Still, the final result—an NIT bid—was not an insignificant achievement for a team that began the season with serious question marks. The departure of jack-of-all-trades guard Jeremy Lin left an enormous void across the board in Harvard’s production. Lacking a star of Lin’s stature, the team would need to rely on all of its players to collectively compensate for the loss of the Golden State guard. But before the season even began, that task grew more difficult when reigning Ivy League Rookie of the Year Kyle Casey suffered a broken bone in his foot, sidelining the big man for eight weeks and hampering him throughout the season.
Harvard began its schedule with a lackluster road performance against a very strong George Mason team, which ran away from the Crimson in the second half en route to a 66-53 victory. Two weeks later, Harvard labored throughout a three-point win over a lowly Bryant squad that went 1-29 the year before. But the Crimson hit its stride a few days later when it defended Lavietes, 82-66, against a Colorado team that featured future first-round pick Alec Burks. Although Harvard coughed up a 12-point lead in a loss to Michigan and got run off the court by eventual national champions UConn, the Crimson picked up a win over another BCS school at the end of non-conference play with its third straight victory over Boston College, 78-69.
By the time January rolled around, it was clear that the Crimson was an improved team over last year and, without juggernaut Cornell in the picture, it was a frontrunner for the league title. Part of its success came from expected sources: the team got superb guard play out of sophomore Brandyn Curry and junior Oliver McNally, reliable wing scoring from sophomore Christian Webster, and versatility mixed with athleticism from Casey. Perhaps unexpected, though, was the immediate impact of Canadian sharpshooter Laurent Rivard, who posed a serious threat from deep, and, most importantly, the development of forward Keith Wright.
Wright changed from a big body with bad hands into a beast on the block. His ability to finish and willingness to pass made him virtually indefensible, for beefy BCS bigs and brainy Ivy defenders alike. He carried the Crimson with 12 double-doubles on the season, and he finished the year with a stat line of 14.9 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks per game. Wright’s performance was good enough to earn him Ivy League Most Valuable Player (though not without controversy, as evinced by Greg Mangano’s Twitter outburst), just the second Harvard player to win that distinction.
The Crimson’s hot start to league play did little to temper the optimism surrounding the team, as Harvard breezed through its first four conference games before facing Princeton at Jadwin. The Tigers outplayed the Crimson, especially in the final 30 minutes, earning a 65-61 victory and putting an end to Harvard’s eight-game winning streak. But the Crimson had little time to wallow in the loss. The next night they played an epic double overtime game against Penn. After giving up a 15-point lead, Harvard was tied with Penn and had a chance to win at the buzzer, but an apparent foul that would have sent Curry to the line with no time left was waved off, and the game was sent into overtime. In the first extra period, the Crimson had a two-point lead in the waning moments. Penn guard Zack Rosen drove into the lane, hung in the air, and connected on a shot that video later indicated came after the buzzer. The referees didn’t have the luxury of instant replay though, and we were heading into another overtime. A McNally baseline drive gave Harvard a one-point lead in the final seconds, and this time Casey blocked Rosen’s last-ditch attempt. After the game, Wright correctly observed, “We beat that team three times.”
The rest of the season had its share of memorable games: a 3-point barnburner versus Yale, 24- and 15-point comebacks against Brown. A Princeton loss to the Bears meant the Crimson controlled its own destiny for the final two weeks, but Harvard squandered the opportunity by faltering in a 70-69 loss to the Bulldogs at John J. Lee Amphitheater. The defeat set the stage for a showdown with league-leader Princeton on the final Saturday of the regular season. The atmosphere in Lavietes was electric. After a back-and-forth first half, the Crimson began to control the game in the second frame. Casey, whose baseline drive and jam ignited the second-half run, led his team in scoring with 24 points, all the while hobbling on a broken foot that would require surgery after the season. When the final seconds ticked off the 79-67 victory, Harvard students rushed the court to celebrate at least a share of the school’s first-ever Ivy League title.
Of course, the story of the 2010-11 Harvard basketball team has a bitter ending. Princeton earned a one-game playoff after beating Penn, and the two teams squared off at JJLA for a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament. You already know what happened, so spare me the misery of reliving it. 2.8 seconds.
There was some noise about the Crimson receiving an at-large bid to the Tourney, but, to be honest, the team didn’t deserve it. They had their chance. The NIT was a nice consolation, but, given the emotional defeat just days earlier, no one expected Harvard to do much damage. Indeed, Oklahoma St. throttled the Crimson, 71-54, ending what was the greatest season in school history.
Thankfully for the Harvard faithful, the future is bright. The team returns all of its players as well as head coach Tommy Amaker, and it will benefit from another much-heralded freshman class. If it plays its cards right, come this March, Cambridge might just party like its 1946.