Juzang, Lewis keys to Harvard’s recent success

The Crimson wrapped up their second sweep in a row this past weekend, beating Brown and Yale one week after taking down Princeton and Penn. Harvard didn’t just win these games, it did so handily, looking like the league’s top team in the process. A Jan. 10 loss at Wofford put the Crimson at 6-10. Since then, they are 8-1. Why?

First, sophomore Christian Juzang has emerged as a reliable, outstanding point guard for the Crimson.

When Bryce Aiken first went down, it looked the Crimson’s season was doomed. Harvard, and Juzang, initially struggled in Aiken’s absence. But then they learned to play as a team, without Bryce Aiken hero ball ready to bail them out at a moment’s notice. As the team’s play improved, Juzang followed suit (or maybe it was the other way around). Over the last two weekends, he has been a shooter, distributor, and leader – all while playing 157 of 160 minutes. Shooting 9-for-22 (40.9 percent) from long distance over a four-game stretch is impressive by itself, especially on a team that sometimes struggles to generate offense. But Juzang has hit many of these threes at the end of shot clocks with the defense draped all over him. That said, even while averaging 15.5 points over the last two weekends, Juzang has been patient, rarely forcing bad shots. He has also distributed the ball nicely, most often to Chris Lewis in the post, and his turnovers are way down. Juzang’s leadership ability and confidence have also been on display, most notably late in the Yale game when he was directing teammates vocally on both ends of the floor.

Speaking of Chris Lewis, the second-year big man has been Harvard’s first option offensively during their hot streak (even while Seth Towns has averaged 17 points over the last four games). During every possession, the Crimson look to get Lewis the ball. Versus Yale, Lewis’s matchup early on, Paul Atkinson, had no answer for him. Lewis had 12 of Harvard’s first 18 points in that game and finished with 18. He has also managed to stay out of foul trouble while rejecting his fair share of shots. Lewis has been double-teamed by many opponents, but doubled or not, the extra attention Lewis receives opens things up for everyone around him. Lewis’s ability to carry the load on offense and protect his teammates’ backs on defense has enabled other Crimson players to fill their roles without playing outside of themselves.

Players filling their roles has been another key to Harvard’s recent success. For example, Justin Bassey, who seems to be the fourth option in Harvard’s offense with Lewis, Juzang, and Towns on the court, has stepped up and made a few big offensive plays. Bassey has always been a lockdown defender, but sometimes people forget he was a 2,000-point scorer in high school. Recently, though, Bassey’s play has reminded fans of his offensive skills. He has also shown off his athleticism with some high-flying blocks and dunks. As a testament to his recent high level of play, Tommy Amaker called him the team’s Most Valuable Player last weekend.

Finally, as a team, one thing has stood out to me about the Crimson as of late: their ability to close games. Earlier on this Ivy season, the Crimson coughed up leads. In Hanover, Harvard led Dartmouth by 12 at the half but fell behind with 21 seconds left before winning in overtime. In New Haven, the Crimson went up 20-5 over Yale, but trailed with five minutes to play. In Providence, Harvard jumped out to a 13-0 lead before allowing Brown to get within one before the half. And in New York City, Harvard led Columbia 25-10 but eventually blew the lead and lost the game. Sure, basketball is a game of runs, so a couple of games like this are to be expected. And, to Harvard’s credit, the team lost only one of these games in which it stumbled.

Year after year we have seen this trend: Harvard blows early leads in infuriating fashion, which forces nail-biting finishes, yet usually ends up on top. But the last two weekends, something has changed. Against Princeton, Harvard led by 15 at the half and only let the Tigers cut the deficit to nine before winning by 15. Versus Penn, Harvard led by seven at halftime and even stretched that lead out to 14. The Quakers made a run late but never got closer than seven. In the Yale game, Harvard led by 20 at the half. The Bulldogs cut it to nine but never truly threatened, and Harvard won by 15. Starting fast is important, but it doesn’t mean much if you can’t hold your leads. For the first time in a while, the Crimson have dominated early, then shut the door.

As they prepare for the last two weekends of the Ivy League season, the Crimson have locked up a top-two seed in the Ivy League Tournament. This weekend will be interesting, though, as Harvard plays Penn, the only other 9-1 team in the league. Earlier in the season, I wrote that I thought it would be tough for Harvard to win the Ivy League without Bryce Aiken. I was wrong. At their best, with or without Aiken, Harvard is the favorite to earn the Ivy League’s automatic bid to the Big Dance.

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