The Harvard men’s basketball team would like nothing more than to leave 2012 in the past. After losing on a last-second game-winner against Saint Mary’s on New Years Eve, the Crimson will look to make a fresh start in 2013 when it hosts Rice on Saturday.
Co-captain Christian Webster is the only Harvard player remaining from the last time the Crimson (7-5) took on the Owls (3-9) in 2009. The guard—then a freshman—dropped 10 points in an 85-64 blowout by a starting five that included Jeremy Lin ’10 and last season’s co-captains, Oliver McNally and Keith Wright.
After tinkering with Harvard’s starting lineup for the first six games of the season, coach Tommy Amaker has settled on a starting five which is led by freshman point guard Siyani Chambers and sophomore forward Wes Saunders. Chambers and Saunders, who have started every game this season, top the team with 12.5 and 15.8 points per game, respectively.
Saunders has scored in the double digits every game this season, and he credits Chambers—who averages 5.7 assists per game—for creating offensive opportunities.
“Siyani had confidence in me even in the first half when I wasn’t knocking down shots,” said Saunders, following an 18-point performance in last week’s upset victory over California. “He kept coming to me, and so I was able to knock down some shots, and my teammates put me in the right position.”
Joining Chambers and Saunders in the starting lineup are Webster, junior guard Laurent Rivard, and sophomore Forward Jonah Travis.
“That’s been our best lineup,” said Amaker after the Cal game. “We’ve stuck with that now for a few games, and I like the rhythm it’s given our team. We space the floor well, and when we get some post production that really adds to the balance of our team.”
After failing to score in double digits in the previous four games, Travis was dominant in the paint against Saint Mary’s, putting up a season-high 19 points on 8-of-10 shooting from the field.
In addition to creating opportunities on offense, defense will be crucial as the Crimson takes on an Owls team led by senior Tamir Jackson. The guard—who is the only Rice player returning from the 2009 matchup—averages 17.6 points per game with 6.7 rebounds. Following Jackson is sophomore guard Julian DeBose, who adds 9.5 points per game.
While the Owls’ two top scorers are starters, the team has also been able to take advantage of a strong bench. Three bench players are averaging more than five points per game, led by Junior guard Austin Ramljak with 7.7.
In twelve games, the Owls have been outmatched offensively across the board. They are shooting 39 percent from the field to Harvard’s 46.3 and averaging 57.9 points per game to the Crimson’s 68.3.
Despite the statistical mismatch, Harvard will have to contain Jackson in order to shut down the Owl’s offense. In the matchup against Cal, Amaker looked to Saunders to defend the Bears’ top scorer, junior guard Allen Crabbe. Saunders credits his teammates with helping slow his opponent down.
“Obviously I knew [Crabbe] was going to make some tough shots,” Saunders said. “But I mean it was just a team effort defending him. My teammates had my back whenever I got caught.”
In turning the page in the New Year, Harvard will look to cut down on costly mistakes that sealed its fate against Saint Mary’s. The Crimson led until the last second, but a couple of missed rebounds and shots from the stripe made the difference down the stretch as the Gaels chipped away at Harvard’s lead through the second half.
“We made too many critical mistakes with handling the basketball and not making foul shots… which is what wins you close games, especially when you’re up,” Amaker said after the loss.
“The intensity that we brought in the first half just wasn’t there in the second half, and I don’t know what it was,” Travis added. “I think we might have just gotten too comfortable.”
The Owls enter the contest having lost their last two against TCU and Texas. Rice has yet to put together back-to-back victories this season.
A win against the Owls would put the Crimson back on track after snapping its three game win streak—the longest of the season—to end its California road trip. The matchup is Harvard’s last non-conference game before the start of Ivy League play when Harvard travels to take on Dartmouth on Jan. 12.