Men's Basketball Players Discuss Harvard, Matchup with Arizona
SALT LAKE CITY—The Harvard men’s basketball team surprised many by being back at EnergySolutions Arena on Friday for a press conference and closed practice.
After upsetting No. 3 New Mexico on Thursday night, the Crimson returned to prepare for its matchup against No. 6 Arizona on Saturday afternoon.
Like on Wednesday, co-captains Christian Webster and Laurent Rivard joined top scoring sophomore Wesley Saunders on stage to discuss the win—Harvard’s first both in the NCAA tournament and over an AP top 10 team—and the upcoming third round-game. Following his players, Crimson coach Tommy Amaker fielded questions from the media.
Given the historic nature of Harvard’s win, many of the questions focused on what the victory meant for the program as a whole. The players discussed their moment in the spotlight and how it has affected Harvard’s reputation on the national stage.
“It’s kind of nice to break the stereotype that we’re the nerdy kids and show people that we can play basketball as well,” said Saunders, who added that he chose Harvard because of the balance between its established academic reputation and up-and-coming athletic program.
“It’s nice that people don’t think of us as nerds,” Rivard added. “Everybody at Harvard—not just the basketball team but everybody—has talents other than being smart. It’s just fun to get that kind of attention.”
The players said that after the game they were contacted by a number of Harvard basketball alumni, including Jeremy Lin ’10 and last year’s co-captains, Oliver McNally ’12 and Keith Wright ’12—who stayed up to watch the game in Sweden, where he plays professional basketball for Uppsala Basket. Amaker added that he heard from the president—pausing before he specified that he was referring to Harvard University President Drew Faust—who called from South Korea to congratulate him on the win.
After Arizona coach Sean Miller talked about Pac-12 recruiting, Amaker also addressed his recruiting strategy when asked what he had to overcome to build a successful program at an Ivy League institution.
“[Harvard] is an incredible brand,” Amaker said. “It’s not about overcoming anything. It’s about presenting what you have. I think if you get a chance to do that with an opportunity like Harvard, for the right kids, the right situation, it can be something meaningful. We have been fortunate to get these kids to see that and I think to fall in love with that.”
When the questions turned to the adversity that the program has faced this season with a young lineup and the loss of Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry at the start of the year, Amaker seemed ready to move forward. He commended his players for their ability to adapt throughout the season given the circumstances, especially his young frontline.
Yesterday Amaker was forced to juggle the sophomore trio of Jonah Travis, Kenyatta Smith, and Steve Moundou-Missi, as New Mexico created foul trouble. Going up against Arizona—which, like the Lobos, plays a seven-foot center—the young bigs will be equally important.
“We don’t need them to do a lot,” Amaker said. “We just need them to be solid in a few areas. I think if you break it down and simplify it like that, it gives them a chance to be confident in just a few things. As the game went on for us yesterday, you could see the confidence growing in our young big guys up front.”
Rivard added that the frontline’s play contributed to his ability to find open shots on the perimeter. The junior guard went five-for-nine from three and hit two clutch free throws down the stretch—after drawing the foul from deep—to tie the score at 49 after the Crimson fell behind in the second half. Thursday night was the second time Rivard was hot from the perimeter in a tournament game. Last season, the junior went six-for-seven in the Crimson’s loss to Vanderbilt.
“Honestly, whenever I go to the gym I always see Laurent in there,” Saunders said. “He’s always the first one in there and the last one to leave. It’s not really a mystery why he’s such a good shooter.”
Discussing the matchup against Harvard, Miller commended Harvard’s ability to get to the line. Last night the Crimson uncharacteristically did not shoot a free throw in the first half. The team—which averages 16.9 made free throws per game—finished the game with 16 free throws, all coming in the second half.
The team said it would draw on its experience playing back-to-back games in the Ivy League to prepare for Saturday’s game on one day of rest. After celebrating last night, the team met this morning to refocus, and had practice that was closed to the media following the press conferences.
“During the Ivy League season, we would win or lose on Friday night, and we had to turn the page whether we felt good about how we played or not,” Rivard said. “That’s what we’re doing today.”