“We’ve always had a focal point of our offensive philosophy,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker says. “That’s the inside presence. Our program was built around that. The main constant across my time here is that we want to play inside-out.”
Over the past two seasons, Keith Wright ’12 and Kyle Casey have accounted for 34 percent of the Crimson’s points and almost half of its rebounds. Now, Harvard finds itself without the two first-team All Ivy performers and their production. In order to maintain the offensive philosophy that has brought Amaker’s teams at least a share of the last two Ivy League titles, a trio of sophomores will be asked to step into the spotlight in the frontcourt.
“Those three guys up front have to become a core group,” Amaker says. “They’re the ones that are leading us up front.”
Then-freshmen Steve Moundou-Missi and Jonah Travis appeared in nearly every game last year, averaging 4.9 and 2.4 points per game, respectively, off the bench. Classmate Kenyatta Smith—the highest rated recruit of the bunch—only saw the floor for a combined 17 minutes last season. Entering the 2012-13 campaign, the fate of the Crimson will be determined in large part by the group’s ability to fill the shoes of Casey and Wright in the paint.
“Obviously [the sophomores] are going to have to give us a lot down low,” co-captain Christian Webster says. “Those are our guys. We’re going to count on them for a lot of points, a lot of rebounds, and post defense. Our offense goes through the big men—I don’t think that will change now.”
In late August, Harvard traveled to Italy for a four-game exhibition tour. Smith—who ESPN rated as the No. 17 center in the country as a high school senior—registered 10 rebounds against Rieti and 15 points against Bassano Basket, both in victories. At 6’8” and 250 pounds, Smith will be asked to fill Wright’s role as a back-to-the-basket enforcer in the paint.
“Our games are similar, but I wouldn’t say the same,” Smith says. “I’ve always been a catch-the-ball-low-in-the-post kind of guy, using my body to get to the rim and whatever moves I can with my back to the basket.”
With the new opportunity laid in front of him, Smith devoted the summer to improving in order to positively impact the team.
“Freshman year didn’t pan out the way that I wanted it to or expected it to,” Smith says. “So I just put that behind me and focused on getting in shape and doing what I had to do to prove myself on the floor and make an impact on the program. That’s always been my goal.”
Harder to replace may be the dynamic athletic presence that Casey provided. Sophomore Wesley Saunders should fill some of that role, but Moundou-Missi and Travis will be tasked with replicating Casey’s offensive versatility and aggressiveness on the boards.
“For me [this summer] was mainly [dedicated to] ball handling,” Moundou-Missi says. “Keith and Kyle were both great in the post, rebounding the ball well. We need to be vocal on defense and active on offense.”
At 6’7,” the athletic Moundou-Missi boasts a similar frame to Casey. And with a developing outside game, the sophomore may resemble Casey in more ways than one.
As a freshman, Moundou-Missi recorded 16 blocks while shooting 53.8 percent from the floor. In fact, last season Moundou-Missi and Casey’s per-minute production was roughly the same.
Despite playing just 6.5 minutes per game last year, Travis made his impact felt—particularly on the boards. At an undersized 6’6,” Travis managed to pull down rebounds against bigger opponents. Against a Seattle University front line that averaged just over 6’9” on Dec. 4, 2011, Travis had his signature game of the season. The then-freshman recorded a double-double with 19 points and 10 rebounds.
“[My aggressiveness on the boards] definitely comes from my dad,” Travis says. “He always pushed me, always beat the crap out of me. In the driveway there was no holding back. My high school coach was the same way. I realized early that either I work hard or I don’t play.”
The group continues to push each other every day in practice, ever cognizant of the responsibility that has fallen on their shoulders.
“If you’re not on your ‘A’ game every practice, the other guys will give it to you every time,” Travis says. “If you’re not holding your weight in a drill, we’ll catch you.”
In a competitive Ivy League, whether or not Harvard can repeat as conference champions will likely rely on the trio’s ability to hold their own weight.
—Staff write Alexander Koenig can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.