Last Call for Cusworth

Senior's standout season, career come to close in weekend action

As the Harvard men’s basketball team gears up to play its first games after reading and exam period, senior center Brian Cusworth is getting ready to play his last games as a collegian.

The fifth-year senior from St. Louis finished his eighth semester and his Harvard degree in biology this January, rendering him ineligible, as a midyear graduate, to play for the Crimson during the second term. Tonight’s game against Yale and tomorrow night’s versus Brown at Lavietes Pavilion are thus the final salvos of Cusworth’s career, which has spanned five seasons and more than eighty games, and which Cusworth hopes will turn into an opportunity to play basketball professionally.

That Cusworth’s season is about to end abruptly, before the meat of the Ivy slate—the final 10 games of league play which decide who earns the automatic berth to the NCAA tournament—is especially painful for himself and Harvard given that the center finally seems to have come into his own as a force on the hardwood. He ranks first in the Ivy League in rebounds per game (9.2) and blocks (36) and is second in points per game (16.7). The scoring and rebounding averages are both career highs, and Cusworth is also shooting a personal-best .483 from the floor, up from .466 last year. With five more points, he will reach 1,000 for his career, a number attained by just 22 Harvard players, and his 140 total blocks are already a school record.

“I’m pretty happy with the fact that I feel like I’ve come a long way, individually, physically,” Cusworth said. “I feel like I’ve become a completely different player than I was freshman year.”

In making the transformation to an Ivy Player-of-the-Year-caliber force, Cusworth has largely overcome the issues that caused him to falter in the past several seasons. The 7’0 frame of Harvard’s big man was forced to bear a weighty burden of expectation for his Ivy impact immediately upon arrival, a burden that he was prevented from throwing off by an inability to stay healthy or display the inside dominance his physical size and skill-set demanded. Continued difficulty adding weight has likely led to some of Cusworth’s injury history—he completely missed his sophomore campaign with a stress fracture in his foot and sat out parts of the last two seasons due to various setbacks, including a broken hand. And his weight trouble was also a factor in his inability to fully capitalize upon height and interior presence to dominate smaller Ivy League big men in the paint.

Cusworth worked all of last summer on bulking up, however, and his physical strengthening in combination with an increased aggressiveness down low has led to a breakout campaign. Despite suffering a jammed finger that still requires a splint, Cusworth has played all 16 games for the Crimson this year. On top of his other impressive statistics, he has also made an Ivy-best 129 trips to the free-throw line (no one else in the league has more than 85), 28 more than last season in four fewer games.

“One of the biggest goals [coming into this season] was to get to the line a lot more, basically by being more aggressive, attacking the rim stronger, and not avoiding the contact like I would do in the past,” Cusworth said. “Out of the statistics, that’s probably the one that I’m the most proud of, is the fact that I’ve been getting to the line, and really going up strong.”

Cusworth’s improvement of physique and health, along with the rise in his overall level of play, reflect the benefits of his coming back for a fifth season after sitting out the 2003-04 campaign, Harvard coach Frank Sullivan said.

“He’s a little different than he was last year, you can see his maturity, and I think that’s the thing we’re going to miss the most,” Sullivan added. “Well obviously we’re going to miss shot blocking and we’re going to miss some scoring, some rebounding—but really the maturity of a senior is critical with such a young group of guys.”

While Saturday marks the last game for Cusworth wearing the crimson and white, he does not plan for it to be the final game of his career, as the seven-footer desires to play professionally, whether in the U.S. or a foreign league. His chances of doing so received a boost on Tuesday when he was selected to play in the Portsmouth (Va.) Invitational, a tournament in early April which features the top 64 collegiate seniors and a bevy of NBA scouts on hand to watch them compete. Scouts have populated several of Harvard’s games this season to watch Cusworth, and according to Andy Katz of ESPN.com, at least one (Ray Jones of the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies) will be at Lavietes for the weekend’s games.

Cusworth—who was forced to move into a Harvard Square hotel after housing for midyear graduates expired on Wednesday—will return home to St. Louis after the weekend and work out with his personal trainers, attempting to stay in the game shape that the rest of his collegiate competition at the Portsmouth will be in after playing the remainder of the season.

And after that? Cusworth is keeping himself open to any basketball opportunity. He has been approached by a number of agents, but has yet to sign with any of them or make any binding decisions about how and where he will play next. For now, the graduate is focused solely on his last chance to make an impression upon college basketball, scouts, his coach and teammates, and the home crowd (which will be populated by several family members, including a Grandfather who has yet to see Cusworth play at Harvard). That last chance, of course, is the games against Yale and Brown.

“I don’t have Monday practice, I don’t have another ten games to worry about right now, I have three months until my next competition, so I’m not holding anything back,” Cusworth said.

Senior Night is typically the night to hold nothing back, and at Lavietes it has produced some banner performances, most notably the Harvard single-game record 45 points captain Brady Merchant scored in 2003—against Brown, of all teams. And Saturday, of course, will be no ordinary Senior Night. Harvard, as Sullivan pointed out, will be the only school in the country this year to hold such a celebration before the end of the season.

After that game is over, however, no matter how memorable the performance, the Crimson will be facing the remainder of the campaign without its All-League big man, and Cusworth will be facing the end of his tenure in the Harvard pivot. That tenure, despite some disappointments—chief among them the inability to compete for an Ivy title last season—will certainly be remembered, thanks in large part to this final half-season.

“I really feel like it hasn’t sunk in yet,” Cusworth said. “I’m sure it will hit me real hard when I’m cleaning out my locker on Saturday night.”

—Staff writer Caleb W. Peiffer can be reached at cpeiffer@fas.harvard.edu.

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