Season Preview: Harvard Crimson

WIth the return of a pair of All-Ivy seniors and the arrival of a precocious freshman, a loaded Harvard team embarks on its quest to four-peat.
WIth the return of a pair of All-Ivy seniors and the arrival of a precocious freshman, a loaded Harvard team embarks on its quest to four-peat.

In 2012-13: 20-10, 11-3, 1st Place, Third Round NCAA Tournament

A Look Back

Last August, few would have been shocked to learn that Harvard would eventually go on to win its third-straight Ivy League title, reach its second-consecutive NCAA Tournament, and capture its first-ever postseason victory in the 2012-13 season. But no one could have imagined the winding path that would lead the Crimson there. 

The story is well-known by now. Before the season, a campus-wide academic scandal forced Harvard’s two All-Ivy seniors, Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry, to take a leave of absence, creating a sudden, gaping hole in its lineup. The Crimson would live or die by an untested freshman point guard and a 3.3 point-per-game sophomore forward.

Fortunately for the Crimson, the combination of Siyani Chambers and Wes Saunders proved to be a revelation, combining for 28.6 points, 9.2 assists, and 6.8 rebounds per game. Both earned First Team All-Ivy honors—with Chambers becoming the first frosh to ever receive that distinction—and their supporting cast provided just enough help to weather a gruelling Ivy slate that saw overtime barn-burners against Dartmouth and Brown, a blowout loss at Columbia, and, most crushing, back-to-back losses to Princeton and Penn on the penultimate weekend of the season. Still, when the dust settled in March, Harvard was the three-peat Ivy champion.

Its ride wasn’t over though. In the second-round of the NCAA Tournament, the 14-seeded Crimson went blow-for-blow with heavyweight New Mexico. Using threes (eight of 18 on the night) and free throws (16 of 20) to hang around with the No. 14 Lobos, Harvard broke the game open with an 11-2 run late in the second half, propelling them to a historic 68-62 win—the first post-season win in school history. Harvard’s run ended just two nights later against Arizona, but the memorable year with an ignominious start was an unmitigated success.

Players to Watch

Kyle Casey, Senior — Last preseason, the 6-7 forward was getting Ivy Player of the Year buzz. Then Casey withdrew from school, kept a low profile, and faded from the spotlight. As a result, the one-time All-Ivy first-teamer is virtually absent from preseason all-conference lists. The slight is not entirely misguided. Although Casey led Harvard in usage rate his junior season, it’s no longer clear that he’ll be the focal point of the offense, especially given Saunders’ ascension. But if Casey can assume his 2011-12 form and share the playmaking role with Saunders like he did with Keith Wright, then people will quickly remember the big man’s name and NCAA defenses are in big trouble.

Kenyatta Smith, Junior — Smith’s game is a maddening, beautiful riddle that no one’s solved. The junior center does two things better than anyone in college basketball—grab defensive rebounds and block shots. This is not hyperbole: his defensive rebounding percentage and blocked shot rate would have ranked first and second nationally had he averaged 3 more minutes a game. But the big man’s anemic post-up game, turnovers, and propensity to foul have (fairly or unfairly) relegated him to long minutes on the bench. If Smith can stay on the floor—either by improving on offense or by getting a longer leash from coach Tommy Amaker—he’ll be a strong candidate for Defensive Player of the Year.

Zena Edosomwan, Freshman — Edosomwan enters this season as perhaps the most heralded freshman in the history of the Ivy League. The 6-9 forward made national news when he committed to the Crimson as a consensus Top 100 high schooler. Of course, he’s accomplished nothing on the college hardwood yet, and he’s fighting for minutes in a deep frontcourt with Smith, Casey, Steve Moundou-Missi, and Jonah Travis (not to mention Agunwa Okolie, Michael Hall, Evan Cummins, and fellow freshman Hunter Myers). But Edosomwan’s tantalizing combination of size and athleticism are impossible to ignore and represent the most exciting wild card in Harvard’s stacked deck.

Question Marks 

Point Guard Duties — Last season, Chambers played 93.4% of the team’s minutes at point guard—the fifth highest percentage for a player at any position in the NCAA. The load was too much to reasonably expect a pint-sized freshman to bear, but Chambers responded with 12.4 points and 5.7 assists per game. It would seem then that the Crimson has no questions around its ball-handler, but that’s not the case. The return of Brandyn Curry casts some uncertainty on Harvard’s backcourt. Coach Amaker will pair Chambers and Curry together on the floor, much the same way he paired Curry with Oliver McNally. The Crimson had great success with that former combination, largely because their roles were well-defined: McNally would take care of the ball and spread the floor with his shooting or try to get to the line, Curry would penetrate and dish or get to the rim. And no matter what, McNally would defer to Curry to run the offense at the end of the shot-clock. For this latest version of a two-guard offense, it’s unclear which player receives top billing or whether their skill sets are complementary at all.

Minutes — Harvard’s backcourt depth pales in comparison to its front court. The Crimson has nine forwards that should see burn: Casey, Cummins, Edosomwan, Hall, Moundou-Missi, Myers, Okolie, Smith, and Travis. This flexibility has its challenges (though I expect no one pities the Crimson). Coach Amaker struggled to find a consistent rotation last year when he had seven capable players; he will undoubtedly churn through a dizzying number of lineups to find an iteration that works and keeps his ballyhooed recruits content. In any case, the sheer number of options will open Coach Amaker up to second-guessing, which should delight Ivy fans of all allegiances.

Key Non-Conference Games

@Colorado, Nov. 24

Boston College, Jan. 1

@Connecticut, Jan. 8

Prediction

Harvard enters this season with high expectations, as it was the unanimous selection to win the Ivy League. But the bar has been raised for the Crimson, and conference titles are no longer the only standard for success. Harvard has its sights set somewhat higher this year. In the preseason USA Today Coaches Poll, the Crimson landed at No. 32. If it can get off to a strong start and survive a trip out west at the end of November, you should see Harvard crack the Top 25. In practice though, the dream season that many are envisioning is much tougher than stealing a win at Colorado and UConn. Harvard faces eight top-200 to end the non-conference schedule, and, with the bullseye on its back, the Crimson is likely to lose a few of those. Come the Ivy season, Harvard is sitting pretty, due largely to the absence of a strong challenger. But the Crimson still hasn’t won at Jadwin since 1989 and, as we all know, the frontrunner is always in for at least one shocker. My bet is that Harvard makes an appearance in the Top 25 at the start of the season but falls out after a few losses to its New England neighbors in December. The conference slate will be more arduous than many expect, but the Crimson will weather the challenge to finish 12-2, capture its fourth-straight Ivy title, and earn a 10-seed in the NCAA Tournament.

2 thoughts on “Season Preview: Harvard Crimson

  1. The AI system must be changed for men’s basketball or the League will cease to be a meaningful conference. Any of these three options would be an enormous improvement on the current system:

    (1) A banding system as is used with football. The mechanics might be adjusted slightly because the rosters are smaller, but the objective would be the same: Each team would comprise some super smart kids, a lot more who are merely very smart and then a much smaller number who are simply smart. Nobody gets in below the current AI floor. The point is to limit the number of recruits at the bottom of the AI scale, just like in football.

    (2) In men’s basketball alone, put in a hard floor but let each team recruit as many players as they want down to the floor. I would suggest a number around 185, higher than the current AI floor in other sports to compensate for the fact that teams get to have as many guys as they want right at the basketball threshold.

    (3) Acknowledge that men’s basketball can be designated a sport of strategic importance to the League and say, “Anything goes.” For four recruits a year but no more, let in anybody you want. If they can sign their name on the application, they’re in. If Harvard can decide that basketball is of strategic value, so can the League as a whole.

    I don’t care if we set the bar high, low or somewhere in between, the important principle is to create a level playing field in terms of AI recruiting.

  2. This is one of the more intelligent posts of the last quarter century. I totally agree. Amaker has leveraged the Harvard name and vast financial resources to the detriment of fair play. I say this not because I am a Penn sore loser (although I am), but because at this rate, in as little as two years there will be almost no point in even playing the games. The League, as it has always stood, will indeed soon cease to exist.

    Unfortunately even if Amaker leaves Cambridge tomorrow, without a massive League-wide recruiting overhaul, his tactics have probably let the AI Genie out of the bottle forever.

    The AQ

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