The Harvard men’s basketball team is already walking in Memphis, but the major challenge now facing it is walking out of the city with a win.
Saturday’s contest against the Tigers at the FedEx Forum will mark the final non-conference tuneup for the Crimson (9-5), which began league play last week with a 75-65 road victory over Dartmouth.
In that game, Harvard had to stave off a Big Green squad gunning for a major upset. On Saturday, it will be the Crimson that will be the heavy underdog against a Memphis team that began the year ranked No. 17 in the AP Top 25 poll and No. 16 in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches’ poll and has gone 13-3 since.
The Tigers’ lone losses this year have come versus Louisville (currently ranked No. 1 in the country), Minnesota (currently ranked No. 9), and Virginia Commonwealth (currently ranked No. 22), so going into Memphis and pulling out a win over one of the nation’s best mid-majors—winners of seven straight—will be an extremely tough task.
“Memphis is incredibly talented,” Crimson coach Tommy Amaker said. “This is a team that can score a lot in bunches, they can get up and down the floor, [and] they’re very athletic.”
Despite the Tigers’ athleticism, Memphis is not the tallest of teams. Like Harvard, it starts three guards in Joe Jackson, D.J. Stephens, and Geron Johnson.
Jackson, the Tigers’ leading scorer at 13.9 points per game, will most likely be defended by Crimson sophomore wing Wesley Saunders, as Amaker has often tasked his leading scorer with defending the opponent’s best perimeter player this season.
Inside, 6’9” freshman center Shaq Goodwin will pose an especially tough matchup for 6’6” Crimson sophomore Jonah Travis.
One of the top recruits in the nation last season, Goodwin is averaging 9.1 points and 5.4 rebounds per game. His presence inside could lead to more minutes for 6’8” sophomore Kenyatta Smith and 6’7” classmate Steve-Moundou Missi, who registered his best game of the season by scoring 15 points in 24 minutes off the bench against the Big Green.
The Crimson bigs may seek to slow Goodwin by sending him to the line—where he is shooting just 64 percent—but more important to their interior success will be the ability to rebound.
“They’re a big team, far bigger than us, so we have to really focus on boxing out,” freshman point guard Siyani Chambers said.
“They’re very tough on the backboard,” Amaker added. “One of the Achilles heels for our team has been people being able to get on the glass and get second chance opportunities...[so] we’ve got to make sure we do a really good job there.”
Like Goodwin, Chambers has put together an impressive freshman campaign of his own. After scoring a career-high 22 points against the Big Green, the point guard won his fourth Ivy Rookie of the Week honor, joining Saunders—who won his third Conference Player of the Week award—on the league’s honor roll.
Saunders leads the conference with 16.4 points per game, while Chambers is seventh in the league at 13.3 points and junior co-captain Laurent Rivard is 10th with 11.4.
But Amaker says if his team is going to emerge from Memphis victorious, more important than its ability to score will be its ball protection.