Men's Basketball Holds Open Practice in Salt Lake City
SALT LAKE CITY—The Harvard men’s basketball team took the court at EnergySolutions arena for the first time during Wednesday evening’s open practice.
With just over 24 hours to go until its second round NCAA Tournament matchup with No. 3 New Mexico, the No. 14 Crimson joined seven other West Region teams in an afternoon of press conferences and preparation.
During the student-athlete portion of the conference, Harvard was represented by co-captains Laurent Rivard and Christian Webster, as well as sophomore wing and leading scorer Wesley Saunders.
The trio addressed the adversity that the Crimson has faced after being forced to adjust to the loss of co-captains Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry, who took a leave of absence before the start of the season. They credited Harvard coach Tommy Amaker and the coaching staff for helping them adjust to a young starting lineup that relies primarily on Saunders on freshman point guard Siyani Chambers to put points on the board.
“Coach Amaker has done probably his best coaching job ever with us, and it’s been an amazing year because of...getting through that adversity,” said Webster, the Crimson's only remaining senior. “I think it’s a testament to the coaching staff and how they kept us believing.”
Belief was a common theme for the evening as Amaker took the stage and credited his players with bringing Harvard back to the Big Dance.
When asked how reaching the tournament the second time around was special, Amaker stated that overcoming expectations made this season different.
“I give all the credit to our players,” Amaker said. “I thought they were magnificent this year with the belief and trust and all the things that are necessary to put yourself in this position when you know you have to overcome some pretty big hurdles to get to this point.”
In discussing the matchup between the Crimson and the Lobos, the major focus was the difference in size between the two squads. New Mexico’s starting lineup includes seven-foot sophomore center Alex Kirk and 6’9” junior forward Cameron Bairstow, two major scoring threats in the paint. Harvard has employed a four-guard lineup throughout the majority of the season, using its three sophomore bigs in rotation. Of the trio, Kenyatta Smith stands the tallest at 6’8”.
The Crimson players stated that they had not yet watched game tape of the Lobos but that they would draw from their experience against other tall lineups during the non-conference season.
Against Cal, Harvard managed to pull out the win, largely thanks to the defensive effort of Saunders, who has often been tasked with playing tight defense on the opponent's leading scoring threat. Webster also discussed the matchups with Connecticut and Memphis—both losses—during which the Crimson played stretches of competitive basketball.
Discussing the Lobos’ size, Amaker emphasized the need to stay out of foul trouble—an issue for Smith, Jonah Travis, and Steve Moundou-Missi this season—and said that he would draw from Harvard’s strength on the perimeter to match up with New Mexico’s tight defense.
“We haven’t been very deep, as you know, and we have a point of emphasis on not making silly fouls,” Amaker said. “We have played other teams that have had good size. We have tried to spread the floor and use our quickness. Being smaller, there are advantages that we have.... We have to shoot the ball well, box them out, and keep them off the backboard—something that we haven’t done very well this season.”
Amaker outlined Harvard’s plan going forward in preparation for tomorrow night’s tip off at 9:50 EST. In addition to the open practice that immediately followed the media sessions, the team will spend the evening looking at the scouting report and film with the coaching staff.
Amaker highlighted the need to stay healthy—stating that the Crimson may forgo a shootaround tomorrow—and use the practice time as a way to get acclimatized to the altitude and court at EnergySolutions.
Webster, Rivard, and Saunders agreed that being at the tournament for the second time made the adjustment easier. Among Harvard’s lineup, Chambers is the only player without tournament experience.
“One thing that caught us off guard [last year] was that walk out onto the floor the first time, seeing the blue NCAA logo on the floor,” Rivard said. “We had dreamed all of our lives to get there. But now this year is the second time around, and hopefully we will be calmer and have more poise. We aren’t going play a perfect game…but hopefully it will help us control our emotions and be more relaxed on the floor.”