Crimson vanquish P’s, secure sole possession of first place

Harvard appears to be closing in on a fifth straight Ivy crown, but the Crimson aren't in the clear just yet. (Robert Crawford)
Harvard appears to be closing in on a fifth straight Ivy crown, but the Crimson aren’t in the clear just yet. (Robert Crawford)

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.

24 thoughts on “Crimson vanquish P’s, secure sole possession of first place

  1. CC: acute observations. But your skepticism about game at Columbia and the Yale game here is right on. They’ll be waiting for the Crimson. The Lions came so close, just a missed foul shot with seconds to go . . .
    So good luck to the Crimson. And surely something you know: Wesley Sanders is the decisive offensive force on the floor. Though perhaps the best athlete is the fantastic female twirler at Yale!

  2. Agreed on all fronts, CC — Amaker is showing why he’s such a valuable part of that Harvard team — getting them to improve so much from December to now (and never losing his cool); Chatfield is getting more minutes now than Wesley Saunders did when he was a freshman, and that says a lot about his future role on this team; and Siyani being Siyani is the main factor in this team’s resurgence. I’m not sure why he wasn’t himself the first half of the season, but he’s the engine of this team, and he’s fully tuned up and firing on all cylinders. Just at the right time.

  3. I have become a most reluctant admirer of Amaker. You don’t win all those titles and all those OT games if you can’t coach. Sure, he brings in a lot of talent, but other teams do a pretty fair job of recruiting, too. This was considered something of a down year in Cambridge, especially after the opener against Holy Cross and the home loss against Dartmouth. But there he is at 9-1 and on his way to the Tournament. Looks like Yale will have to beat Harvard twice in a row to claim the crown, an almost unthinkable scenario. Amaker is a big factor in their success…sorry, AQ

  4. I agree with your comments on Amaker, credit to him for taking a mediocre team and turning it into possible title winning one. However, don’t be too quick to write off Yale, as they have yet to lose an away game, and they don’t look like they’re ready to give one up just yet.

  5. You traitorous fool. I should have expected this kind of treachery from someone of your pedigree. Respect through continual defeat, hmmm…..then I should have respect for every coach on the League.

    The AQ

    • Amaker’s recruiting prowess, given academic leeway from Harvard, is self-evident. Here’s a interesting exercise. Harvard is 9-1 so far this season, with an inexplicable home loss against Dartmouth and close calls against Brown, Columbia, Yale and perhaps Princeton. Would this Harvard roster, already assembled by Amaker, have performed better if it were coached by Kyle Smith, James Jones or Mitch Henderson? I submit that it would have.

  6. When you bring “Duke recruiting tactics” to the ivy league, you are left with a team that is much more athletic than the rest of the league. Amaker embarrassed himself at both Seton Hall and Michigan. Yes, he has improved some, but Harvard’s success has little to do with Amaker’s coaching, which is shaky at best, and more to do with having by far the most talent in the league.

  7. “…but Harvard’s success has little to do with Amaker’s coaching….and more to do with having by far the most talent in the league.”

    Coaching IS recruiting! Winning coaches are masterful recruiters! Dean Smith Knew this. Bobby Knight knows this. Coach K knows this. In fact, every Ivy League coach knows this! And every Ivy League AD knows this! They all want coaches who they think give them their school the best chance to recruit the best players.

    Getting the best talent is 90% of being a great coach! Same is true in business (recruit the best employees)… in schools (recruit the best faculty)…. in sports websites like this one (recruit the best writers).

    Amaker is currently the best recruiter in the Ivy League. That’s the main reason he’s the best coach. It’s that simple.

    • JP, you are of course correct that good coaching is in large part good recruiting. All great coaches are excellent recruiters. And Amaker is indeed the best recruiter in the League. So far, so good.

      But importantly, the Ivies explicitly limit League coaches in a way that Dean Smith and Bobby Knight were not constrained. Our coaches must fit their recruits into strict numerical academic guidelines. And our athletic departments must meet institutional guidelines, with Harvard, Yale and Princeton required to exhibit the highest quantitative standards.

      For the past two years, the Harvard Crimson has reported on the average test scores of incoming freshmen by race. Confirming other studies at other institutions, African-American students at Harvard have sharply lower scores than white students, with the mean score of black students falling more than one standard deviation below that of white students. (Recruited Harvard athletes on average scored even lower.)

      Last Saturday night, Harvard started five African-American players while Princeton started five white players. It’s clear that the two institutions are following different policies with regard to the Academic Index. Maybe Harvard is cheating with respect to the minimum AI, perhaps not. That’s mere speculation, although we know that some recruits such as Cem Dinc, Frank Ben-Eze and Zena Edosomwan did not initially meet the required 176 score. But Harvard and Princeton are supposed to have similar AI scores and they emphatically do not. Harvard, Yale and Princeton are supposed to have the highest scores and it’s likely that the Crimson have the lowest.

      Nobody disagrees that Amaker is a great recruiter. But he is recruiting some athletic players whom other institutions will not, per Ivy rules. That’s what Ivy fans have a problem with.

    • JP, you are of course correct that good coaching is in large part good recruiting. All great coaches are excellent recruiters. And Amaker is indeed the best recruiter in the League. So far, so good.

      But importantly, the Ivies explicitly limit League coaches in a way that Dean Smith and Bobby Knight were not constrained. Our coaches must fit their recruits into strict numerical academic guidelines. And our athletic departments must meet additional institutional standards, with Harvard, Yale and Princeton required to exhibit the highest quantitative metrics.

      Nobody disagrees that Amaker is a great recruiter. But many people — myself, James Jones and Craig Robinson among them — believe that Amaker is recruiting players whom the other Ivies will not recruit. And if other Ivies might recruit any individual Harvard target, the other Ivies would not collect so many low AI recruits onto one sport’s roster.

      The single most fundamental principle in Ivy athletics is that we will carefully limit recruiting to outstanding students academically. The rules concerning the Academic Index further limit how many of the lower ranking athletes can be admitted at once at any school. Many observers think that the Bob Scalise game plan steers all or most of Harvard’s low AI recruits to basketball such that Amaker has an unfair advantage relative to his seven Ivy peers.

      Harvard, Yale and Princeton are required to exhibit the highest academic standards for their recruited athletes. Yet Harvard appears to have the lowest academic standards for men’s basketball. That’s what Ivy fans have a problem with.

        • If you go to The Crimson website and type “freshman survey” into the search box, you’ll generate two sets of results, a four-part survey of the Class of 2017 and a five-part survey of the Class of 2018.

          There are lots of interesting tidbits. For example, the average Harvard freshman was rejected at two of the six schools to which he or she applied and 19% of the Class of 2017 is not attending their first-choice college. The percentage of virgins in the freshman class is increasing, most recently 62% for the Class of 2018, up two percentage points. High family income and attending private school correlate strongly with increased sexual activity. Around 60% of varsity athletes report having had sex, compared to 39% of non-athletes. Jews at Harvard are the most sexually active religious group. Respondents who indicated that they were “very interested” in joining a final club or greek organization were more than twice as likely to report having lost their virginity than those who said they were “not at all interested” in punching or pledging. International students have more sexual partners, as do respondents from rural areas.

          But among the fascinating elements of the sex lives of Harvard students, there is one much more sobering fact. Even with Harvard’s vast financial resources and unique brand name, it is impossible for Harvard to identify and recruit African-Ameican students with SAT scores anywhere near those of white and Asian students. Recruited athletes are 12% of the class and have the lowest scores of all.

          • According to the latest FoxNews viewer poll “Obamacare” is the #1 cause for the rise of ISIS in the Middle East (87% to 13%. The naysayers attributed it to “unconstitutional Executive Orders”.) Assuming the accuracy of the poll of students I don’t see how these results support the argument that Scalise steers the low AI recruits to basketball. But you have cited this poll as authority for this very proposition. It would not surprise me if recruited athletes had lower test scores than the general student population at the other Ivy schools as well.

      • What bothers me about the criticism of Harvard’s recruiting is the reliance on what people “believe,” what many others “observe,” and what “appear” to be the “lowest academic standards” in the Ivy League. This is not reporting; it’s nothing more than gossip. I am not disputing the conclusions, because I have no sources either. But if, as has been stated on the public record, the League did an investigation of alleged recruiting violations and gave Harvard a clean bill of health, why do we persist in casting these aspersions? Harvard has made an institutional decision to upgrade its basketball program. It may (or may not) offer admission to players whose academic qualifications are lower than has been the case historically. So what? As long as the school complies with applicable regulations to which League members voluntarily subscribe how can anyone complain?

        • Innuendo Hater, you are conflating two separate issues: (1) the recruiting violations which the NCAA ruled in 2010 Amaker had committed in 2007 and 2008; and (2) the fact that Harvard recruits a higher proportion of their players with low Academic Index scores than Princeton and Yale do, and likely more than the other five Ivies as well.

          The Ivy League conducted an investigation of the recruiting violations first reported by The New York Times in March 2008. The League concluded that no violations had occurred. The NCAA then stepped in and asked to conduct their own investigation, which ultimately took two years to conclude. In September 2010, the NCAA reversed the finding of the League, determining that Harvard had in fact committed secondary recruiting violations. The NCAA imposed recruiting sanctions against Amaker for the 2010-11 recruiting cycle. These were the first penalties ever levied against the Harvard men’s basketball program.

          The primary subject of this particular IHO thread is not Amaker’s NCAA sanctions, but rather that Harvard recruits many more low AI players than the other Ivies do. The use of qualifier words such as “believe” or “observe” or “appear” is mostly semantics for the sake of politeness.

          The evidence that Harvard recruits more low AI players is extensive. At least three Harvard recruits, including one current player, have given interviews during their recruitment in which they candidly admitted that they did not have the required League minimum AI score. Harvard recruits academic boosters such as current junior Camden McRae, who was recruited from the JV roster at Harvard-Westlake School and then dismissed from the Crimson roster as soon as he formally enrolled at Harvard and contributed his AI score to the team average. The criticism of Amaker’s recruiting policy is built around circumstantial evidence like that, to say nothing of James Jones and Craig Robinson opining on the record that Yale and Brown cannot recruit many of the athletes which Harvard pursues. No serious fan of Ivy basketball believes that Harvard follows the same AI policy that Princeton does, despite the requirement that HYP post higher aggregate AI scores than the rest of the League.

          • In fairness, Harvard’s secondary violations had nothing to do with a failure to follow the AI regulations. I don’t know how any team could be competitive under the AI regime without the calculated deployment of the so-called “academic boosters.” What is “particularly disappointing” to you is the fact that Harvard wins, and that it does so by driving its bus through loopholes in a policy the League is evidently unwilling to close. I have not read the interviews to which you refer nor am I aware of the identity of the recruits. It is, of course, not uncommon for recruits to take what the scholarship schools call a “red shirt year” at prep schools such as Northfield-Mt Herman in order to achieve eligibility to enroll. By definition, someone will have the lowest APR of the group, but not necessarily lower than is acceptable. To characterize it as “stooping low” is unfair in the extreme.

  8. Regarding recruiting, the question has always been: How does he do it? Amaker’s critics believe that he is able to attract athletes, particularly minority athletes, whose academic credentials are lower than Harvard required in the pre-Amaker-Scalise-Stemberg era. The evidence to support this “theory” is largely circumstantial and anecdotal. The Harvard Crimson, the NYT and even James Jones have weighed in on the issue, although not so much recently. The AQ has never been reluctant to share his trenchant views on the matter. How the League applies its AI regulations and whether enforcement machinery even exists are issues beyond my understanding. It does seem apparent that Amaker and Harvard have changed the culture of basketball in Cambridge, and by doing so they have raised the bar for the League as a whole. By any measure Amaker has proved himself to be a remarkable coach as a recruiter, a developer of players and a game tactician. The school made the institutional commitment to the sport and found the perfect coach to execute the plan.
    Whether other schools in the League are willing to compete is hard to judge, although Yale and Columbia have made great strides. Columbia’s change in its athletic administration has already been felt in the football office, suggesting at least an awareness of the necessity for the institutional commitment to which I refer.
    The recent struggles at Penn indicate that its bottom has not yet been reached. We have seen no indication that its administrators have a plan or desire one.
    Princeton’s program has been, and remains, extremely Carril-centric. Of course, there can be only one Carril. Many of his disciples have gone into coaching with mixed results. Those who have achieved success are all at other schools, and some of these compete for players with their alma mater. The jury is still deliberating on Henderson, although expectations are running high for next year. It is abundantly clear, however, that the P’s can no longer rely on their historic “brand” to count for much in the recruiting arena. But neither seems to grasp this present reality.

  9. If you were a high school basketball star, who was also a good student, and you wanted to go to a top academic institution in Division 1, and you were being recruited by all of the Ivy League schools to play basketball, which of the eight Ivy League schools would you choose? Obviously, not everyone would choose the same school. But here are three huge things that Harvard has going for it: 1. Their head coach is Tommy Amaker. Played at Duke under Coach K. Was an assistant coach at Duke under Coach K, and during this time Duke won two NCAA Championships and went to the Final Four five times. Coached at Seton Hall and Michigan. Classy guy. His players love him. He wins championships. 2. Harvard has won the Ivy League championship four years in a row. Want to win championships and go to the NCAA Tournament? Harvard gives you the best chance (currently). 3. The Harvard brand is, arguably, the strongest brand in all of higher ed. (I didn’t go to Harvard. I went to another Ivy League school with a strong brand, but not as strong as the Harvard brand.) Graduate from Harvard, and you’re a “Harvard man” for life. Why can’t we just attribute much of Amaker’s recruiting prowess to the fact that he offers, on balance, the most attractive college (and college basketball) scenario to prospective players/students who are considering Ivy League schools?

    • I’ve said it many times. All he’s done is leverage the Harvard “brand.” Something no one else before him even thought of doing. Do you actually think he would have the same level of success at Dartmouth, Brown, Cornell or Columbia? Those are much harder programs to elevate. Of course, he brings all of the other intangibles you have mentioned as well. Plus, I still can’t stand him. (Which of course counts the most.)

      The AQ

      • 1. Previous Harvard coaches tried to leverage the Harvard brand too. The thing is, that’s not enough by itself. Amaker brings the other essential ingredients (which I listed in previous comment).
        2. When Amaker took the helm in 2008, Harvard had NEVER won the Ivy League title. NEVER. To say they were the Chicago Cubs of the Ivy League (in men’s basketball) would’ve been a compliment in 2008, and back then, we all would’ve said Harvard is the hardest program to elevate (or perhaps tied for the hardest program to elevate) in the Ivies. Hard to remember this now that Amaker has changed the meaning of “Harvard Basketball,” but it’s true.

    • JP, I agree with your broad point that Harvard has many recruiting advantages. Harvard has the strongest brand name in academia. Harvard has a very generous financial aid policy. Harvard has a coach who coached at two different BCS schools.

      That’s why it’s particularly disappointing that Harvard pursues a policy of lower academic requirements rather than higher. Harvard wins in football with higher AI scores (undefeated Ivy champions this year). Harvard wins in most sports with higher AI scores. Why not set a stellar example for the rest of college athletics by doing the same in basketball?

      Harvard’s Academic Progress Rating in men’s basketball is the lowest APR of any Ivy team in any sport with the exception of Penn men’s basketball. There’s no reason why Harvard needs to stoop so low to win Ivy titles.

      • Excuse me. The last paragraph should be corrected to include the sentence, “Harvard’s Academic Progress Rating in men’s basketball is the lowest APR of any Ivy team in any sport with the exception of Penn men’s fencing.”

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