So often coach speak rings hollow. Teams talk about each person knowing his role or doing what it takes to win, while at the same time players are checking box scores and chasing personal accolades. But with the Harvard men’s basketball team, I’m beginning to believe the clichés.
Take, for example, sophomore forward Christian Webster’s weekend. On Friday against Cornell, Webster shouldered much of the offensive load. He had the hot hand—going four-of-eight from the field and three-of-six from distance—and his teammates were looking for him. Much to the ire of the Big Red faithful, the sophomore pulled off the rare feat of drawing fouls on three separate three-point attempts, including one four-point play, en route to scoring a game-high 20 points in a 73-60 win.
This performance came on the heels of a ridiculous second half against Brown the previous weekend, in which Webster tallied 18 points in 15 minutes to spark a 24-point comeback. Naturally, you’d expect the forward to settle into the role of a primary scorer. Against Columbia—one of the worst defensive teams in the league—Webster would surely try to match his last two offensive outputs. Wrong. Webster scored exactly zero points against the Lions on Saturday.
But the sophomore didn’t have an off night. In fact, Harvard coach Tommy Amaker and Webster’s teammates were quick to credit him for the win. Tasked with guarding Noruwa Agho—the Ivies’ second-leading scorer—Webster went from a go-to scorer to a defensive stopper.
Holding Agho to just seven points on two-of-12 shooting and notching three steals, Webster was the key cog of a defense that limited Columbia to a season-low scoring total, as the Crimson cruised to a 61-42 victory.
Webster’s weekend was indicative of a larger trend for this Harvard squad: players fulfill team needs rather than personal goals. Webster is far from the only player carrying out this “we, not me” attitude.
So far this season, sophomore guard Brandyn Curry has run up a well rounded but modest (at least by All-Ivy standards) stat line of 9.4 points, 5.5 assists, and four rebounds per game. Yet the numbers don’t show that Curry has been the maestro behind the Ivy League’s best offense. On Saturday against Columbia, he had the Lions’ guards on skates all evening, but rather than create shots for himself, Curry created open looks for his teammates.
Sophomore forward Kyle Casey is the most athletic player on the court most nights that Harvard takes the floor. But rather than outrun, outmuscle, and outjump his individual defender, Casey has relied on an arsenal of mid-range jumpers and drives to the hoop that best fit the Crimson’s offensive system.
Junior co-captain Keith Wright, whose production in the post has been Harvard’s bread and butter, had a relatively quiet weekend offensively but made it his mission to control the glass. The big man corralled 11 boards in Ithaca and 12 the next night in New York, as he recorded his 10th and 11th double-doubles of the season.
Junior co-captain Oliver McNally bounced back from a sprained ankle to provide defensive leadership on Friday and an offensive lift—he totaled 15 points—on Saturday. The victory at Penn on Feb. 5th, in which McNally scored just seven points but did not hesitate to take and make the game-winner, typified how the junior picks his spots and leads the team when it needs him the most.
Harvard’s starters aren’t the only ones who have embraced their roles. Freshman guard Laurent Rivard has been a lethal shooter off the bench, freshman guard Matt Brown has become a lockdown defender, and sophomore forward Jeff Georgatos has been a reliable big.
The Crimson’s “teamness” has given the squad incredible flexibility and balance. Five players have led the team in scoring; six average more than 9.4 points per game. Harvard is perhaps the most challenging team to prepare for because it can beat its opponents in a variety of ways—in the post with Wright and Casey, on the perimeter with Rivard and Webster, up top with McNally and Curry, or at the free throw line with just about anyone.
Last season, then-Yale coach James Jones said that he thought the Crimson was better (at least offensively) with Jeremy Lin ’10 on the bench. He believed Harvard was more multi-dimensional and used its weapons more fully when the All-Ivy guard took a seat. His comments seemed blasphemous at the time, but, with the Crimson sitting at 20-4, they’re looking more and more prescient. He won’t be proven right, however, unless Harvard can go further than it did last year. It’s only two weeks until the Ivy’s bid to The Dance is determined. Only then, we’ll have our answer.
—Staff writer Timothy J. Walsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.