Harvard knows bigger challenges are ahead after sweeping Dartmouth

HANOVER, N.H. – Animated is not a word normally used to describe Tommy Amaker, but there he was Saturday night at Leede Arena exhorting his team on, almost screaming, at least as much as Amaker is capable of such a thing.

The timing seemed strange. Just past the midway point of the second half, his Bryce Aiken-less Harvard team had just started to put some distance between itself and a pesky Dartmouth team that pushed the Crimson fairly hard the week before at Lavietes Pavilion and was only a four-point underdog (sports gambling recently became legal in the state of New Hampshire, for those who care). Harvard wasn’t playing its best game, but it weren’t playing poorly, either.

Whatever the cause for the urgency, Amaker’s team responded. Noah Kirkwood buried a couple of big three-pointers, and Chris Ledlum and Chris Lewis both joined the party as the Crimson lead ballooned to 13 with 2:30 left and stayed that way until a late Big Green flurry made things interesting (and helped the gamblers) and the final 70-66.

Amaker said the final minute did leave a bitter taste in his mouth, but his urgency stemmed from two directions. First, while Harvard has won eight straight and is now 13-4, it has made things unnecessarily difficult on itself of late (and not helped its computer rankings, still outside the Top 100 in KenPom), nearly blowing double-digit leads in each of its last five games against not-so-stellar competition (with the exception of a road game at San Francisco it eventually won in overtime). Harvard knows that with a road swing at Penn, Princeton and Yale upcoming and (most likely) the Ivy League Tournament less than two months away, that’s not going to cut it.

“We sensed an opportunity to stretch it out, and I was frustrated because we had a chance to get an eight-point or a 10-point lead, which, a double-digit lead in a game like this is psychologically huge,” Amaker said. “I thought that was a big difference in the game, to get out to that lead.”

Second and slightly more subtle is that Amaker sees the potential he has in front of him. Even without Seth Towns, it is not this group’s first Ivy League rodeo, to steal an overused cliche. And yet it has been somewhat shockingly, given Harvard’s recruiting prowess and back-to-back seasons with NCAA Tournament wins in 2013 and 2014, been five years since the Crimson has been in the Big Dance. And Harvard thinks, particularly with the Ivy League Tournament on its home floor in March, that streak needs to end.

Harvard’s depth – even without Aiken – presents Amaker and his staff with difficult decisions on whom to play and when. Saturday, Justin Bassey played just 18 minutes (seven in the second half), and was rarely seen down the stretch in favor of Rio Haskett. Freshman Chris Ledlum scored 12 points and drew five fouls in his 18 minutes, but also turned the ball over six times and Harvard was -9 with him on the floor (Bassey finished at +9). Meanwhile, Christian Juzang (37 minutes) and Chris Lewis (35) rarely left the floor.

People with more skill at interpreting analytics (this is the Ivy League after all) can speak more to Harvard’s rotations than me, but we can agree that the Crimson have plenty of weapons at their disposal. And of the eight players that saw more than three minutes Saturday, only two are underclassmen (Ledlum and Kirkwood).

Amaker said Aiken looked like he might play up until Friday, which leads us to believe he should be ready for next weekend’s trip to Penn and Princeton, although he was in a walking boot, and sadly Harvard’s recent luck with injuries means we’ll have to wait and see.

“Obviously any win in our league is a tremendous win, and one on the road is always very challenging and gratifying,” Amaker said. “I’m not happy with how we closed it for the second time in a row, but that shows you how tough they (Dartmouth) are, how much they believe in what they’re doing, and how hard they fight throughout. Our inability to make a free throw at the end becomes contagious and costly and we are fortunate.”

For Dartmouth, a stretch where they missed 16 straight three-pointers will eat at it, but the fact that the Big Green (7-10) were in any position to compete after such a drought will give them hope as they embark on the same Princeton-Penn journey that Harvard will.

“We just have to make sure we know the looks are good,” Dartmouth coach David McLaughlin said. “We have to control what we can control at that point. If we’re missing good looks, don’t lose energy on the defensive end. If we can continue to get good looks, we just have to make the shots.”

Dartmouth finished at 0.94 points per possession even with shooting 6-for-27 overall from behind the arc, and all their other offensive numbers were decent, if not great. But therein lies the rub for the Big Green going forward. They have shown they can be competitive against good teams, but can they translate that into wins and a run at their first trip to an Ivy League Tournament?

Tough to say at the moment. Sophomore point guard Taurus Samuels has played well and had 18 points Saturday, but played 38 minutes and does not have a reliable backup currently. James Foye is still a great shooter, but opponents are well aware of that as well by now and finding another shooter to complement him has been difficult. Chris Knight had nine rebounds and was able to stand up to Chris Lewis for most of the night, but he was held to just eight points on 4-for-11 shooting and did not attempt a single free throw.

Defensively, Dartmouth was fairly solid, forcing Harvard to shoot 12-for-29 from behind the arc to post 0.97 points per possession after allowing 1.02 points per possession last week in Cambridge. They did allow 13 offensive rebounds (33.3%), although they still stand third nationally in that category (20.9%). The Big Green face four straight on the road, and none of them will be easy.

“If you start thinking about your record, it’s going to shade the way you think about the next game and it will get in your head,” McLaughlin said. “We just have to get ready for Friday.”