The race for the Ivy League title will likely not be decided until the March’s first weekend, when Yale travels north on I-90 to face Harvard, so while there are still a handful of games to be played, it is interesting to speculate which Ivy players are in the lead for the league’s player the year award. The race is more intriguing this season because Harvard, the presumptive favorite for the conference’s auto bid, might not have a player of the year candidate. Sure, names like Wesley Saunders, Kyle Casey, and Siyani Chambers are players the average college basketball fan can identify with, but since neither of the three is having a true POY-type season, Yale’s Justin Sears is worthy of consideration.
If Sears, a 6-foot-8 forward, were to win the award, he would be just the third sophomore to be named the league’s player of the year since the honor’s inception in 1974-75. Sears uses roughly three-quarters of Yale’s available minutes, and is the team’s most efficient player, converting 50 percent of his twos. He is arguably the most athletic Bulldog, a forward who often gets to, and finishes, at the rim. He has also spent a significant amount of time working on his mid-range game — he is taking the same percentage of two-point jumpers as he did as a frosh, but he is now making 35 percent of those attempts (up from 26 percent).
Since those stats reflect what Sears has accomplished overall this season, it is also worth examining how he’s played in the Ivies: while his conversion rate within the arc remains the same, what is most extraordinary about Sears’ play is his ability to get to the stripe at a high clip. His free throw rate in conference play is 90.5 percent, and Sears has put tremendous pressure on opposing teams, compelling squads to foul him to abate his offensive progress. In the Bulldogs’ only match-up against Harvard, a win for Yale, Sears played arguably his top game in 2014 — 21 points and 11 rebounds — and showcased his candidacy for the Ivy’s POY.
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.
All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. Check back throughout the day, as we’ll be posting three or four preview items every day.
To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To see the rest of the Conference Previews we’ve published, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.
Expectations have never been higher for an Ivy League team heading into a season. On the heels of upsetting New Mexico in the 2013 NCAA Tournament, having Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry rejoin the program, and welcoming the highly-touted recruit Zena Edosomwan to the team, Harvard is the clear-cut favorite to win the Ivy League. Not to mention, the Crimson also return first team all-Ivy players Wesley Saunders and Siyani Chambers, and sharpshooter Laurent Rivard. It is a supremely talented roster that Tommy Amaker, now in his seventh year, has constructed.
It’s hard to see another team seriously challenging the Crimson, but if there is a challenge it will come in the form of the southernmost school in the league, Pennsylvania. After experiencing a great deal of success in 2011-12, registering 20 wins and an 11-3 league record, the Quakers regressed last year, going just 9-22. Miles Jackson-Cartwright and Tony Hicks make for a dynamite backcourt, along with freshman guard Matt Howard – who received offers from BCS schools – who will provide meaningful minutes, as well.
Harvard’s biggest rival, Yale, also figures to be a factor. James Jones, the longest tenured coach in the Ivy League, had the Bulldogs playing their best basketball of the year in the final ten games going 7-3 down the stretch. Plus, they return many of their primary pieces save for guard Austin Morgan.
One of the more intriguing teams in the league who appear to be on the upswing with Mike Martin now at the helm is Brown. Last year’s Defensive Player of the Year, Cedric Kuakumensah, is back for his sophomore season, but losing Tucker Halpern is a big blow for the Bears.
Of course, it would be foolish to think Princeton won’t be in the mix. Despite losing last year’s Player of the Year Ian Hummer, Denton Koon and T.J. Bray return for Mitch Henderson.
PRESEASON IVY LEAGUE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Wesley Saunders, Harvard
Saunders (16.2 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 3.5 apg, 1.8 spg) made a tremendous jump from his freshman to sophomore season – he had to with Casey and Curry’s absence – and will continue to be a focal point on offense for the Crimson.
FOUR MORE NAMES TO KNOW
G Siyani Chambers, Harvard: The best point guard in the league on the best team in the league.
G Tony Hicks, Pennsylvania: May lead the league in scoring as a sophomore after averaging 15.3 ppg in league games last season.
F Shonn Miller, Cornell: Nobody fills up a box score quite like Miller who averaged nearly two steals and blocks last year.
F Cedric Kuakumensah, Brown: A menace on the defensive end who will only improve offensively.