Harvard Season Preview: Watch Out For the “Rebuilding” Crimson

Even after five straight Ivy titles and two NCAA Tournament wins, leading this year’s Harvard team to another title would probably be the greatest accomplishment of Tommy Amaker’s career. It’s not that Harvard doesn’t have talent – but other teams may have much more proven talent. Here are my thoughts about the ‘15-’16 Harvard basketball team, taking into account the players’ performances on October 16 at Crimson Madness (the season’s kickoff practice and scrimmage at Lavietes Pavilion, which is open to the public) and how last season unfolded.

As the players warmed up for Crimson Madness, fans saw many unfamiliar faces on the court, including ten freshman and sophomores (out of sixteen Crimson players on the roster). After years of rising to the top of the Ivy League standings on the shoulders of the same guys (Wesley Saunders, Steve Moundou-Missi, Siyani Chambers, Jonah Travis, and the list goes on), and after years of the question not being “Will the Crimson be great?” but instead, “How great will the Crimson be?” the 2015-16 Harvard basketball team’s path to success is riddled with uncertainty. This uncertainty, combined with the obvious experience and strength of multiple other Ivy League teams, leaves many Ivy League basketball fans asking the same question: “How realistic is Harvard’s goal of capturing a sixth straight Ivy crown?”

Now if you were to ask Tommy Amaker about his goal for the upcoming season, he would tell you he wants his team to “play like champions.” On behalf of the more objective thinkers out there, allow me to size up the Crimson’s chances of “six-peating” and describe what it would take for this accomplishment to be realized. First up: point guard play.

Siyani Chambers. Brandyn Curry. Oliver McNally. Jeremy Lin. For the first time in nine years, one of these four outstanding point guards will not be on Harvard’s roster. Will freshman Tommy McCarthy be added to this illustrious list of Harvard point guards? Or will it be junior Matt Fraschilla? Or junior Corbin Miller? Tommy McCarthy ‘19 looks to be getting the keys to the Harvard offense, but this is no small responsibility. During the Crimson Madness scrimmage, McCarthy performed very well in the pick and roll, and he moved the ball well. He didn’t try to do too much: he let the game come to him, he drove to the hoop when the opportunity was there, and he set up his teammates for success. This is a winning combination. McCarthy must not strive to be the savior of the team. He doesn’t have to be the next Chambers, Curry, McNally, or Lin – he simply has to play mistake-free basketball. Look for McCarthy to turn some heads with his leadership and ability to run the offense soundly, but don’t expect gaudy numbers from him. So if McCarthy won’t be scoring most of the points, who will?

In an offense that struggled to score at times last year, even with guys like Wesley Saunders, Siyani Chambers, and Jonah Travis running the show, the obvious question looms: where will the offense come from in ‘15-’16?. Corbin Miller ‘17 and Zena Edosomwan ‘17 project to be Harvard’s two solidified scoring options. Miller was a bit streaky last year, but he should find his groove with increased and more consistent minutes. He will have to be more than just a spot-up three point shooter for the Crimson this year, and he may even be asked to run the point and score off the bounce at times. Edosomwan, on the other hand, looked dominant at Crimson Madness, scoring 24 points in a 20-minute game. However, his always high usage rate is worrisome. If Edosomwan doesn’t have the same success he had in the scrimmage when he faces better competition in real games, he could be a black hole in paint. Bottom line: Edosomwan looks much improved physically and has all-Ivy skill, but he will have to become an all-Ivy decision maker to truly reach his potential. A final note on Zena: when I congratulated him on his performance at Crimson Madness, he replied, “Yeah, I’ll be better though.” If this turns out to be a true statement, Edosomwan is headed for stardom.

The rest of the scoring will come from a handful of players: 1) Andre Chatfield ‘18, whose progression seems very similar to that of Wesley Saunders (some flashes of brilliance during his freshman year in limited minutes, leading to an expanded role as a sophomore); 2) Chris Egi ‘18, a highly touted prospect out of high school who has the tools to succeed but has not yet proven he can be a real offensive threat; 3) Freshman Corey Johnson, a sniper who torched the competition at the FIBA U19 Championships this past summer, shooting more than 46 percent (though his scoring will rely on whether or not his teammates can get him shots). This team may have some very talented players on it, but like last season, many possessions may end in one player taking his man one-on-one near the end of the (shortened) shot clock. The Crimson needs a go-to-guy to shoot the ball in these situations, and someone will have to step up.

On the other side of the ball, expect the same hustle and focus on defense as in past years. The main defensive forces may be gone, but the coaching style remains the same. Along with returning defensive weapon Agunwa Okolie ‘16, some of the new, aforementioned offensive difference-makers will also be counted on to stifle opposing offenses.

The Crimson have been picked fourth by most basketball pundits, and the reasons seem clear: Columbia, Princeton and Yale all return multiple proven studs, while Harvard brings in an almost totally new crop of players who could potentially make a run at the title. Therefore, Harvard is a safe pick for fourth place at this point.

Here’s how I think things will shape up: Harvard may struggle with a tough nonconference schedule early in the season, as it may take time for the team to gel into a cohesive unit. But don’t be surprised if, come January, Harvard is a serious title contender. With the top of the league so tightly packed, the road will still be uphill, but few teams in the country win more frequently at home, and Amaker knows how to make his players believe in themselves. I expect Harvard will win eight to 10 games in the Ivy League. Is this 2015-16 Harvard team really good enough to overcome the odds and win a sixth straight Ivy title? Freshman Balsa Dragovic on that question: “It’s always fun to prove people wrong.”

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