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.
Lately, Harvard has been a completely different team than it was back in November. After a close loss at Kansas and a nice win at Boston University, the Crimson traveled to Hawaii to partake in the 2015 Diamond Head Classic. The Crimson drew BYU in the first round. The tournament was a huge test for Harvard: would the Crimson revert back to its November self? Or would Harvard build on its two previous good performances and play well?
With the Ivy season under a month away, the Crimson’s performance has been all over the map. At times, they show signs that this is just a rebuilding year, while at other times, they show great promise for current-year success. Regardless, coming off three consecutive well-played games, Harvard is indisputably a team that has improved significantly since the start of the season.
In my last article, I stated that Harvard’s success would be largely dependent on the success and maturation of freshman point guard Tommy McCarthy. Here’s some evidence that McCarthy has been key in Harvard’s recent streak of good games. In McCarthy’s first three Division I games, all games in which Harvard underachieved, McCarthy shot an abysmal 18 percent from the floor (6-for-34) and had 14 turnovers and only eight assists (.57 assist/turnover ratio). In his last three games, which have included a win over Boston University, a close loss at Northeastern, and a six-point loss at No. 4 Kansas, McCarthy has shot 40 percent from the floor (including 42 percent from beyond the arc) and posted 19 assists to eight turnovers (2.4 assist/turnover ratio).
For the first time in the Tommy Amaker era, Harvard has begun the season 1-3, with the sole win coming versus a Division III school: MIT. After falling to Providence, UMass, and Boston College, Harvard seems to have taken a step back from its past dominance.
But the real question isn’t, “How good is Harvard?” The important questions are: “Why have the Crimson struggled?,” “What will it take to improve?” and “Can the Crimson contend for an Ivy League title this year?”
Harvard has struggled mightily in a few areas this so far this season. The first matter of major concern is turnovers. The Crimson has turned the ball over on nearly one fourth of their possessions. On the other end, Harvard has forced a turnover on only one eighth of their opponents’ possessions. This causes a straightforward but almost insurmountable problem: Harvard’s opponents take more shots.
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.
On Wednesday, Harvard lost its most important player to a devastating injury. The team announced that captain and starting point guard Siyani Chambers has suffered a torn ACL and will miss the entire 2015-16 season. He will not enroll in school this year, and he will re-enroll in 2016-17 (his final year of eligibility).
This past summer I had a chance to talk to Weisner Perez, a 6’6″ forward from Chicago who is one of six highly touted members of Harvard basketball’s class of 2019. This past spring, Perez graduated summa cum laude from Morton West High School, where he is the all-time leading scorer. A few months after leading his Morton squad to the Regional Championship his senior year, he played for the Dominican Republic U-19 National Team over the summer. Meet Weisner Perez.
Why did you choose Harvard, and what set it apart from the other schools recruiting you?
The first thing that set Harvard apart was the academics. It’s the best. If you go there, you’re set for life. But I actually got offered by every Ivy school. Harvard just gave me a better chance to be successful than anywhere else. I thought, I can go here and get a great education, and play basketball at a place where I’m going to get noticed. We have a good shot to make the NCAA Tournament, and I have a chance to play right away.
Was there a moment when you realized Harvard was the right place for you?
On my official visit, I knew. It was an amazing atmosphere and I loved it. A few weeks later, I committed.
Balsa Dragovic, a 6-foot-11 power forward, was born in Montenegro but moved to Serbia nine years ago. After attending grade school in Serbia, Balsa and his family decided that a U.S. high school would be the best choice for him. After enrolling at Cantwell-Sacred Heart of Mary in Montebello, Calif., Balsa was faced with not only the normal challenges of high school, but also a whole new language and culture.
Having to essentially be an adult at age 14, he adjusted well to these changes and thrived both in the classroom and on the basketball court. Basketball runs in the Dragovic family. Both of Balsa’s parents played professional basketball, and even his grandmother played basketball in her youth. Last fall, Balsa committed to continue his academic and basketball career at Harvard, where he will be a member of the Class of 2019. I had a chance to interview Balsa last month.
We’re counting down the top 10 moments in each Ivy school’s history as part of our Ivy League at 60 retrospective. We did the Crimson next because, hey, it”s their dynasty.
When Harvard players awoke on the morning of March 5, 2011, they were part of a basketball program that had never won an Ivy League basketball championship. That night, however, they would have a chance to make history. One win over Princeton would give the Crimson their first title and bury the demons of the past 50 years.