Despite losing five seniors since the beginning of the 2002-2003 campaign, the Harvard men’s basketball team is sure to return a veteran group to Lavietes Pavilion game in and game out this season.
The only problem for Crimson coach Frank Sullivan is that the unit with that experience will be the vast throng that treks across the river every game in support of junior captain Jason Norman, not the teammates with whom he’ll share the court.
That entourage in the stands will likely be applauding its favorite star as often as it turns to its media guides to figure out which former pine jockey or freshman has just entered the game to provide a spark to this team marked by young, unproven upstarts and ever so different from the one that took the court just a season ago.
“It’s the youngest team we’ve had around here in a long time—certainly the youngest team that I’ve had in 12 seasons,” Sullivan said.
Out With The Old…
Gone are Brady Merchant, Elliott Prasse-Freeman, Sam Winter and Brian Sigafoos of the class of ’03. Shooting guard Patrick Harvey left months before for academic reasons.
Just a brief glance at last season’s statistics gives a sense of the size of the several pairs of shoes that this year’s squad will need to fill.
“It’s a new group of people,” Sullivan said. “I think we were defined by some of the guys on last year’s team, be it Elliott or Brady or whatever it was. It’s going to be an interesting situation to see how it all emerges.”
Harvard’s top scorers last season? The senior fivesome.
The Crimson players who spent the most time on the court? The same group, even though Harvey missed the final eight games of the season completely.
The guys who pulled the most rebounds down off the glass? Winter, Sigafoos, Merchant and Prasse-Freeman constituted the top four.
Team leaders in assists and steals? Prasse-Freeman, Merchant, Harvey and Winter again topped the squad.
The list goes on and on, right down to free-throws attempted.
The quintet led the way every single game until Harvey bowed out. From that unit came the top scorer and rebounder in all but two games last season. Sophomore Brian Cusworth cleaned the glass better than anyone else on a pair of occasions.
But the contributions of the seniors can’t even be remotely appreciated by just looking at statistics.
To get a sense of what is gone, one need look only so far as the energy and perseverance that carried Harvard through the final eight games of last season without Harvey, its leading scorer and a player who defined the team’s seniors and bound them together.
One need look only at Merchant—the career sixth man who finally got his chance in the sun during his final season—single-handedly carrying the Crimson through the final game of the season, burying shot after unexpected shot in a desperate effort to carry his squad past Brown. Or Prasse-Freeman, who led the nation for a time in assists per game en route to setting the Ivy career record.
The experience, unity and ownership that the now-departed group of five shared and the passion on the court—embodied by Merchant’s farewell performance—that it inspired can’t be found in any stat book.
…And In With The New
With such large holes to fill and few proven players available to plug them—only Cusworth and Norman averaged more than 10 minutes per game last season—the preseason and the lineup decisions normally associated with it figure to extend well into the heart of the non-conference season, if not beyond.
“We have as few starters back as anyone on our schedule,” Sullivan says. “Clearly, it’s going to be a work in progress.”
Even following the Crimson’s scrimmage against St. Francis Xavier in which nine players saw at least 13 minutes of court time, all that is set in stone is that nothing is ready to be set in stone.
And with Cusworth having sustained a stress fracture beforehand, the work becomes that much more difficult.
One of the league’s most promising young big men, Cusworth—who has dramatically increased his physical strength and presence since coming to Cambridge—figured to play a prominent role at both ends of the floor, providing a shot-blocking presence in the paint while serving as the focal point of the offense in the low post.
“Losing Cusworth for a month is absolutely critical,” Sullivan says. “There’s no secret that he’s probably the best young center in the Ivy League. There’s no doubt about that.”
Now, the comfort of that bridge between last year’s team and this one—and the easing of the transition that would have come with it—is gone.
So, too, is the size advantage that Harvard claimed when its seven-footer towered in the lane. The Crimson has no one else taller than 6’8.
But, if anything, the injuries, the graduations and departures and, most especially, the doubts have only added fuel to the fire for this youthful bunch.
“All these websites say, ‘Well, there’s Columbia and Harvard, who are just rebuilding completely, but then the other six teams are all in contention and I just think people are overlooking us,” Cusworth says. “The reason people say that is because they don’t know enough about us just because the guys who are coming back haven’t had as much exposure as a lot of the other guys on those teams, so it’s really hard to judge how, say, the juniors will be as the leaders of the team or [how] the sophomore class—the majority of whom really didn’t get to play—[will perform].”
They’ll certainly get more than their fair chance to play this season.
“There’s some real interesting potential with some of the players we have,” Sullivan says. “But they need to develop experience. They need to develop confidence. And none of that is really there right now because they haven’t played.”
Injuries in the preseason haven’t helped in the experience department. In addition to Cusworth, most of the team—especially the front court—is battling its own tweaks and nursing minor injuries, preventing much game action and limiting practice primarily to drill time.
“We haven’t gone up and down a lot,” Sullivan says. “We haven’t scrimmaged enough.”
From the little time that the team has spent in game situations, however, the improvements down the line are crystal clear, particularly amongst the upperclassmen.
“Three guys in the junior class probably put as much time in in the off-season as they ever have: Kevin Rogus, Graham Beatty, Dave Giovacchini,” Sullivan says. “They worked hard and it showed right away. That probably is the most glowing thing.”
With the measurable improvements to many of the Crimson’s former role players, Harvard enters the season particularly strong at the point, along the wings and at center.
Lack of depth at power forward, however, has Sullivan worried, prompting him to attempt to convert 6’4 sophomore Zach Martin into a viable option at the four.
“The second goal [for this year] is somehow defining some level of rotation amongst the guys that we have,” Sullivan says. “A kind of a rotation that they can feel confident in, that we can grow from.”
A solid rotation may be the second goal, but the season’s primary objective is rebuilding the nucleus of a program that used to be constructed on the backs of Prasse-Freeman, Harvey and Merchant.
“The goal is to develop a real solid foundation for a group that’s going to be together for two consecutive years,” Sullivan says. “I think everybody involved is kind of excited that we’re really going to stay intact for the next two years, which is kind of interesting.”
Though they may not have reason to cheer or be excited now—nor, perhaps, will they at any point during what may well be a rebuilding season—Norman’s entourage need only have patience. The baskets and the excitement will return and the questions about who that guy that just made that shot is will fade into the thunder inside Lavietes once more.
—Staff writer Timothy J. McGinn can be reached at email@example.com.