On February 8 the Yale Bulldogs handed Harvard its first Ivy League loss, beating the Crimson 74-67 with Justin Sears’ 21 points and 11 rebounds leading the way. Yet even though Sears was a handful on that night, the biggest problem for Harvard was finding the quality looks that they generally haven’t struggled to get in league play. Yale switched ball screens, keeping point guard Siyani Chambers from turning the corner consistently, and this contributed to Harvard shooting just 39% from the field.
In order to win the rematch, and clinch a third consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament, Tommy Amaker’s team needed to adjust to the way in which Yale would defend ball screens. The Crimson made those adjustments Friday night, shooting 56.8% from the field on their way to the 70-58 victory.
Chambers, who finished the first meeting with ten points (3-for-9 FG), three assists and three turnovers, was far more effective in the rematch. The sophomore made five of his nine field goal attempts, scoring 17 points to go along with six assists and one turnover. And he was a key figure in Harvard’s 16-2 run to start the game, factoring into nine of those points (two points and three assists). Joining Chambers in double figures were forward Steve Moundou-Missi (16 points, six rebounds) and guard Brandyn Curry (14 points).
Harvard still didn’t have an answer for Sears, who finished with 28 points and 13 rebounds, but the difference this time around was that the Crimson did a much better job of keeping his teammates in check. Bulldogs other than Sears combined to shoot 7-for-34 from the field, with Armani Cotton and Javier Duren (0-for-11 FG) scoring a total of eight points. In the first meeting those two combined to score 28 points, with Cotton posting a double-double (13 points, ten rebounds).
Without Curry and Kyle Casey last season much was asked of Chambers and Wesley Saunders as freshmen and they delivered, leading Harvard to a win over New Mexico before falling to 6-seed Arizona. With all four players, in addition to Moundou-Missi and Laurent Rivard, part of the rotation there’s a feeling that this group may be better equipped to enjoy success in the NCAA tournament. And it wouldn’t come as a surprise if that turned out to be the case.
Over the course of the holiday week, we at College Basketball Talk will be detailing what we believe will be the New Year’s Resolutions of some of the nation’s most talented, most disappointing, and thoroughly enigmatic teams. What can we say, we’re in a giving mood.
WHAT DOES HARVARD PROMISE TO DO MORE OF?: Beat a Top 25 team.
Why it will happen: In most years, Harvard’s non-conference schedule would be more than suitable for an Ivy League team. They play two “reach games” against Colorado and Connecticut, and several games against solid mid-majors, such as Denver, Green Bay, Boston University, and Vermont. However, this season isn’t like most years. Harvard has a chance to make some serious noise in March, but they have left themselves with a dearth of opportunities for a marquee win. They squandered an opportunity at Colorado, but have a chance to redeem themselves at Connecticut in January. The Huskies have holes in their front-court, which happens to be an area of strength for Harvard. The Crimson need this win to legitimize themselves.
Why it won’t happen: At full-strength, Harvard has the ability to go toe-to-toe with nearly any team in America, but the issue is they’ve been playing without two of their top players for much of the season: forward Kenyatta Smith and guard Brandyn Curry. Curry has been out with a strained Achilles, and if he isn’t back in time for this game, Harvard will have a difficult time coping with UConn’s guards. Siyani Chambers may be able to hold Shabazz Napier in check, but dealing with Ryan Boatright and Omar Calhoun will be a tall task.
WHAT DOES HARVARD SWEAR THEY WILL DO LESS OF?: Tommy Amaker will hopefully go to his bench more.
Why it will happen: Brandyn Curry will return to the Harvard rotation at some point this season, although there is no timetable. Kenyatta Smith’s injury is more serious than Curry’s, and his return is still in doubt, but he figures to be back for Ivy League play. With these two back, Harvard becomes a much deeper team. Currently, Tommy Amaker is playing with a short bench as Jonah Travis and Evan Cummins are the only two seeing significant minutes. Per Ken Pomeroy, Harvard’s bench is playing just 22.7% of the minutes (335th nationally).
Why it won’t happen: The return of Curry and Smith will allow Amaker to play with a nine or ten man rotation, however, the fact that there is no timetable for the return raises red flags. Will either be healthy enough to play against UConn on January 8th? Will they be back for the “14 game tournament,” otherwise known as Ivy League regular season play. There aren’t too many flaws with this Harvard squad — they are one of the most consistent teams in the country — and even though they are the best team in the Ivy League this year, don’t be surprised if they slip up once or twice if Curry and/or Smith aren’t healthy.
All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here.
After winning the Ivy League title outright in the 2011-12 season and earning their first bid to the NCAA Tournament since 1946, Harvard was poised to repeat as Ivy champs the following season, and perhaps even win their first game in the tournament. Those hopes appeared to be dashed in September of 2012 when it was announced Harvard would be without Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry due to an academic scandal.
Think again. Thanks in large part to the emergence of Wesley Saunders and Siyani Chambers, an immediate impact player at point guard, Harvard won the Ivy League and shocked No. 3 seed New Mexico in the NCAA Tournament to the tune of a 68-62 victory. Saunders and Chambers effectively slid in and took over the roles previously held by Casey and Curry. What ensued was a solid 20-10 overall record, an Ivy League championship, and the school’s first NCAA Tournament victory. Not to mention, it was Harvard head coach Tommy Amaker’s first win in the tournament since his days at Seton Hall.
Compound Harvard’s success last year with the fact that only one player, Christian Webster, was claimed by graduation and the return of Casey and Curry, along with incoming freshman Zena Edosomwan, and the Crimson are a legit Top 25 team.
On paper, Harvard certainly is Top 25 quality. Entering the season, the biggest question mark isn’t who will be the “go to” scorer, the defensive stopper, the spot-up shooter, or low post presence — the Crimson have seemingly all their bases covered from a personnel standpoint. The question is: How will Casey and Curry, who have been absent for a year, fit back in with the team?
Tommy Amaker isn’t the least bit concerned. He told NBCSports.com by phone: “I don’t foresee any issues with Kyle and Brandyn meshing in. They’re kids who want to win, and they’ve made that incredibly clear throughout their time here at Harvard. I think they recognize how important it is to fit in. It’s just not these two guys, it’s how we all approach it. It’s a different year — every year’s different even if you have the same players. These guys have recognized that good things occurred in their absence, and they’re here to help the team push the ball up the hill. ”
At the time, it was unclear what the immediate future would look like for Casey and Curry. To go from being the faces of the program to outsiders, so to speak, was difficult. Amaker never felt that the two would seek to transfer and take their last year of eligibility elsewhere. “We never had any concerns whatsoever with them returning. Those kids and their families came here to go to Harvard. To have an opportunity to graduate from here, they weren’t walking away from that.”
For the 2011-12 season, Casey and Curry were fixtures in the starting lineup, to go along with Keith Wright, Laurent Rivard, and Oliver McNally. The duo combined to average 19.3 ppg, 7.5 rpg, and 5.7 apg with Casey being the team’s leading scorer.
Initially, it was difficult to find the silver lining in having two of his top players and co-captains away from the program for a season, but Amaker explained that it forced other players to mature and elevate their games at a faster pace. The adage “next one in” is one that is often used in football when a player is hurt in the midst of a game and the second string guy has to come in off the bench. Wesley Saunders was that “next one in” for Harvard.
“We went on a tour of Italy last summer as a team and those guys [Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry] were there, but our best player for the whole foreign tour was Wesley Saunders. We anticipated that this young man was in store for something pretty darn special, and with or without various individuals, we saw that.”
With the emergence of Saunders, who went from seeing just 13.9 mpg and averaging 3.3 points as a freshman to 37.3 mpg and 16.2 points — the tops in the conference — and Siyani Chambers taking over at point guard, Harvard still had the pieces to be successful. However, losing both co-captains with the season set to begin in just months certainly made for an ominous feeling within the program.
Amaker recognized this and communicated it to his team prior to the season’s beginning: “We may not have what we had, but we have enough.”
His words held true. Harvard did, indeed, have enough as they won the Ivy League championship and advanced to the Round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament.
With Casey and Curry back in the fold, there is no telling how far Harvard can advance this season. There has been a lot of buzz surrounding the program during the offseason, and talks of advancing even further in the NCAA Tournament have already begun. Amaker was quick to point out how he and his team deal with high expectations: “We’re very much a believer that expectations is an external word. We focus on our standards, which is an internal word. The three components that are important to us are standards, identity, and goals. If we give our best effort in these three categories, we are very much at peace with who we are.”
If success in these categories translates to another run in the NCAA Tournament come March — an even deeper one this time — Tommy Amaker and Harvard basketball will certainly be at peace.