Harvard is in uncharted territory: How, why, and what’s ahead

For the first time since 2009, Harvard is 1-3 in Ivy play. It’s an unusual sight for most Harvard fans, and as Alex Rosenberg’s game-winner swished through the net on Saturday to down the Crimson, I couldn’t help but remember the three buzzer-beating wins Harvard had last year in Ivy play (one to send the game to overtime – an eventual win – and two pure game-winners). For five straight years, the ball always seemed to bounce Harvard’s way. But on both Friday and Saturday night, the Crimson were a step behind the competition, getting swept on their home court. So let’s look back on the underlying issues of this sweep, explore how the Crimson can improve and discuss what lies ahead for the reeling Crimson.

Harvard played two straight impressive halves this weekend, two stanzas that would have struck fear into the rest of the Ancient Eight if they had occurred in the same game. After falling behind 40-25 after the first half versus Cornell, the Crimson fought back to take the lead, trouncing the Big Red 25-6 in the next 10 minutes of play. Cornell finished strong, however, beating the Crimson by 12. Harvard won the second half by three (not a bad one-half margin), but free throws from Cornell widened the lead late, and a David Onuorah three-pointer late in the game (the junior’s second attempt of his career) didn’t help matters for Harvard. Cornell’s Matt Morgan, suddenly an Ivy Player of the Year candidate, made the big plays when it mattered most (a sentence I’ve grown accustomed to writing about a Harvard player over the past couple of years).

The next outstanding half that Harvard played was versus Columbia the next night. The Crimson shook off any lingering doubts about their validity as an Ivy contender and pummeled the Lions inside and out, on both ends of the floor, for a solid 20 minutes. In the second half, however, the Crimson faltered and missed crucial free throws, and an Alex Rosenberg running fadeaway at the buzzer sank Harvard, handing the Crimson their third consecutive Ivy loss. If the weekend taught us one thing, it’s this: The Crimson just don’t have that killer instinct they used to.

Another key issue for Harvard was their inability to find a set lineup to trust in certain situations. Coach Tommy Amaker seems to have tried every possible lineup combination at every possible time: from going small when the other team goes big, to matching the other team’s strategy; from sitting Zena Edosomwan in crunch time, to riding freshmen in late-game situations. We’ve seen it all. With a team full of pieces that haven’t gelled yet, it makes sense to try different combinations, but at this point in the season it is troubling that a different cast of characters is being called upon to perform a different task every night.

Furthermore, Amaker has frequently made these changes regardless of how well his current lineup is doing. For example, in the first half of the Cornell game, Harvard’s offensive output was even with Cornell’s when Edosomwan played, and minus-15 when he was on the bench (according to Big Apple Buckets’ Kevin Whitaker on Twitter). (Edosomwan had zero fouls in the first half, so that wasn’t the cause of his inexplicable benching.)

Another example: In Saturday’s game versus Columbia, freshman Weisner Perez spontaneously checked in with under 10 minutes to play. Perez, who finished the game with seven minutes played, scored eight points in two minutes, giving Harvard momentum and a two-point lead. He then checked out, and the lead was squandered. I am inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to a coach of Amaker’s pedigree, and it’s easy to start second-guessing any coach right after his team has lost a three games in a row. However, with losses piling up for a team that has fewer clear-cut stars than in past years, it’s hard not to detect Amaker’s lack of trust in certain players when the game in on the line.

There were some positives from the weekend, including the aforementioned first-half dominance of Columbia; Weisner Perez’s high-impact seven minutes; and Corey Johnson’s improved playmaking (from a guy who is usually just a three-point gunner).

Up next for Harvard is a trip to Princeton and Penn this weekend. Jadwin Gymnasium had stymied Harvard for many seasons before 2014, when Harvard beat Princeton there for the first time in 25 years. A young Penn squad and the Palestra await on Saturday night, as do good memories from Harvard’s one-game playoff victory over Yale in that storied building last year. While I predict a strong showing from the Crimson in both games, it’s tough to know what to expect from a team that hasn’t put together a full 40 minutes of strong play in quite some time now. The Crimson can still finish the Ivy slate strong, and I anticipate that they will battle their way to a respectable Ivy finish.

2 thoughts on “Harvard is in uncharted territory: How, why, and what’s ahead

    • That’s been corrected, TKINDLLTK, thanks. That year also brought Harvard’s first season sweep of the Ps in school history.

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