Men's Basketball Stymied By Zone Defense

Chamber of Dimes
Co-captain Siyani Chambers recorded a season-high eight assists in the team's loss to George Washington

The Harvard men’s basketball team is a work in progress.

On Tuesday night against George Washington (4-3), there were certainly positives to take away despite the 77-74 loss. Senior co-captain Siyani Chambers tallied a season-high eight assists. Freshman forward Seth Towns tied a career-high 17 points. Senior forward Zena Edosomwan went 4-for-4 from the free throw line.

But the Crimson (1-4) still has a lot to improve on, and those areas of needed improvement were illuminated against a veteran Colonials team composed of multiple graduate students and redshirt players.

“At the end of the day you can drill it as much as you want but we just have to buckle down as a unit and just say we’re not doing this again,” Chambers said. “[We have to] go into the next game and not make the same mistakes another time.”

NOT IN THE ZONE

For much of the contest, George Washington utilized a zone defense to smother the Harvard offense, forcing the Crimson to rely on individual ball-handling skills rather than its usual inside-out style which creates shots from quick screens and pounding the paint to make separation for the outside shooters.

Instead, the zone made Harvard rely on the dribble to beat its defenders rather than finding open space through screens. While the Crimson have two players who excel in this area in Chambers and Aiken, an offense cannot rely on just two ball handlers. Freshman guard Christian Juzang typically is a third player who would fill the penetration role, but the rookie has missed the past three games with injury.

“[It’s] being crafty and savvy,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said. “We lack some of that right now. Throughout our time we need to have more of those two words, but that’s something that they do have, and it shows up in a lot of different ways.”

In addition to Chambers and Aiken, Towns’ skillset also succeeded in breaking down the zone as he is Harvard’s best midrange shooter. Amaker compared the rookie to Wesley Saunders ’15—a current player with the NBA D-League’s Windy City Bulls—in his ability to score from the foul line extended, which the zone tends to leave open. At the same time, however, Towns coughed up six turnovers in the contest, proving a need for greater consistency in his play.

The Colonials were not the first team to break down the Harvard offense through zone, as Holy Cross stymied the Crimson in a similar fashion in its victory over Amaker’s squad last week. By putting pressure on the frontcourt as the ball crossed half court, the Crusaders were able to pick Harvard’s pocket and create easy baskets on the other end of the floor.

“I’m very surprised that we have been put on our heels by the zone,” Amaker said. “I’m hopeful that we will be a little bit more aggressive and attack it and penetrate and not stand and stare and be tentative, but easier said than done.”

FOULS, FOULS, FOULS

One of the main narratives of Harvard’s 2015-2016 season was its inability to sink shots from the charity stripe. At one point, it was in the bottom 10 of all Division I teams in free throw percentage.

Against George Washington, however, it was the team’s inability to keep the Colonials off the line that was the nail in the coffin to Harvard’s comeback attempt. Particularly in the second half, George Washington lived at the line. In the first seven minutes of the second frame, the Crimson committed six fouls, while the Colonials maintained a clean slate. Ultimately, Harvard would tally 28 fouls, compared to just 17 for the visitors.

The teams shot nearly identical percentages from the line, but the volume from George Washington was too much for Harvard to keep up with. Unable to get a steal late in the contest, the Crimson was forced to resort to intentionally fouling to keep time on the clock. To Harvard’s dismay, the Colonials hit 13-of-14 from the line to close out the game.

“They were in the double bonus for a while,” Amaker said. “Just thinking of us being in a tight game, these guys have battled back both times to put us in a position where we can steal it and we haven’t been able to get over that proverbial hump.”

—Staff writer Theresa C. Hebert can be reached at theresa.hebert@thecrimson.com

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