Harvard’s 4-4 start: Lessons and looking ahead

Siyani Chambers leads the way. (GoCrimson.com)
Siyani Chambers leads the way. (GoCrimson.com)

Eight games into the season, the Crimson sit at 4-4. Although this may not be the start everyone in Cambridge dreamed of when fate brought this team together, the Crimson are trending upward after winning three straight games heading into the exam break.

Harvard started the season by losing four consecutive winnable, Division I games. The team hung with Stanford in its opening night game in China, but it still didn’t feel like a great showing, even with Bryce Aiken scoring 21 points in his first collegiate game. After trouncing Fisher College, a non-NCAA team, the Crimson hit a low point in their season. Harvard was only three games in, but an 11-point loss to Holy Cross at home was not a good sign. With Zena Edosomwan only playing seven minutes, Siyani Chambers committing five turnovers (Harvard had 19 as a team), and freshman Bryce Aiken out with an injury, there didn’t seem to be much to take away from that game – besides what not to do. Seth Towns and Corey Johnson had solid games, but there were more question marks than answers. Would the heralded tandem down low of Zena Edosomwan and Chris Lewis play up to expectations? Or, more importantly, would the heralded tandem down low of Zena Edosomwan and Chris Lewis play? Would Bryce Aiken return soon? What was wrong with Siyani?

Luckily, the Crimson went into the game against UMass later that week rejuvenated. They took an early lead, but it was back-and-forth for almost the entire second half. With 1:35 remaining, Harvard trailed by eight. It looked like the Crimson had just let a great opportunity for a turnaround win slide by. Then UMass started to give the game away. But Harvard seemed to insist that UMass take it back. With 14 seconds left, after a Johnson three-pointer and some Seth Towns free throws, UMass led by only one, and Donte Clark stood at the line. He made the first shot, putting UMass up two, but missed the second. Harvard looked like it could steal the game. But then no one boxed out the shooter. Clark got his own rebound, 15 feet from the hoop. The basketball gods wouldn’t give Harvard another chance after that blunder. Clark proceeded to put away Harvard by making the next two free throws with only 10 seconds to play. In a game where Bryce Aiken went 0-for-9 from the floor, the result was still a step in the right direction. But some crucial mistakes down the stretch proved there was still a long way to go. Corey Johnson played well again, going 2-for-2 on threes, but this time he only played 10 minutes, even after going 9-for-20 from three-land during the two previous games. Johnson was used as a last-ditch comeback catalyst – a long-range shooter whose job it was to spark an improbable comeback– but he was quietly making almost all of these tough shots. Johnson will take over a few games during Ivy time. A hand up in his face isn’t enough; if the defender isn’t blanketed all over Johnson, and his feet are set, it’s three points.

One game later, versus George Washington University in Patrick Steeves’ homecoming game, the Crimson got down late, but came all the way back from a 13-point deficit with 14 minutes left to tie the game with five minutes to play. Again, though, Harvard let it slip away, losing by three. The question now wasn’t whether or not the Crimson could play well; it was whether or not they could sustain good basketball for 40 minutes. After this loss, their record stood at 1-4.

Three games later, Harvard was 4-4, with solid wins over Fordham, Northeastern, and Boston College. The latter win was the 179th win of Tommy Amaker‘s career, making him the winningest coach in Harvard men’s basketball history (women’s coach Kathy Delaney Smith has 554 wins, more than three times as many as Amaker, and is the winningest basketball coach in Ivy League history, among both men’s and women’s teams). Here’s how the Crimson were able to secure three consecutive victories:

  • Freshmen Bryce Aiken, Seth Towns, and Chris Lewis have played at All-Ivy levels for the past three games.

This was the core group everyone thought would make the most impact when they stepped on campus. It took a few games, but now they are making their presence felt. The trio has combined for 51 percent of the Crimson’s points over the last three games. Seth Towns is averaging 16 points per game, while Bryce Aiken is averaging 14 per game. Chris Lewis had a breakout performance versus Boston College in Harvard’s last game, scoring 22 points on 9-for-12 shooting. The group of freshmen has shot 53 percent from the floor over the past three games and a scorching 44% from beyond the arc. For Aiken and Towns, this kind of production wasn’t totally out of the blue, but for Lewis this was a coming-out party; everything seemed to click for him. One moment stood out: Lewis set a pick for Chambers on the perimeter. Lewis’ defender hedged, so Lewis slipped away and cut to the hoop. Chambers fed him with a bounce pass, and Lewis put it in off the glass with his left hand while absorbing a bump. ‘And one’ (which he made). Tommy Amaker, who seems to be stoic even after the best plays, was clearly excited by Chambers’ and Lewis’ nifty play, pumping his fist a few times. If Towns and Aiken can play at this high level consistently and if Lewis can be not only a defensive force but also offensive force down low…. that’s a nightmarish scenario for the rest of the Ivy League– this year and for the next four years.

  • Siyani Chambers is back, and he’s back in a big way.

Siyani Chambers has embraced his role and played it to absolute perfection. For those who were wondering how Chambers, coming off ACL surgery, would handle a preseason point guard logjam and enormous expectations, here’s your answer: very well. Over the three-game win streak, Chambers has posted a total of 32 assists to go with only five turnovers (if that ratio were replicated over the whole season, he would lead the NCAA in that category), reaching double digits in assists in every game. Overall his 7.9 assists per game average is good enough for fourth in the NCAA (and, among the top 10 in assists per game, his assist-to-turnover rate is the best). Only Creighton’s Maurice Watson, UCLA’s Lonzo Ball, and UTEP’s Dominic Artis lead Chambers in this category. Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox trails Chambers by one assist per game at tenth-best nationally. Chambers is also a big reason Harvard is second nationally in “percentage of field goals assisted on,” with a 72 percent assist rate. On a team full of scorers, Chambers has sat back and orchestrated the show. He has also stroked it from behind the arc, making 42 percent of triples. And as always, Chambers’ leadership has been on full display. With a young group, Chambers clearly demands the best out of everyone, but he is also a steady presence on the court.

  • Tommy Amaker is playing the best guys, and he’s playing them together.

Earlier in the year I said, Siyani Chambers and Bryce Aiken needed to be on the court together, regardless of the fact that they are both traditional point guards. Slowly, Tommy Amaker has grown to realize the wisdom of this strategy, and recently, the two have been starting together. (The BC game was an exception, with Aiken coming off the bench, but both played together for the majority of the game.) During the first few games, Chambers and Aiken holding down the guard spots meant fewer minutes for Corey Johnson. However, Johnson, who is 20-for-37 on threes this year, started to get the nod alongside these two. The Crimson has reaped the fruits of this adjustment. Johnson has started the last three games, and he has made the most of it by shooting 8-for-17 from behind the arc, including a 21-point outburst versus Northeastern when he shot 7-for-10 from downtown. With these three guards cementing their roles in the top group, Seth Towns was clearly the fourth man, as he has been for much of the year. Towns leads the Crimson in scoring with 13.9 points per game, and Harvard’s best offense is often letting Towns go to work on defenders one-on-one, especially on the baseline. Towns has struggled with turnovers, but this is often due to Towns’ uncanny ability to see plays developing before others do. For example, Towns may go up for a tough jumper, then pass to a teammate underneath for a would-be open layup … but the teammate is already boxing out and misses the pass. Towns needs to protect the ball and learn what does and doesn’t work, but he does have impressive vision as a passer. It’s likely that, as Towns adapts to his teammates, his teammates will also adapt to him, and guys will learn to stay ready when he is creating. For now, he is simply Harvard’s best scorer. In terms of the fifth man, the best two options are Zena Edosomwan and Chris Lewis.

Here’s why: with Siyani Chambers, Bryce Aiken, Corey Johnson, and Seth Towns on the court together, Harvard’s perimeter defense isn’t superb. Not only does Harvard not have the luxury of a lockdown defender like Agunwa Okolie (last year’s Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year) to shut down the opponent’s top offensive player, but the Crimson also has liabilities on the perimeter. (Justin Bassey has proven to be a strong perimeter defender, but his lack of production on offense makes Corey Johnson and Seth Towns more valuable.) Harvard’s opponents have been able to get freed up for open threes, especially in the BC game, with this group on the court. However, with Zena Edosomwan or Chris Lewis on the court, the Crimson has a shot-blocking presence to protect the paint. With one of these twin towers down low, the perimeter defenders can shut down the three-point game while not worrying as much about defending under the hoop. Also, if Amaker goes “small” (more in terms of play style than height, with 6’5” Corey Johnson at the three and 6’7” Seth Towns at the four), whomever holds down the fifth spot needs to be able to dominate the boards.

These three factors have fueled Harvard’s three-game win streak. Looking ahead, however, there are still questions facing this team:

  • What’s up with Zena?

Zena Edosomwan went from a popular preseason Ivy Player of the Year pick to a benchwarmer in a matter of weeks. It’s puzzling. I do know this: Zena needs to be in the lineup for two main reasons. First, even if Edosomwan never returns to last year’s dazzling offensive form, he’s still an effective rim protector and rebounder. And second, he can return to that form. Amaker needs to let Zena play through his “first mistake.”

When Edosomwan knows he’s not being relied upon for big minutes, he presses to make an impact during his few minutes. This was true during his freshman and sophomore seasons, as well, and he struggled as a result. Last season, when he played big minutes consistently, was fed the ball, and knew he was going to be the number-one offensive option regardless of a few mistakes, he thrived. It’s unlikely Zena will be the clear number-one offensive option with the arrival of so much more talent this season, but if he is trusted a little more, he will improve. Versus Northeastern, he played through the initial mistake and stayed on the court for extended minutes, then he settled in. He was clearly tired after long stretches on the court, but he ended up with 13 points and 13 rebounds. Even if he is just making the open layup when his teammates find him, rebounding, and blocking shots, he is the best on the team at doing these things. Zena’s defense is the reason he needs to play right now, but once he get minutes for that, his offense will come around. Edosomwan also has a strange problem he needs to fix: he often goes up for a dunk, and the ball seems to slip out of his hand after a little contact. He still has some of the crafty moves that he showed off last year en route to averaging 13 points per game. But if Edosomwan, standing at 6’9” and weighing 245 pounds, can play through contact and hold on to the ball, he will be a different player.

  • Can Harvard close out games?

As mentioned earlier, Harvard has been resilient and has mounted a few good comebacks this year versus George Washington, UMass, and even a small one against Holy Cross. But the Crimson haven’t yet mastered the art of coming all-the-way back. Against Boston College, Harvard let BC back into the game by conceding several open threes late and by trying to run out the clock much too early. With six minutes to go, the Crimson were settling for end-of-shot-clock isolations over their normal offense in order to ice the game. Luckily, BC, a team that lost to woeful Nicholls State, couldn’t capitalize. Other teams would have. Harvard’s ability to play 40 minutes and close-out games isn’t a huge concern yet, but it’s something to keep an eye on.

  • Is this team still getting better?

Yes. The guys in the new top group (Chambers, Aiken, Johnson, Towns, Edosomwan, and Lewis) are just learning to play together. This squad is trending upward. This means the turnovers should go down, which would take the Crimson to the next level, considering they are 327th nationally in “percentage of possessions ending in turnovers” (22.6 percent), but are still maintaining an above average D-1 offense at 163rd nationally.

So the Crimson are 4-4 heading into a December 23 tilt at Houston, a team just outside KenPom’s top 50. After three wins over average competition, the Crimson will be put to the test in its toughest game of the season. Last year, Harvard peaked in December before faltering during the all-important Ivy League season. This year, if the Crimson keep up their current level of play, they should easily slide into the Ivy League’s top four and claim a spot in the inaugural Ivy League Tournament. If the Crimson can continue to improve and cut down on turnovers, they should compete for the Ivy League’s regular season title. With a young Harvard team that has struggled to close out some games (even in some that ended in wins), consistency will be key. In a single game, however, I wouldn’t bet on anyone in the Ivy League to take down the Crimson right now.

Tommy Amaker and Siyani Chambers huddle up. (GoCrimson.com)
Tommy Amaker and Siyani Chambers huddle up. (GoCrimson.com)

1 thought on “Harvard’s 4-4 start: Lessons and looking ahead”

  1. Quite a comprehensive analysis! If Tommy Amaker is playing these 12-man rotations in the non-conference games because he realizes it’s less important to win these games than it is to do whatever it takes to prepare his team for the Ivy season (try out different combinations, put certain players in certain situations, teach players that no one can take their playing time for granted and hard workers in practice will be rewarded, build team chemistry), then he is truly a coaching genius. And he just beat Houston using a 12-man rotation. Tommy A is coaching on a different, higher level than everyone else. Even Coach K.


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