Harvard entered the season with a lot of questions surrounding its roster: it had a rookie starting at point guard, a defensive stopper as its new go-to scorer, an inexperienced big man holding down the post. And though two games have not provided any definitive answers, the Crimson”s season-opening win against MIT and its narrow loss at UMass began to reveal some solutions, as well as raise more questions.
Going into non-conference play, the biggest concern for Tommy Amaker”s squad was point guard play. After Brandyn Curry”s leave of absence, freshman Siyani Chambers was thrust into the starting role by virtue of being the team”s only ball handler. The rookie”s outsized responsibilities were perhaps the biggest reason for Harvard”s tempered expectations this season, but if the first two games are any indication, the Crimson is in good hands. Against the Engineers, Chambers played 36 minutes, putting up nine points alongside three assists and just two turnovers. And on national television against the Minutemen, going toe-to-toe with preseason A-10 first teamer Chaz Williams, the freshman played a full 40 minutes, dishing out seven assists, grabbing five rebounds, and scoring 14 points.
“The kid has a lot of heart,” Williams said after the game.
Still, though he”s shown he belongs on the college hardwood, the question of how Chambers will hold up under the excessive workload looms large. At 6-0, 170 pounds, the freshman is not exactly built to withstand the physicality of a full 40 minutes, night in and night out. Amaker needs to find a way to spell Chambers for stretches, perhaps with Alex Nesbitt, who saw five minutes against MIT, but more likely with sophomore Wes Saunders and senior Christian Webster running the point.
Given Saunders” start to the season, having the ball in his hands is not such a bad option. After a freshman year in which he averaged 3.3 points per game and was used more for his prowess on the pokies online defensive end, the sophomore has demonstrated an ability to lead the offense. He scored 11 against MIT and 18 against UMass, by showing a willingness to attack the rim and get to the free throw line (almost half his points are from the stripe).
The one cause for concern so far is the final two minutes of the UMass game. The task of leading the crunch time offense fell to Saunders and here”s what happened: bailout foul call on the perimeter with three seconds left on the shot clock (Saunders hit both free throws), five second call (Saunders could not shake the defensive pressure), and a turnover by Christian Webster against the UMass press. The collapse resulted in an 8-0 run from the Minutemen and allowed the home team to steal a win in the closing seconds. Saunders has been a reliable option for igniting the offense for most of the game, but it remains to be seen if he can be the closer that Harvard definitely needs.
The Crimson”s biggest question was its front court and the void left by Keith Wright”s graduation. Sophomore Kenyatta Smith was tapped as the former Player of the Year”s successor, with his classmates Steve Moundou-Missi and Jonah Travis providing support on the blocks. The results so far have been mixed. Through two games Smith is averaging 8.0 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 3.5 blocks, Moundou-Missi is averaging 5.0 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks, and Travis is averaging 9.5 points and 4.5 rebounds. On the one hand, the relatively even production signals surprising depth for Harvard, but on the other hand, no player has emerged as a go-to target: Smith had five turnovers at UMass, Moundou-Missi went 1-for-8 from the field in the
same game, and Travis only saw 15 foul-plagued minutes of action against the bigger Minuteman squad (my opinion is that
if Travis were twice as big and half as skilled, he”d be an All-Ivy shoo-in). Between the Engineers” lack of size and UMass”s dribble-drive offense, the Crimson post defense has not truly been tested yet either. Whether or not Harvard has the pieces to successfully defend the paint largely remains to be seen.