NOTEBOOK: Depth Carries Men's Basketball to March Madness

As the clock wound down on Harvard’s (25-4, 12-1 Ivy) third consecutive Ivy League championship, punctuated by a 70-58 victory over Yale (15-12, 9-4), the difference between 2013 and 2014 was evident.

If the motto of last year’s team was ‘We have enough,’ the defining characteristic of the sequel was having an abundance of riches. After losing four starters and the sixth man from the 2011-2012 NCAA Tournament squad, last year’s team was driven by the efforts of improved underclassmen.

Then-freshman point guard Siyani Chambers, expected to play behind co-captain Brandyn Curry, was forced into a starting role, making All-Ivy first team along the way. Then-sophomores Wesley Saunders, Steve-Moundou-Missi, and Kenyatta Smith—the last an integral component of the bench unit a year before—became the heart of a defense that propelled Harvard into the NCAA Tournament’s round of 32.

The heart of the 2013 team returned to school, greeted by a waiting Curry and senior Kyle Casey. Top-100 recruit freshman Zena Edosomwan, fresh off an extra year at Northfield Mount Hermon, waited in the wings. Developing sophomores Evan Cummins and Agunwa Okoklie found their way into Harvard coach Tommy Amaker’s rotation, giving Harvard a far different look than the year before.

“They won because they had depth and could afford injuries,” Yale coach James Jones said. “If Siyani is injured, you have Brandyn on the bench. How many guys have a first or second team All-Ivy guy on the bench? That’s the difference at Harvard.”

On Friday night, that depth was out on display. Curry had 14, including back-to-back threes at the end of the first half to ignite the team after a brief slump. Saunders had a well-rounded nine points, five rebounds, and four assists—amidst a wealth of weapons, the junior let the game come to him. Chambers had 17 points, playing both on (six assists) and off (two three-pointers) the ball in a free flowing offense.

To contain an imposing Bulldog front line of sophomore Justin Sears, junior Brandon Sherrod, and junior Matt Townsend, the Crimson took advantage of its significant frontcourt depth. Moundou-Missi had 16 points and six rebounds, taking turns fighting with Sears inside with Casey (five rebounds, three blocks).

“I have never been on a team with so many great defenders,” Curry said. “From Wes, who can guard a number of different positions to Siyani being so quick and pesky in passing lanes to Steve and Kyle down low … It’s been a lot of fun playing with these guys but that starts with defense.”

SEARING BLOWS

On a night where nothing fell for the Bulldogs, which shot 36 percent from the field and 0-for-14 from three, Sears was a lone bright spot. The Ivy League Player of the Year candidate had a monster double-double with 28 points and 13 rebounds. Sears went 11-of-16 from the field and 6-of-7 from the line.

The sophomore did it from beginning to end, scoring 11 of Yale’s first 17 points and then, late in the second half, 11 of 15 as the home team cut a 16-point Crimson lead down to nine. His tomahawk slam over co-captain Laurent Rivard brought the arena to its feet and brought back memories of Saunders’ Sportscenter Top-10-worthy destruction of Sherrod a year ago.

“He’s an incredibly tough matchup for anyone and he has performed like that all season,” Amaker said.

After a second, he phrased it more succinctly, “We couldn’t stop him.”

NOT-SO-CHARITABLE LINE

If stopping Sears was the one thing eluding the Crimson on the defensive end, the free throw line proved its only offensive foil. Harvard shot 57 percent from the field and had 13 assists on 25 field goals, sharing the ball well all night.

But when it got sent to the line, the hoop might as well have been the size of a chalice. Harvard missed 12 of its first 19 free throws and 18 of 32 overall. Saunders, Harvard’s leading scorer and its second-best free throw shooter, missed his first seven of the night en route to a 1-of-8 performance. In the first half alone, the Crimson was unable to convert the back end of three separate three-point plays.

“Our fool shooting was horrendous,” Amaker said. “I don’t know what to say but that’s not characteristic of this team.”

Harvard indeed had not shot so poorly at the line since its first matchup against Yale, when it made just 14 of 25 free throws in a 74-67 home loss. Saunders made just three of six free throws in that game, with seven different Harvard players missing at least one free throw.

—Staff writer David Freed can be reached at david.freed@thecrimson.com. Follow him on twitter @CrimsonDPFreed.

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