One for the Thumb: Men's Basketball Season Preview

Frontcourt
Robert F Worley

As the men’s basketball team fights for its fifth consecutive Ivy League title, it is focused on maintaining internal standards, not living up to the expectations surrounding the program.

­Harvard coach Tommy Amaker hates the word “expectations.” Expectations are synonymous with bluster, the outside noise that ramps up annually in mid-fall as Amaker’s team becomes an increasingly large national presence.

This kind of bluster is Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin noting—fresh off a 61-57 tournament loss to Amaker’s Crimson in March—that “if not for two slip-ups, you’re talking about a team that would have been 30-0.”

This kind of bluster is the Associated Press placing Harvard in its preseason Top 25 for the first time ever, right behind Michigan. This kind of bluster is ESPN ranking two members of the Crimson’s backcourt—senior Wesley Saunders and junior co-captain Siyani Chambers—amongst the top 50 players in the nation.

For most teams, the bluster shapes the narrative. For the Crimson, it is barely a footnote. The team’s internal word for expectations, as Amaker will gleefully interject, is standards.

“We are completely insistent on focusing on our internal standards and our identity,” Amaker said. “That’s what made us who we are, and there is no interest or feeling whatsoever [as to] who says we’re good, we’re bad, this or that.”

“When the season gets started, we block all that stuff out and get right to work,” Chambers added. “We’re not worrying about...what other people are saying.”

Instead, the Crimson refuses to let others shape its destiny. Talking to the team is an exercise in clichés, if only because the players have internalized Amaker’s self-belief. The indifference to public opinion is a manifestation of confidence; in their three Harvard seasons, this year’s seniors have only been blown out by 15 points or more three times in 93 games—if they say they can play with anyone, it’s because they have.

Sophomore forward Zena Edosomwan may as well have spoken for the team when he noted, “If I play hard consistently…everything will take care of itself.”

On the court, Edosomwan will be part of a deep and balanced Crimson front line that features co-captain Steve Moundou-Missi and senior Kenyatta Smith. Smith, who exploded down the stretch of the 2012-2013 campaign, will provide the interior defense the team lost with the graduation of Kyle Casey ’14. The depth is an embarrassment of riches; freshman Chris Egi may be the first backup four-star recruit in Ivy League history.

The frontcourt is deep, but the backcourt is top-heavy. In their third year playing together, Chambers and Saunders are expected to be the best backcourt in the conference, and potentially one of the best in the country. Only two other backcourts—Kentucky and Wichita State—had a duo ranked among ESPN’s Top 50 college players. It is hard to outshine the pair’s stat line of 25.3 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 8.4 assists per game.

Although they lead in different ways, both are instrumental to the team’s success.

“It’s a very unique dynamic,” Smith said. “Siyani is a more vocal general on the court and Wes leads more through his actions. It’s really good to have them both on the court because whenever we have slippage in one person, the other is there to help.”

Helping matters is the disarray of the rest of the conference. As the team starts its quest for a fifth straight Ivy League championship, the Ancient Eight is there for the taking.

After having lost guard T.J. Bray to graduation, Princeton is a shell of its former self. Columbia, the up-and-comer that pushed Harvard to double overtime in New York last winter, is wracked with injuries.

After the unexpected departure of guard Meiko Lyles, the Lions lost All-Ivy first-teamer Alex Rosenberg to a foot fracture in late October; when Rosenberg withdrew to preserve his eligibility, he took the team’s title hopes with him. Yale, the toughest foe on paper, has yet to shed its little brother label, having beaten Harvard just twice in the last eight matchups.

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