lane and get to

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the line suddenly stopped attacking. A year after shooting one free throw for every two field goal attempts, Webster shot one free throw for every 10 field goal attempts (unsurprisingly, his shot selection drifted out towards the arc where he attempted 60% of his shots compared to 55% from the previous year). The then-junior went from being one of the most productive offensive players on the team to the biggest offensive liability on the court, and he saw his production dip to 4.5 points per game and his minutes slashed in kind. If the Crimson has any hope of competing, it needs its newly-elected co-captain to return to 2010-11 form.

Kenyatta Smith, Freshman – Smith arrived in Cambridge as the most-hyped player in his class, but the big man was not ready for the limelight his freshman year and strictly saw mop-up duty. But while his classmates, Steve Moundou-Missi and Jonah Travis, might have seen more success as rookies, it”s Smith whom the Crimson have their hopes pinned to as the successor to Wright. Unlike Moundou-Missi and Travis, Smith, who has Wright”s build, is big and strong enough to man the blocks and develop a back-to-the-basket post game. And with so few experienced big men, Amaker will have to look to Smith first to fill the gap left by the former Player of the Year. If Smith is not ready to fill the role, the next best options are unproven freshmen Patrick Steeves and Michael Hall or unpromising veterans Jeff Georgatos and Ugo Okam.

Key Non-Conference Games: November 13 at UMass, November 20 at St. Joe”s, December 7 at UConn, December 29 at Cal, December 31 at St. Mary”s, January 19 at Memphis.

Prediction: 2012-13 will be a fascinating year for Harvard.

Amaker has proven commodities in Rivard and Webster, a couple of promising youngsters in Saunders and Moundou-Missi, and then a handful of talented question marks. The one certainty is that this Crimson team will be unlike the past squads. Amaker has shown a willingness to craft his team”s style around its personnel: he went from the guard-focused offense of the Jeremy Lin-era to the inside-out attack run through Wright to the down-tempo, aggressive defense of last year”s Ivy champs. This season, it seems, he has no choice but to go small. His best five are likely to be Chambers, Rivard, Webster, Saunders, and Moundou-Missi. While it remains to be seen how that group will deal with the likes of Hummer or Columbia”s Mark Cisco, they are at least on par with the rest of the league, with the potential for some upside if one of Amaker”s celebrated recruits can contribute right away. Harvard will certainly take a step back from its historic highs last season, but because the league as a whole is stepping back too, it seems the Crimson will land somewhere around 8 to 10 wins in league play and .500 out of conference.

4 thoughts on “Season Preview: Harvard Crimson”

  1. This season will be a definite test of Amaker’s coaching ability. Most polls have them at 2nd in The League. I see their youth as a detriment and believe they’ll be third or perhaps even fourth. (Hope springs eternal.)
    The AQ

  2. Helpful preview and analysis. Unfulfilled expectations render the 2011-12 squad well short of the “pantheon” of Ancient Eight greats. The recap of last season brings to mind,somewhat painfully, the best quality of Rosen’s many: he always seemed to rise to the occasion. His games at Harvard and home against the Tigers were the best performances by any one player all year. If the League is “stepping back,” I fear that the Crimson may be far more capable of competing than Mr. Banks and The Ancient Quaker assume. I believe Amaker is a better recruiter than he is a game coach. He may have to dip into his talent pool earlier than planned, but it is a deep pool. Look for Harvard to be in the chase in March.

  3. ESPN host Dan Le Batard said on his show today that John Calipari has become “the dark overlord” of Division I basketball for the way he has learned to dominate recruiting in the new “one-and-done” environment which he himself played a major role in creating. Whether you love Calipari or hate him, you’ve got to respect and fear his recruiting pipeline at Kentucky.

    It struck me that Tommy Amaker has assumed the same role of dark overlord within the Ivy League with his prodigious recruiting skill combined with Harvard’s decreased academic requirements for his team. In the same way Calipari created and then mastered the exploitation of “one-and-done” in the high-major world, Amaker has pushed Ivy League rules well beyond what any other coach has ever done in conference history. Whether you love Amaker or hate him, you’ve got to respect his recruiting results, even if you think he’s simply cheating.

    • To Dan Le Batard: No, I don’t have to respect Amaker’s results. If cheating becomes acceptable in Ivy League recruiting we will have just another D1 conference. Frankly, the Ivy schools have the resources to recruit successfully in any environment. If you doubt that, then you probably believe that Obama is “just a community organizer.” I can certainly appreciate the players at Harvard as players of the game. But I am sad that a player of Rosen’s caliber was not able to win a championship because the academically incapable players at Harvard were not exposed until the season was completed. You can only “decrease standards” so far.

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