Why Harvard won’t win the Ivy League this year


Tommy Amaker should be very afraid. (ESPN)
Tommy Amaker should be very afraid. (ESPN)

The Harvard Crimson are predicted to win the Ivy League. Led by senior standout Wesley Saunders and the highly touted head coach Tommy Amaker, Harvard has enjoyed immense success over the last several years. To the schooled eye and on paper, Harvard is the Ancient Eight’s best team.

But sports are not about who is better on paper, and nobody came here to play school. Anything can happen on the hardwood and nothing is a foregone conclusion. Harvard has not locked up anything yet—and it’s not going to. Come March, Harvard, like you and me, will be sitting at home. Here’s why:

The Decline of Siyani Chambers

Junior guard Siyani Chambers is the primary ball handler for the Crimson, and while Saunders may take the majority of Harvard’s shots, Chambers plays more minutes and is responsible for running the offense. Two years ago, this would have been a nightmare scenario for fans outside of Cambridge, as Chambers was an absolute force to be reckoned with, shooting 44 percent from inside the arc, 42 percent from deep, and was ranked 61st in the nation in assist rate according to Ken Pomeroy. Chambers’ numbers since then have plummeted, and even though his minutes are up from last year, his shooting percentages from inside and outside the three-point line are in the basement—35 and 25 percent respectively—all while taking the team’s largest share of shots since he stepped on campus. At the risk of comparing Chambers to someone like, say, Russell Westbrook, Amaker should probably urge Chambers to pass the ball more often.

Saint Laurent

At last year’s Senior Night in Lavietes Pavilion, Rivard received a standing ovation after torching the Columbia Lions for a game-high 21 points and drilling six three-pointers on an eye-popping 75 percent from deep. That same year, Rivard was ranked fourteenth in the nation in effective field-goal percentage, and eleventh in True Shooting percentage—both metrics that evaluate how well you can shoot, taking into account converted free throws and the inflated worth of three-pointers. The man could flat-out shoot, and he was a key part of the Crimson offense last year. Rivard had Pomeroy’s highest offensive ranking on the team last year, and his departure may prove even more costly to Harvard than Kyle Casey who Amaker’s go-to defender and rebounder.

Crimson (Low) Tide

After the dust settles, basketball is a team game, just ask 2001 Allen Iverson. Unfortunately for Harvard, their team numbers are down across the board. Last year’s Crimson team was more efficient on both sides of the ball, had a higher assist to made field goal ratio, and took better care of the basketball. Even more damning, this year’s team has embarrassing losses to Holy Cross (a team they should’ve beaten) and Virginia (a team against which they probably should’ve scored more than 27 points against). Harvard has not been able to take advantage of a weaker schedule this year, and unlike teams like Columbia, they did not schedule out-of-conference juggernauts, so it’s a bit harder to give them the benefit of the doubt. Harvard is still incredibly good, but they have taken a step back this year, while teams like Yale (a top 100 defensive team in the nation), Columbia (top 100 in effective field goal percentage), and even Cornell (Shonn Miller!) have taken steps forward.

To make a long story short, the absences of Brandyn Curry, Laurent Rivard and Kyle Casey have not been fully compensated for, and there’s only so much that Wesley Saunders can do. Last year, Harvard was a bad charge call (Rivard strikes again) away from a loss at Columbia, lost to Yale at home, and only managed to beat a struggling Brown team at home—don’t count on them being so lucky this year.

11 thoughts on “Why Harvard won’t win the Ivy League this year”

  1. Thanks for reminding me of the call against Rosenberg last year. Columbia’s win was taken away by the official.
    That really hurt this old Lion fan!

    After just watching the Columbia-Cornell game, a game that was ruined by over zealous officiating, I think the ivy league needs better officiating. Let the players play!

  2. I totally agree. You forgot to mention that Amaker is being exposed for the average coach that he is. For years he has been shielded by superior talent and he’s not handling a “down” year very well. This will be Yale’s year. After half a century as coach, Jones finally gets to dance. Soon thereafter he becomes the spokesman for Century Village.
    The AQ

    • I agree about the mediocrity of Tommy as a coach; it seems a lot of highly-regarded talent goes to Cambridge to rot. But Saunders should be enough for Harvard to win this league again. Remember, they won the Ivies by 4 games last season — that’s a huge gap.

      Yale’s better (though that improvement is on the offensive end as they were a top 100 defensive team last season), but they have 3 disappointing losses to Harvard’s 1. In our 14 game tournament, the ability to avoid bad losses is important. We’ll have meaningful games in March, but I doubt even Tommy can screw this up completely.

      I would, however, love to be wrong about this.

  3. Yale may win the Ivy title, yes. They are a strong team, and Harvard appears more vulnerable than last year (as this good article explains). But Amaker an “average coach”? (says commenter above) By no measure can this be proven. Sort of a strange evaluation.

    • Mediocre track record at power conference schools and he does not “appear” to get the most out of the superior talent he habitually possesses. I agree there is not metric to prove this. Sports is not science no matter how many people attempt to quantify and predict results. That is why there is Vegas and forums such as these.
      The AQ

      • For the terrible job Amaker did at Seton Hall, Vitale put the call in and Michigan hired. He embarrassed himself at Michigan. I felt that along with Roy Williams he was the worstt division one basketball coach that I watched. I think Amaker has improved. Harvards defense is excellent. Their spacing on offense is too. He clearly out coached Alford 2 years ago in New Mexico win. Still, like most of “K”s assistants who get hired for jobs they do not deserve, Amaker improving, still keeps him about average. Obviously bringing Duke recruiting tactics to an ivy league school, is his best or worst asset, depending on how you view the game.

        • I defy anyone to disagree with the fact that since his arrival there has been an inverse proportion of athletic talent to academic standard. In addition, when has a coach gone from 2 power conference schools to the Ivy?

          (I don’t know but I hope Penn finds out.)

          The AQ

  4. The AQ is not, shall we say, a big fan of Amaker and Harvard. Hence, the “strange evaluation.” But four straight Ivy titles and some big wins in the Tournament, as well as all-Ivy recognition for more players than any other team’s over that stretch,
    indicate that Amaker is in his prime years in full stride. Amaker’s basketball program enjoys favored status in the Athletic Department and “appears” to have an active partner in the Admissions Office. I envy him.

  5. Recruiting is the most important part of any coach’s job, arguably the most important by far. So Amaker needs to be considered an above average coach on the basis of his recruiting skill alone. Sure, Harvard lowered its academic standards for him, but Amaker still had to talk those three- and four-star recruits into coming to Cambridge.

    The real question about Amaker is why he was not nearly as successful talking three- and four-star recruits into coming to Ann Arbor. Is financial aid for lower income families at Harvard more generous than full scholarships at Michigan? Is it more advantageous for a coach to have 20 players on Harvard financial aid versus the NCAA limit of 14 on scholarship at a non-Ivy?

    Harvard will give almost anybody whose family makes less than $70,000 a full ride. How many of Amaker’s players are on full rides? Do they get a better deal than the $70,000 kid at Harvard who can’t dunk a basketball?

    The enduring mystery of Amaker is what changed between Ann Arbor and Cambridge to make him a winner at the latter after having underachieved at the former. The Harvard name is certainly part of the answer, but the Michigan name ain’t chopped liver, either. Same goes for Princeton and Yale.

    Amaker has recruited more high profile players during his seven-year tenure at Harvard than all eight schools (including Harvard) combined during the three-decade AI era, more than Dunphy, Carril, Donahue, Jones, Robinson, Thompson III, Sullivan and everybody else put together. Is the combination of the Harvard name, low academic requirements and 20 financial aid packages that powerful?

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