Final thoughts on the 2014-15 Harvard season

Harvard took North Carolina to the wire last week in Jacksonville, bowing 67-65 to the Tar Heels in the Crimson's sixth NCAA tournament game since 2012. (Rob Crawford)
Harvard took North Carolina to the wire last week in Jacksonville, bowing 67-65 to the Tar Heels in the Crimson’s sixth NCAA tournament game since 2012. (Rob Crawford)

A few days after watching Harvard’s season end in Jacksonville with Wesley Saunders’ final shot clanking off the rim and backboard, it seems an appropriate time to look back on the Crimson season that was. Amid the shock and nostalgia comes perspective … and withdrawal. Here are my final thoughts on Harvard’s memorable 2014-15 season:

Harvard did not underachieve

Harvard was a preseason top-25 team but did not finish in the polls where it started, tumbling out of the top 25 after one week and receiving only four votes during the remaining 19 weeks of the season. Even if Harvard had finished 25th in the country heading into the tournament, however, that ranking would have meant very little, considering that three teams ranked  Nos. 16-25 in the last AP Poll were bounced from the NCAA tournament during the same round as Harvard (all three fell to teams with worse seeds than Harvard’s draw, North Carolina). Success is not measured by the opinions of college basketball pundits – it is measured by regular season wins, league championships, NCAA tournament appearances and NCAA tournament wins. This year marked Harvard’s fifth straight Ivy League title; sixth straight 20-win season; fourth straight NCAA Tournament appearance; and first loss in the second round of the NCAA tourney in three years.

Expectations for this team were very high – perhaps unreasonably so. Considering the potent players who left at the end of last season (such as Laurent Rivard, Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry), it required imagination to foresee the 2014-15 team outperforming last year’s squad (which won the Ivy title by four games, earned a 12-seed in the NCAA tournament, defeated Cincinnati in the second round and almost beat Michigan State in the third round). Indeed, the fact that they were only one shot away from accomplishing the same feats as the 2013-14 team is remarkable. Finally, any team that wins the Ivy League championship and secures the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament has to consider its season a success – no matter what happens during March Madness.

Wesley Saunders is the greatest player in Harvard men’s basketball history

When people are asked to name the best basketball player of all time, two names are always mentioned: Michael Jordan and Bill Russell. It’s not just that these players’ individual statistics are awesome; they also led their teams to numerous championships (Jordan: six; Russell, 11). Time after time, when big plays were needed in big games, these stars always put their teams on their backs and stepped up – and at the end of the day, they hoisted the championship trophy. In the annals of Harvard basketball history, this describes Wesley Saunders to a tee.

In must-win games where Saunders played more than 20 minutes (NCAA tournament games, along with this year’s one-game playoff vs. Yale), he averaged 17.7 points per game. If Harvard’s 2012 loss to Arizona in the third round of the tournament is excluded, Saunders’ scoring average rises to 19.2 points per game in must-win contests, four more than his scoring average over his last three seasons. Although he was honored with only one Ivy League Player of the Year award, Saunders dominated the Ivy League from 2012 to 2015. He was also (arguably) the best player on the court when the Crimson took on Jordan’s alma mater, ACC powerhouse North Carolina. Tar Heels guard J.P. Tokoto certainly thought so, placing him among “the top five” players he has guarded all season (and Tokoto has guarded many players who are projected as first or second-round draft picks, including Kentucky’s Andrew Harrison, Virginia’s Justin Anderson, Louisville’s Terry Rozier, Duke’s Justise Winslow and Notre Dame’s Jerian Grant).

Wesley Saunders’ numbers are impressive, but his titles are staggering. Saunders won four Ivy League titles and also went to the Big Dance all four years of his collegiate career. Success in the NBA helps distinguish Jeremy Lin among Harvard greats, but Lin’s and Saunders’ career numbers at Harvard are almost identical. (See comparison here.)

The success of the teams Saunders played on, however, bumps him ahead of Lin and all the other Harvard greats (none of whom won an Ivy title before 2011). The great Joe Carrabino ’85, whose 1,880 career points (18.4 points per game) make him Harvard’s all-time leading scorer (Saunders is fourth all-time; Lin is sixth all-time), must also be considered in this conversation. But Carrabino finished his career with a winning percentage below .500, and his Harvard teams never finished higher than third place in the Ivy standings. Plus, if the North Carolina game offered any indication of Saunders’ potential at the next level, he may end up equaling Jeremy Lin’s accomplishments in the Association.

An era has ended

No matter what Harvard does next season or in the coming years, the “Class of 2015 Era” is officially over. As the only class in Harvard history to finish with four consecutive tournament bids, this group (Wesley Saunders, Steve Moundou-Missi, Jonah Travis, Kenyatta Smith, Alex Nesbitt, Matt Brown and Charlie Anastasi) will go down in Harvard and Ivy League basketball history as one of the best classes of all time. Harvard basketball is forever in debt to these seven men. With that being said…

Harvard’s run isn’t necessarily over

For Ivy hoops crazies, the next big question is obvious: What will happen next year? Although the answer won’t begin to reveal itself for a while, we do have a rough idea of how the 2015-16 Ivy League is shaping up. Simply put, there will be four teams competing for the Ivy crown next year: Columbia, Princeton, Yale and Harvard. With the loss of Saunders, Moundou-Missi, Smith and Travis, the Crimson face a lot of uncertainty. And while Harvard is certainly capable of winning their sixth straight Ivy title, no Ivy League team stands out as the obvious favorite at this moment.

Sadly, an extremely enjoyable season of Ivy League hoops has come to a close. The countdown to next season has officially begun. (There are about 200 days until Harvard’s “Crimson Madness” event in October, and about two weeks more until the games begin.)

Enjoy my video recap of the epic one-game playoff at the Palestra, and thank you for reading all season long!

6 thoughts on “Final thoughts on the 2014-15 Harvard season”

  1. On the Basketball-U message board, our Harvard colleague Mike James said in a thread about Michael Hall’s transfer out that the Massachusetts Hall administration has tightened up academic standards for basketball recruits from the more egregious allowances earlier in Coach Amaker’s career.

    Have you heard anything similar? I’m somewhat skeptical as we’re just two years away from Zena’s matriculation and all that was involved in his circuitous path to Cambridge. On the other hand, a gradual tightening now would be consistent with what Bob Scalise said in the 2008 New York TImes article, in which he asserted that academic leniencies were needed to help Coach Amaker get off to a strong start, implying that they would be temporary.

  2. Using your logic, we would have to say that David Ortiz is the greatest Red Sox hitter of all time — and place him ahead of Ted Williams, whose nickname is “the greatest hitter who ever lived.” Yes, perhaps Williams’ greatness (and Carrabino’s greatness) shouldn’t be viewed through the lens of championships, since winning championships requires a player to be surrounded by other great players and coaches, as well — and this is out of a player’s control. However, my heart leans towards saying that David Ortiz IS the greatest Red Sox hitter of all time, because his excellence at the plate directly led to three Red Sox championships — and Ted Williams’ excellence at the plate (and Yaz’s, and Wade Boggs’) led to zero championships. Wesley Saunders’ numbers alone probably place him in a tie for second (with Lin) for second greatest Harvard player of all-time, with Carrabino first. And if we leave championships out of it, we have to give the nod to Carrabino. Talk about dominant, that was him. But I do think championships are an important factor to consider, and Saunders won four of them, and he was a major factor in the last three. So, I can go along with your assessment of Saunders as Harvard’s top all-time player… and I can go along with calling Ortiz the Red Sox’ top all-time player, as well. Personal excellence plus championships. That’s the full package. Saunders had a magical career at Harvard, and Harvard fans were blessed to witness his four years wearing crimson.

  3. Cornell, Penn and Princeton have all enjoyed seasons of consistent excellence…each earning the coveted “Era” designation, the P’s more than a couple. Harvard’s great run, which MAY have ended last week, has come during a period when the League as a whole has never been better. While it may be difficult, and pointless, to compare teams and players from different time frames it is safe to say that Wesley Saunders and his teams shall be forever ranked among the League’s very best. Excellent piece, CC.

    • Thank you, TT. This Crimson run may only be over if your Tigers do something about it… We’ll see, can’t wait until next year’s race!

      • As you just said,the “race” will end whenever (if ever?) Harvard stops being able to take players the rest of the league cannot (will not?) admit.Amaker wants to WIN! Gee, can’t wait!

        • I don’t think Harvard’s policy will change until either of Bob Scalise or Drew Gilpin Faust leaves their current job. Scalise of course is the architect of Harvard’s lower academic standards, so replacing him might lead to tightened admissions requirements again. But generally speaking, athletic directors view their jobs more as winning championships than upholding academic reputations. So don’t expect Scalise’s successor to unilaterally reverse course.

          No, it’ll take a new Harvard president to lift admissions policies. The Harvard Corporation has a habit of bouncing from guardrail to guardrail when choosing presidents. For example, the aristocratic, regal Bok was succeeded by the approachable, genteel Rudenstine who was then replaced by the bull in a china shop Summers, who was followed by a do-nothing caretaker in Faust.

          If the Corporation follows their history and selects a strict academician as successor to Faust someday, Scalise and by extension Amaker would be at risk in that scenario.

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