Athlete of the Week: Saunders Leads Men's Basketball in NCAA Tournament

Worldwide Wes
Robert F Worley

Junior Wesley Saunders, pictured above, led the Crimson with 22 points against Michigan State in the third round of the 2014 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament on Saturday night. Harvard fell to the fourth-seeded Spartans, 80-73, but Saunders surpassed 1,000 points for his career in the contest.

After the Harvard men’s basketball team shocked the hoops world by beating No. 3 seed New Mexico in the second round of the 2013 NCAA Tournament, the team was quickly brought back to reality, losing to No. 6 seed Arizona by 23 points two days later.

At that point, there were many questions to answer.

What would next year’s expectations be, as the team reintegrated senior Kyle Casey and co-captain Brandyn Curry? Would the Crimson be able to win the Ivy League and get another chance to play bracket-buster?

Perhaps no player answered more of these questions than junior wing Wesley Saunders, who helped the team duplicate last season’s NCAA success by dispatching No. 5 seed Cincinnati last Thursday, and then losing a close-fought battle against No. 4 seed Michigan State on Saturday night.

Saunders looks at least year’s victory over the Lobos as a turning point for the Crimson program, which has risen from being overlooked to being a force to be reckoned with on a national stage.

“Ever since that win, every time we stepped on the court we have had to bring our A game because everybody’s giving us their best shot because of what we were able to do in the [2013] tournament,” said Saunders at Wednesday’s media availability. “So I think it kind of just put a little bit of a target on our back. But I think that we have been able to step up to the challenge and embrace it.”

The 2013-2014 Ivy League Player of the Year was a key component in Harvard’s efforts once again, leading the team in scoring against both Cincinnati and Michigan State.

Saunders’ 22 points on Saturday led to his entrance into the 1,000-point club at Harvard and almost resulted in an upset of a Michigan State team that many pundits have picked to make it to Dallas for the Final Four. The junior finished the season with 1,012 career points.

Saunders’ offensive efforts in the tournament have proven to be no fluke. The swingman reached double-digit scoring for the 21st game during his junior season against Michigan State, and the 52nd time in his career.

While the wing was expected to perform well this season after leading the Ivy League in points per game last year with an average of 17.1, his expertise isn’t limited to his scoring capabilities.

When the Crimson found out it would face Cincinnati in its opening tournament appearance this year, Harvard coach Tommy Amaker turned to Saunders to stop Cincinnati co-captain Sean Kilpatrick, who averaged 20.6 points per game.

“[Saunders has] been, in my opinion, the best all-around player in our conference and one of the better ones in the country, and he doesn’t get enough credit for what he does on the defensive end of the floor,” said Amaker after Thursday’s game. “Wesley has got to guard those guys for us. That’s lot to ask of him, but he’s capable and I think he’s shown that he’s up to the task for doing that. He’s done it for us all season.”

His teammates expected the same from Saunders, who made a further mark in the box score by leading the team in steals this season.

“Our game plan was to put our best defender on [Kilpatrick], Wesley Saunders,” sophomore Siyani Chambers said. “He’s done it for us all year. And he was able to do it again tonight, I thought.”

Entering Saturday’s contest opposite Michigan State, Saunders was prepared to repeat his defensive prowess against potential first-round NBA selection Gary Harris.

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