When Harvard lost six out of its first seven games against Division I opponents last season, you could hear them. When Harvard started out Ivy play 2-7, you could hear them. When Harvard finished the season 14-16 with a 6-8 record in the Ivy League, you could really hear them.
Maybe you even started hearing them last August when it was announced that Siyani Chambers had torn his ACL, and that he would miss the entire 2015-16 season. Or maybe they became audible on Jan. 18, 2015, when Harvard landed Chris Lewis, the first of seven recruits who, on paper, comprise the best recruiting class on paper in Ivy League history. Or maybe they started five years ago when current Harvard senior Zena Edosomwan became the first ever top-100 recruit to commit to an Ivy League school.
“Harvard’s 2016-17 team is going to be special,” murmured people from Cambridge to Ithaca to Philadelphia over the last few years. But last season? As the team crawled to fourth place finish in the Ivy League, breaking its string of five straight Ivy titles, the murmurs became almost deafening. “2016-17 is the year. Just wait.”
Well, here we are. Siyani Chambers is back for one last hurrah. Zena Edosomwan is in his senior year, coming off a dominant junior season. The “nationally-ranked recruiting class” is suddenly this year’s freshman class, and they’re not waiting around to make their presence felt. Here’s what I expect from the Crimson this year:
First, let’s start with what we know. Zena Edosomwan is going to be a mainstay in Harvard’s lineup, and he will contend for Ivy Player of the Year. After missing a few Ivy games last season, Edosomwan ended up on the All-Ivy second team. He averaged 13.1 points and 9.9 rebounds per game, while taking the lion’s share of Harvard’s shots – and also taking opponents’ attention on defense. More playmakers on the court this year will make Zena harder to double-team and harder to focus on (even though he will still draw lots of attention). He’s starting to garner national recognition for his accomplishments: he was selected as one of twenty centers on the watch list for the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award, an honor given to the nation’s best center. (Zena met the this award’s namesake this past weekend.) In the Crimson Madness scrimmage two weeks ago, Edosomwan went to work on Chris Egi and Chris Lewis, bullying his way to five easy buckets on seven attempts. Look for Harvard to run their offense through Zena from the inside out this season, as it’s unlikely many big men in the country can guard him one-on-one. If Harvard’s shooters make defenders pay for the extra attention Zena receives, the team will be almost impossible to stop.
Alongside Zena in the post will likely be freshman Chris Lewis and junior Chris Egi. Lewis has certainly earned minutes down low, and he may be the better of the two at the moment. Chris Egi, however, appears to have improved during the offseason, and, while he still isn’t a playmaker, he went five for six from the floor in Harvard exhibition versus MIT. Lewis brings great defensive acumen, jumping ability and size to the court as he went to toe to toe with Zena at the Crimson Madness scrimmage. He managed to throw down a monstrous slam at Crimson Madness, and he also showed off his big-to-big passing ability in the scrimmage. According to Jeff Goodman, during Harvard’s “secret” scrimmage versus URI, Chris Lewis was one of the standouts. He’s a better player than Zena was as a freshman, without a doubt. Lewis will likely be the first big man off the bench, and will contend for minutes alongside Zena. Lewis and Egi will only need to serve as defensive stoppers, rebounders and finishers on passes coming from Zena out of the double-team, so if they fill this role, they will succeed.
Next up is the player who has been the heart and soul of Harvard’s team for three seasons ending in Ivy titles, and the player who Tommy Amaker called Harvard’s “most important player” over the likes of Wesley Saunders, Steve Moundou-Missi, and others. Siyani Chambers is back. While Zena Edosomwan is the uncontested starting center by a wide margin, senior Siyani Chambers may have more competition for his undisputed role as the point guard of this team. Chambers has been on the floor for at least 85 percent of Harvard’s minutes during every season he has played in a Crimson uniform – even when Brandyn Curry returned for his senior season after a junior season in which he received second-Team All-Ivy recognition and led Harvard to its first ever Ivy League title. So it was for hard for me to imagine Chambers losing his stranglehold on Harvard’s starting point guard role – a position he’s owned since the moment he set foot on Harvard’s campus as a freshman.
Then I watched freshman Bryce Aiken play.
To be clear, Siyani Chambers will start and likely lead the team in minutes again this year. But Harvard’s point guard situation going into the season isn’t as cut-and-dried as one might think. Bryce Aiken can play. I predict he will start alongside Siyani Chambers to start the season (or at least be a top-five minute-earner). Aiken isn’t a typical “two guard,” but he can shoot the three, he makes good decisions, and he’s a playmaker. Period. Why have only one crafty, trustworthy ball-handler who can create for others and himself on the court when you can have two? The question is not if these two are the best guards on the roster – they are – the question is about whether or not two natural floor generals can learn to play alongside each other. In the exhibition versus MIT, Amaker played Aiken and Chambers together for much of the scrimmage, and it’s likely this will continue into the season. There will be an adjustment period for Chambers, but if they can make it work by the time the Ivy League season starts, which I think they can, they’ll be solid. And if Chambers and Aiken can perfect the art of the two-point-guard system, Harvard will have the best backcourt in the Ivy League.
As for Tommy McCarthy, last year’s starting point guard, he is a high-volume scorer who can fill it up in a hurry if teams don’t pay attention to him. However, this year he may be better utilized as a three-point shooter who plays off-ball than someone with the ball in his hands leading the offense, when he finds his way onto the court. In the exhibition versus MIT, he played only three minutes. Co-captain Corbin Miller, a strong three-point threat, and Andre Chatfield, an athletic wing who has shown flashes of stardom on both ends during his first two seasons but has never been a reliable option, both look to be odd men out. Miller can be a threat if he gets time, but minutes will be hard to come by on this competitive roster. Chatfield looks like he needs more time to develop. Unfortunately, on a team with little available playing time, even for some highly skilled, fully developed players, it’s unlikely Chatfield will see the floor much. Sophomore Corey Johnson projects to play a key role this year as a shooter. His jumper is good enough to make him a legitimate NBA prospect. However, his defensive struggles prevent me from projecting him as a bona fide starter and big-time minutes eater. Regardless, he’ll make a run at Harvard’s all-time single-season three-point record (Laurent Rivard with 80 in the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons) and play a key role, even if his defensive flaws keep him off the court in some big spots.
Freshmen Seth Towns and Christian Juzang also look to be headed for quality time on the court this season. Towns is a pure scorer who creates for himself off the bounce, and he knocked down some silky smooth jumpers in air-tight coverage during the Crimson Madness scrimmage. He uses a lethal combination of quickness and height to create the little space he needs to put the ball in the hoop. His ability to score from behind the arc, at the cup, and everywhere in between in one-on-one coverage against virtually any defender is reminiscent of Wesley Saunders – but Towns is taller. Towns will be a major scoring option this season. I expect he will start and average in double-figures in points. Christian Juzang was not one of the four top-100 players Tommy Amaker lured to Cambridge this season, but he has shown up in a big way during the preseason. In the exhibition versus MIT, he scored 17 points, and he also showed grit, hustle and feistiness on the court. Juzang is a very good shooter, but he also can get to the hoop, and he seems to always make the right play. Juzang could be a very important “glue guy” who finds his role and embraces it.
Freshmen Robert Baker and sophomore Weisner Perez have both also looked strong in the leadup to the season, but they may have to wait in the wings for one more year. If Amaker decides to go small with 6’6” Weisner Perez down low, I think he can be very valuable in a Jonah Travis-esque role, but Amaker’s inclination tends to be to go with two traditional big men, even if that means sacrificing some offense. Baker, on the other hand, is a high-flying 6’10” 202-pound wing player with a great shot. He has the opportunity to develop into a valuable stretch four, but for now his minutes will probably be limited to a few per game.
Overall, I foresee Siyani Chambers, Bryce Aiken, Corey Johnson, Seth Towns, Zena Edosomwan and Chris Lewis being the top six minute-getters along with Tommy McCarthy, Corbin Miller, Justin Bassey, Weisner Perez, Christian Juzang, Robert Baker and Chris Egi possibly rounding out the rotation. The Crimson will need to find a strong seven to 10-man rotation, even if that means leaving a few very talented players riding the pine for the majority of the season.
If this group can learn to play together and develop chemistry, Harvard should be right at the top of the league with Princeton and Yale. The Crimson may be one of the highest-variance teams in the Ivy League this year – from game to game, but also in terms of how good they could be versus how good they actually will be.
But the youthful Crimson will also likely improve over the course of the season more than any other Ivy League team. Princeton may be tough to overcome during the Ivy League’s regular season, but if the Crimson can put it all together by the Ivy Tournament, they will have a very real shot of knocking off the Tigers en route to another NCAA Tournament bid.