The last two years of the Harvard men’s basketball program have been marked by an unceasing series of highs.
From the first-ever Ivy title to the second-ever NCAA tournament appearance, from Linsanity to the Battle 4 Atlantis championship, from landing a top-50 recruit to a Top 25 ranking, coach Tommy Amaker has had his team on a seemingly interminable upswing.
But in September, the path that has revitalized a once-futile program hit a bump in the road when newly-elected co-captains Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry reportedly withdrew from the College in the wake of the Gov. 1310 cheating scandal.
Suddenly, a team that was expected to be at least a co-favorite to three-peat as Ivy champs was without a reigning first-team All-Ivy forward in Casey as well as its best perimeter defender and floor general in Curry.
What is left is a collection of mostly unproven young players who will now be thrown into the fire more quickly than anyone expected.
“We’ve seen some growth, and we’ve seen some guys adjust,” says Harvard coach Tommy Amaker, whose squad returns just two seniors and one starter. “I like the spirit of this group—they’re giving great effort.... The area we need to increase is our execution.”
Such execution was a key to last year’s success. But this season, not only are Casey and Curry gone but so too are last year’s co-captains, Keith Wright ’12 and Oliver McNally ’12, who provided leadership, toughness, and clutch scoring over the course of their decorated careers. Also not to be overlooked is the departure of guard Corbin Miller, who left school to serve as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints after emerging as a dangerous sharpshooter a year ago. On the whole, the Crimson returns just one player, junior co-captain Laurent Rivard, who averaged more than five points per game last season.
But Amaker is also left with an abundance of potential after accruing some of the Ivy League’s best recruiting classes in recent years. Whether that on-paper talent can bring about on-court success is the largest question heading into the start of the 2012-13 season.
“I think the team looks really good,” co-captain Christian Webster says. “We’ve got a lot of [talented] young guys, especially the sophomores who are going to step up big for us this year.”
One of those young players is freshman Siyani Chambers, the reigning Minnesota Mr. Basketball who is expected to replace Curry at the point. Though Amaker praises the rookie’s maturity and feel for the game, it remains to be seen whether the 6’0” Chambers will be able to handle the challenging task of controlling the flow of games and leading his team in the hostile road environments of the conference season.
“We all have to step up and fill the roles together as a unit,” Chambers says. “I’m just trying to fit in, do what my teammates and coaches ask of me, and continue to work hard.”
Harvard is expecting to get the majority of its points from the wings. If the team is going to compete for a conference championship, it will require a significant leap out of Wesley Saunders, who was named the team’s most improved player at last year’s postseason awards banquet. In 2012-13, Harvard will need the sophomore’s offensive contribution to be far closer to the 16.5 points per game he averaged during the Crimson’s four-game summer trip to Italy—when he led the squad despite the presence of Casey and Curry—than the 3.3 points per contest he contributed last season.
“He was our best player [in Italy], with all the names that were on that trip with us...which I think is saying a lot,” Amaker says. “He worked very hard throughout the summer months to improve himself. He was dedicated, [and] he was committed to his workouts. Because he worked that hard, I think there was a [new] level of confidence he felt in himself.”
“Obviously it’s going to be a different role [for me],” Saunders adds. “It’s not necessarily about me putting up the most points, it’s about me doing the best I can to help the team.”
Any success will also require a bounce-back performance from Webster, who was second on the squad in scoring as a sophomore but regressed a year ago, with his production dropping by nearly nine points per game.