Harvard took the floor on Saturday night with an immediate disadvantage: already 8.5-point underdogs on the road against the Gaels, the Crimson had arguably their three best players donning street clothes. On the far right side of their bench sat Bryce Aiken, Seth Towns, and, to the surprise of many, Chris Lewis, Harvard’s leading scorer.
After earning Ivy Rookie of the Year honors in his freshman campaign, Aiken battled knee ailments all of last year and missed an extended amount of time. When he did play, it was clear that he wasn’t at full strength. The former top-100 recruit underwent surgery this past offseason, and was expected to be healthy by the start of this year. However, Aiken has yet to see action in the 2018-19 season.
It’s been an eerily similar journey for Towns, whose breakout sophomore season earned him the 2017-18 Ivy League Men’s Player of the Year award. The lanky sharpshooter scored just under 23 points per 40 minutes last year, shooting more than 44 percent from deep. His impact on Harvard’s offense was especially noticeable late in the shot clock; when the Crimson had no open looks and the clock was nearing zero, Towns would often create shots on his own via isolation play.
After a sensational performance in the conference tournament championship game last year, Towns limped to the bench late in the second half. He would go on to miss Harvard’s one-and-done loss in the NIT tournament, but was expected to make a full recovery during the summer. Rumored to have suffered another injury during the offseason, Towns has not played any minutes so far this year.
Notoriously tight-lipped when it comes to injuries, coach Tommy Amaker has not released specific details about the status of Aiken or Towns. To date, the only information available is that they are “out indefinitely.”
Lewis’s injury does not seem to be nearly as serious, and it is likely that he sat out against Saint Mary’s for precautionary reasons. In any case, without his premier big man, Amaker decided to give the starting center nod to Lewis’s junior classmate, Henry Welsh.
Welsh is a unique player who possesses a wide array of skills. The 6’10 California product has seen key minutes during his time with the Crimson, mostly when Lewis needs a breather. He also boasts a strong pedigree, with his older brother Thomas currently playing for the Denver Nuggets.
After losing the opening tip-off, Welsh immediately gave up an and-one-post-up against Jordan Hunter. At this point, it appeared that Harvard could be in for a rough game without Lewis.
As luck would have it, Welsh answered on the next possession.
Here he is setting a big screen on Jordan Ford. Let’s see what happens next.
Notice that Ford has now lost his man, Christian Juzang, and has his eye on the ball. Jordan Hunter is also marking the ball in case Djuricic decides to drive baseline. Left to his own devices near the free-throw line, Welsh starts to pop out to the perimeter.
Djuricic does indeed go to the baseline, and the Saint Mary’s defense collapses around him. Jordan Hunter, who had probably been preparing to guard Lewis (who has yet to shoot a three in his Harvard career), concedes the space to Welsh.
You can probably guess how this ends. Djuricic swings the ball back out to Welsh, who knocks down the three and ties the game.
The Crimson proceeded to go on an offensive tear, and they entered the locker room with a 10-point lead at the half. Saint Mary’s would make it interesting down the stretch, but the Crimson were ultimately able to stave them off, 74-68.
Chris Lewis remains one of the top talents in the Ancient Eight, but coach Amaker may have tapped into newfound offensive might without him. With Welsh on the floor, the Crimson were able to space out the Gaels’ defense and move them out of position. Welsh also possesses a strong jump shot that is rare for college big men, further augmenting his value.
In addition to the versatile play from Welsh, Harvard enjoyed a brilliant performance from the 6’11 forward, Robert Baker. Also part of the star-studded class of 2020, Baker has seen limited action with the Crimson. He made the most of his time on Saturday, however, posting 10 points and eight rebounds in just 14 minutes of play.
With a 3-3 record, Harvard now sits ranked at 125 in NCAA’s wonky new NET rating system. The evaluative tool that was intended to replace the archaic RPI formula has been widely criticized upon its initial roll-out. Whether NCAA will make any changes to NET remains to be seen.