Bryce Aiken, Crimson tame Cougars

The Crimson traveled to the Lone Star State to play its toughest opponent of the season in the Houston Cougars at Hofheinz Pavilion. Riding a three-game winning streak, the Crimson were hot. Harvard’s previous three wins over the Rams of Fordham, the Huskies of Northeastern, and the Eagles of Boston College were impressive; but this Cougar team was a whole different animal. While Houston didn’t come in boasting any signature wins, they were not to be taken lightly. According to KenPom, Houston possesses the nation’s 16th-ranked offense – and it’s not hard to see why. Houston is one of the 25 slowest teams in the country, while still averaging 83 points per game. With the inexperienced Crimson still trying to get its defense together, the matchup posed a unique challenge.

Harvard has had mixed results coming out of exam breaks recently. Last year, the Crimson went to the Diamond Head Classic final by defeating BYU and Auburn, then played close with eventual Final Four team Oklahoma. The year before, in 2014, the Crimson played Virginia out of the exam break, and it was a game to forget. (If only I could…)

This year, the Crimson proved early on versus Houston that the outcome wouldn’t resemble 2014’s abysmal result. It wasn’t pretty, but Harvard held as much as a six-point lead in the first frame. A long scoring drought, however, allowed the Cougars to carry a four-point lead into the locker room. With 12 Crimson players getting into the game in the first half, 11 taking shots, and Harvard allowing 14 offensive rebounds, the halftime situation wasn’t too bad. Both teams shot below 35 percent.

In the second frame, the Cougars built the lead to nine with only eight minutes to go. The Crimson were playing suffocating defense on Houston’s shooters, but Harvard’s offense looked even more inept than Houston’s.

Then Bryce Aiken happened.

Aiken scored 13 of Harvard’s final 15 points, while Houston only scored seven in that span. The Cougar lead was cut to one. Aiken then threw a pass to Zena Edosomwan as he cut to the rim. The big man laid it in to give Harvard the lead with just over a minute to play. On the other end, with Houston down by one, Houston’s Rob Gray had a chance for a game-winner. After a pick, however, Justin Bassey was switched onto the scoring guard. Bassey’s air-tight defense caused Gray’s off-balance, fadeaway jumper to rim out as time expired. Of course, when it mattered most, Harvard’s perimeter defense shut the door on Houston and secured the win for the Crimson, as Bassey continued to make his claim as Harvard’s premier perimeter defender.

Bryce Aiken carried Harvard, finishing with 21 points. That says a lot about his talent. But that talent combined with his fearlessness and scorer’s mentality makes him look like one of the country’s best young players – and someone who could end up as one of the all-time Harvard greats. After getting blocked on his previous two layup attempts and missing a deep three before the outburst, Aiken still stepped up in a huge way. He looks to take over games, and he can. He’s aggressive and plays like he’s the best player on the court. And on many nights, he is. His performance versus Houston already has pundits calling him one of the best freshmen in the country – but he’s not just a scorer. Aiken also posted three assists, three rebounds, and three steals. And his unbelievable free-throw shooting (37-for-39, 94.9 percent) is a sign that his recent shooting success is here to stay and his earlier struggles are an anomaly, not vice versa.

Finally, after two weeks to think, it looks like Harvard coach Tommy Amaker went into this game still without a set rotation. But down the stretch, six guys emerged as the top group in the coach’s mind: Siyani Chambers, Bryce Aiken, Seth Towns, Justin Bassey, and Zena Edosomwan. I would have to imagine Chris Lewis would have been in too had he not had not been plagued by foul trouble all night. Considering Lewis’ consistent free throw shooting recently (8-for-8 in the last four games), he might get the nod over Edosomwan (5-for-9 in the last four games) in late game situations going forward. Edosomwan, however, played a huge defensive role on Friday, blocking five shots. While he only secured three defensive boards, he pulled down three crucial offensive rebounds, and he was able to drop in eight points. Even as just a defensive stopper, I love giving Edosomwan big minutes like he got on Friday. His offense might come around, and the rebounding definitely will. Corbin Miller also played a few minutes, and while Miller and Corey Johnson aren’t necessarily needed on the court together, Miller has been very impressive so far this season in limited action.

The Crimson picked up a signature win on Friday, and the team is coming alive right before the Ivy League season begins. If the Crimson can sustain their play for the next few weeks, Harvard will be Ivy title favorites. Next, Harvard takes on Howard at home on December 30. After going to Burlington, Vermont on January 2 for a tilt vs. the America East favorites, Ivy play starts up for Harvard with a trip to Hanover to face Dartmouth on January 7.