After losing its top four scorers from last year’s record season, no one knew how the Harvard men’s basketball team was going to adapt.
Very few people could have predicted the story of the season, a story that—as the Crimson (8-5) enters Ivy League play at Dartmouth (3-10) Saturday—has only just begun. With non-conference play coming to a close, Harvard has seen upset wins, heartbreaking losses, and production from a number of surprising sources, rookies and veterans alike.
“Conference play is always different,” Crimson coach Tommy Amaker said. “No matter what opponents you face previously in [your] non-conference schedule—and we’ve had a very difficult non-conference schedule—conference play is always…incredibly challenging.”
While Harvard sits atop the Ivy League based on its non-conference record, conference play changes how teams scout each other and create favorable matchups. As the Crimson prepares to take on each Elite Eight opponent twice, knowing each team’s strengths and weaknesses becomes both easier and more important.
“People know you a lot better and are much more familiar with your style and your players,” Amaker said. “We know we are going to get everyone’s best shot, and we anticipate that this coming weekend.”
Entering the contest, Harvard looks like a team in perpetual transition. While freshman point guard Siyani Chambers and sophomore wing Wes Saunders—with 16.2 and 12.6 points per game, respectively—have anchored the offense all season, their teammates have stepped into a variety of supporting roles as the season has progressed.
Last time out against Rice, junior guard Laurent Rivard posted a season-high 21 points, knocking down five threes. His 44 percent shooting percentage from beyond the arc is good for sixth in the Ivy League.
“It was mostly in the flow in the offense,” Rivard said. “We didn’t really force anything… When other teams don’t focus on me, guys find me.”
The 92-point effort against Rice demonstrated the potential of Harvard’s offense, with five players reaching double digits. Chambers posted his first career double-double with 14 points and 10 assists. The win allowed the Crimson to enter conference play on a high note after splitting its previous two games in California.
“The past three games… we played a lot better than we have this year, with a lot more intensity,” Rivard said.
Coming off an upset win against Cal, the Crimson let its lead against favored Saint Mary’s slip away in the last second despite career performances from Chambers—who was 5-for-5 from deep—and sophomore forward Jonah Travis—who was a force in the paint and posted a season-high 19 points.
“There are a lot of bad things we could take out from [the loss to Saint Mary’s] that we have to work on in practice,” Rivard said. “It’s been a point of emphasis in practice so that something like that doesn’t happen again.”
The Big Green enters the contest having snapped a seven-game losing streak with a win over Army, but the team has struggled to put points on the board. Led by sophomore forward Gabas Maldunas and freshman guard Alex Mitola—with 10.8 and 10.6 points, respectively—Dartmouth has averaged 58.4 points per game, the lowest total in the Ancient Eight.
Despite lacking an offensive sparkplug to put up big points, the Big Green has been able to hold onto the ball. While Harvard has been plagued by turnovers throughout the season as it seeks to define its offensive rhythm, Dartmouth has forced more turnovers than it has given up. The Big Green’s opponents have given up the ball an average of 14.5 times per game. The Crimson has reached double digits in turnovers in 10 of its 13 games, including 17 against Rice.
“We have a lot of growth to do with our younger players,” Amaker said. “I think its obvious to see that there’s a high ceiling there for our team and for a lot of our younger kids.”
Much of this growth will need to come on defense, as the Crimson’s inability to make key stops late in the game has been the difference in difficult matchups throughout the season. In addition to being an offensive leader, Saunders has also begun to step into a more defensive role, taking on the opponent’s biggest offensive threat.
A win for Harvard would be its sixth straight over Dartmouth.
“We always talk about [how] there’s nothing better than winning on the road, and the only thing that is better than that is winning on the road in the league,” Amaker said.
—Staff writer Hope Schwartz can be reached at email@example.com.