It was about 4:00 on a Saturday afternoon in late January. Harvard had just suffered a crushing defeat to Dartmouth at home. The Crimson’s record was 1-1 in Ivy play. The Ivy season was still young, but to many this loss proved that Harvard was not the team it once was. The door was left wide open for Yale – in fact, the door had swung off its hinges. A few minutes after the buzzer sounded, the distraught Crimson players came back onto the floor to sign autographs for their young fans. At the time, the smiles on these kids’ faces made them look naive – but knowing how insignificant that loss seems now, perhaps those kids’ prophetic smiles proved they knew more about the Crimson’s future than the rest of us.
That hypothesis is supported by the next day’s headlines and the initial reaction to that second Harvard-Dartmouth game. A trusted source for Ivy basketball on Twitter ripped into Tommy Amaker for his lineup decisions and then stated, “When [Harvard] loses the league, this will be why.” A writer for our own Ivy Hoops Online wrote in a piece about Yale that “Harvard is not that good.” In the face of all of this negativity, Harvard basketball’s mantra became “regroup and respond,” and over the last month (during which the Crimson have won eight straight Ivy games), that’s just what this team has done. Harvard’s two wins this past weekend over Penn and Princeton, combined with Columbia’s victory over Yale on Saturday night, have placed Harvard in sole possession of first place (9-1), one game ahead of Yale (8-2).
On Friday, Harvard annihilated Penn (sans Tony Hicks) by 23 points behind an all-around performance by senior captain Steve Moundou-Missi, who had 14 points, seven rebounds and a career-high five assists. The real test, however, came on Saturday night when the Crimson welcomed an offensively potent Princeton team into a raucous Lavietes Pavilion. From the outset, the Tigers were on fire, shooting 5-for-10 from beyond the arc and 60 percent overall from the field in the first half, despite turning the ball over 10 times. Princeton, a team that can beat anyone when its three-ball is falling, led by eight at the half, though the lead had crept up to 14 at one point in the first 20 minutes.
Not to repeat storylines, but this game turned out to be yet another “tale of two halves.” In the second half, Harvard heated up, outscoring the Tigers by 16. Nobody stepped up for Princeton down the stretch; indeed, only one Tiger scored in double-digits for the game. For the Crimson, it was the usual suspects, Wesley Saunders, Siyani Chambers, and Steve Moundou-Missi, who combined for 30 of the Crimson’s 34 second-half points. Amazingly, Harvard shot a lower percentage from the floor than Princeton, but took 12 more shots and 10 more free throws because they were able to force turnovers and grab offensive rebounds. A few minutes after the Harvard victory, Yale lost to Columbia and Harvard had clawed its way into first place – all alone.
Here are my three main takeaways from Harvard’s successful Penn-Princeton weekend:
First, coach Tommy Amaker deserves a lot of credit. After early-season losses in which Harvard did not play up to its potential, Amaker rallied his troops, and he now has the Crimson on an eight-game winning streak. No other Ivy League men’s basketball team has ever won five straight league titles. While there’s still a lot of basketball left to be played, including a pivotal Yale-Harvard game in Cambridge on March 6, Amaker’s team is getting closer and closer to achieving this remarkable feat, which makes most of the criticism he has received hard to justify.
Next is the emergence of freshman guard Andre Chatfield. After seeing very little court time during the first half of the season, the Georgia native has averaged 14.3 minutes per game in the Crimson’s past three games. Though not a stat-sheet stuffer, Chatfield’s flashes of athletic brilliance make it obvious that he will be one of the Crimson’s go-to players in the coming years. He is a defensive force with quick hands and feet, averaging almost three steals per 40 minutes, and on the offensive end, he is an excellent passer who can drive to the hoop and also hit three-pointers at a high percentage. For now, Chatfield plays the role of “complementary player” very well, but his time will come.
Finally, Siyani Chambers is back. During Harvard’s current eight-game winning streak, Chambers has been a force, earning an offensive rating of 105.4, which equals his offensive rating for all of last season and is 0.4 higher than his offensive rating during his excellent freshman season. Excluding the games at Brown and at Yale from the eight-game streak, Chambers’ offensive rating is an eye-popping 117.7 per KenPom. To put this in perspective, Yale star point guard Javier Duren’s offensive rating this year is 107.6, and Wesley Saunders’ offensive rating this year is 107.3. When we look for reasons for Harvard’s recent dominance, we have to start with Chambers’ return to the form that made him the league’s top guard in previous seasons.
This weekend’s victories were a giant leap towards Harvard’s ultimate goal of a 2015 Ivy League title. (In fact, a Harvard sweep coupled with a Yale split improved Harvard’s chances of an outright title from about 35 percent to about 70 percent). But with only two weekends to go, a lot could still happen, especially with the Crimson facing one of its toughest tests of the season on February 28 at Columbia, and a possible league-clinching game at home against Yale on March 6.