Exam Break Outlook: Harvard’s stock rising

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).

McCarthy has already become a very dangerous outside scorer and his facilitating has improved almost every game. As he learns to get to the rim more frequently and draw more fouls (he shoots 87 percent from the line, but averages only three attempts per game), McCarthy will become an even more potent backcourt player.

Another concern early on for the Crimson was turnovers. At one point, the Crimson were turning the ball over in almost one fourth of their possessions – as a result, almost every opponent was taking many more shots than Harvard. Against No. 4 Kansas, the Crimson turned the ball over 15 times in the first half and trailed by nine at the end of the first frame. In the second half, however, Harvard committed only four turnovers, outscoring the Jayhawks by three. For one of the first times all season, Harvard went an extended period of time without turnovers being a real issue, and the result was astounding.

The Crimson carried over this ball security to their next game versus Boston and committed only 10 turnovers, which led to a win. Although two games in which Harvard took care of the ball is a small sample size, the Crimson seem to have addressed their turnover issues at least partially. I won’t be surprised to see a few more 15+ turnover games this season, but Harvard has demonstrated that when they take care of the ball, it can play with anyone. So consistencywill be important in Ivy League play.

Another reason for the Crimson’s recent surge is the emergence of a couple of new weapons: senior guard Patrick Steeves and freshman forward Weisner Perez. Steeves, who missed three consecutive seasons due to injury and didn’t even play in the Crimson’s first three Division I games this season, has since averaged 9.0 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.8 assists in just under 20 minutes per game in his last four appearances. His turnover numbers have been concerning, but he has improved those numbers in recent games. Steeves is also 19th in the Ivy League in points per 40 minutes (19.8) while playing only 16.8 minutes per game, and he is one of only three players in the top 20 to average less than 20 minutes per contest. The other two? Dartmouth’s Brandon McDonnell and Weisner Perez.

Perez averages just over 10 minutes per game, but when he has been given court time, he has been huge for the Crimson. For his recent performances, especially at Kansas and Northeastern, he earned Ivy Rookie of the Week honors and was recognized as one of the top five freshmen of the week by ESPN. He has scored 19.4 points per 40 minutes this season, good enough for 13th in the Ivy League.

The emergence of Steeves and Perez off the bench has given Harvard two full units that are very similar in ability. With around 10 men who have contributed in big ways at some point this season, Tommy Amaker has a whole arsenal of weapons to choose from. Though loaded with young, inexperienced players, the Crimson have become one of the most consistently talented top-to-bottom teams with not much drop-off between their starters and their second unit.

After the exam break, on Dec. 22, the Crimson will face the Cougars of BYU at the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii. Harvard will play three games in as many days against a very tough field. Gelling at the right time, the Crimson are looking like a very dangerous Ivy team when they’re at their best. If the Crimson can keep up their solid play through 14 league games, they will be tough to beat. But with just a few consecutive well-played games under their belt, the Crimson still have a lot to prove before taking on Dartmouth to open up Ivy play on Jan. 9.