After the Crimson led a balanced attack on both sides of the ball versus Houston at Lavietes Pavilion on Tuesday night, many fans wondered, “Where was this when we needed it?” This is not to say that Harvard has had a bad year so far. In three of its four games this fall, Harvard has gone unmatched. In other words, the dominating performance Harvard turned in against Houston has been routine – for the most part.
There is not much to complain about when it comes to Tuesday night’s 84-63 victory over Houston. Wesley Saunders turned in another brilliant performance, pacing Harvard with 24 points while also grabbing 10 rebounds, making this his third double-double of the season and fourth straight game with 15 or more points. There are no two ways about it: Saunders has been unstoppable night in and night out.
Steve Moundou-Missi continued to be a quiet force down low. No. 14 chipped in 14 points as well as a career-high 14 boards. Houston looked rushed and disorganized while Harvard stayed poised and played their game all night. Siyani Chambers has 10 assists in the last two games, but against Houston he had four turnovers – something that will not fly against better competition. Overall, Harvard simply outplayed Houston, and the Cougars were no match for a Crimson team that was playing at its best.
However, this win only amplified the nagging thought in the minds of many Harvard fans: “What if?” What if Harvard hadn’t lost to Holy Cross by one solitary point on Nov. 16, but had instead defeated them? What if?
Going into the Holy Cross game, Harvard was ranked. It felt like the Crimson were on top of the world. Harvard was a preseason top 25 program in the AP poll. Read that again. An Ivy League school was in the preseason top 25. With an early season schedule that most considered to be fairly easy, it seemed fair to expect that Harvard would win these autumn games, rise in the rankings and define themselves as a true top 25 team. This would enhance Harvard basketball’s reputation, which would help recruiting, improve their seed in the NCAA tournament, improve the chances of Tommy Amaker staying as coach and – just perhaps – allow Harvard to be regarded as a legitimate contender on the national stage for years to come.
This is the effect the AP poll can have. This is how one bad game – and one missed shot that costs the game – can alter the trajectory of a team’s reputation. One more made shot during in the Crimson’s final possession against Holy Cross is all it would have taken for Harvard to escape that game with a “hard-fought” win. Instead, they suffered a “terrible but deserved loss.” Now, the Crimson will need to rattle off a string of wins (with this latest victory, they’ve won two in a row) to have any hope of reclaiming AP votes.
Are the Crimson a different team than they when they were they were ranked 25th? No. The Harvard team that received zero votes in this week’s AP Poll is the same team that received 98 votes and finished 25th in the country just one week ago. The fascinating truth is that the AP Poll means a great deal to all Division I basketball teams who have a chance to be ranked. Harvard’s domination of Houston was an important win, but it was also a reminder of where Harvard could be right now in the AP poll rankings.
After the loss to Holy Cross, it may take months for Harvard’s basketball program to regain its stature on the national stage and in voters’ minds, but that doesn’t mean Harvard is not fit for this tough and demanding challenge – because if any team is ready for this, it’s the Crimson.
Harvard will face UMass on Saturday at 2:00 p.m. at a sold out Lavietes Pavilion. This will give the Crimson another chance to prove their mettle against a team from a bigger conference. In recent years, Harvard has performed extremely well in these situations, and I believe they will do so again.