Three seasons ago, with Harvard basketball at an embarrassingly low point, Floyd Wilson was asked to take over as coach, and to make the sport more respectable here. He has succeeded, and with four games remaining on the Crimson's schedule, the varsity (10-7) has now won more games than in any one season since 1946-7 (16-9) and needs only one victory to finish better than .500 for the first time since the same season.
Wilson's chief experience before assuming his tough task was as freshman coach here, and in his last season coaching Yardling ball, his squad was undefeated. The members of that freshman team are now seniors, and since that great season as freshman, they, together with Wilson, had suffered through two very painful years.
As sophomores and juniors, they succeeded in improving the Crimson's Ivy record, moving the team out of undisputed last place to a three-way tie for sixth and a two-way tie for seventh. But during those two years, the Crimson won only six and eight games respectively, and spectator interest was still very low.
The last two weeks, however, have changed all this. The Crimson has won its last five games in a row--the longest win streak in ten years--but more important, it is playing excellent basketball. Under Wilson's patient supervision, the team is moving the ball better than at any time in this observer's memory; it is shooting very well; and it is exhibiting a hustle expected not of a fifth place Crimson team, but of a first place contender (which Harvard is not).
The tremendous spirit of the team, in fact, has infected usually sluggish I.A.B. crowds. There once was a time when people went to see Harvard play for one of two reasons: to demonstrate their ability to heckle from the stands, or to see some outstanding opponents in action. There were very few real Crimson rooters.
Saturday night's crowd, however, was a revelation to Wilson and his team. When the Crimson came on the court to start the second half, one point behind Penn, the large audience roared and stomped showing its support. Wilson emphasized after the game that this was the first time in his memory that a crowd had encouraged a losing Crimson squad and he felt this was a vital factor in the team's comeback.
What the basketball fans have noticed, and the reason they cheer now instead of wisecrack, is that the varsity five is playing as a varsity five, not as five basketball players on a court. Wilson has employed a pressing zone defense which makes his team run up and down the court, never giving the opponents time to set up any sort of consistent attack. This zone threw Princeton completely into confusion two weeks ago, and the Tigers, usually very cool in a crisis, were totally ineffective.
The one player who has caught the crowd's eye, and its affection, is little George Harrington, who has been high scorer in the five games--the only five games he has started. But unlike Crimson high scorers of the past, notably Bill Dennis and Harry Sacks, Harrington is a team player. He is a good ball handler and has set up many baskets.
Yet, even with Harrington's performance, the victories are team ones, with veterans Bob Hastings, Bob Barnett, Ike Canty, and Dick Hurley playing their best ever, and junior Dick Woolston consistently hitting in double figures. In addition, 6-8 sophomore Griff McClellan has come off the bench to do a yeoman's job on the backboards. When Canty fouled out Saturday, with the teams no more than two points apart, McClellan filled in unexpectedly well.
To this observer, the Penn victory was the most significant one thus far. The Crimson did something that it consistently failed to do in the past, come back after it had blown a giant lead. Crimson teams in the past often built up leads, but once they lost the advantage, they could never recover.
After the victories over Boston College, Princeton, Williams, Cornell, and Penn, the Crimson faces Princeton and Yale away this week; and Dartmouth and Yale at home next week. The way the team is playing, one or two victories would not be unexpected. But the real surprise is not that a victory is possible, but that it is possible to talk about defeating Yale or Dartmouth, the league-leaders.