Sophomore Big Men Manning the Middle

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With co-captain Christian Webster impersonating Reggie Miller and freshman guard Siyani Chambers making acrobatic layups, there’s understandable euphoria surrounding the Crimson’s athletic backcourt. Chambers, Webster and sophomore Wesley Saunders—a six-foot five athletic combo guard—notched 54 of the Crimson’s 82 points in Saturday’s contest against Dartmouth. Junior sharpshooter Laurent Rivard, another six-foot five wing who plays behind the arc, is a tremendous shooter who adds to the potency of the group.

The Crimson are second in the nation overall in three-point shooting percentage and play a Gregg Popovich-type offense with shooters everywhere. This forces defenders to come out on shooters, allowing Saunders and Chambers to use their length and speed to get past defenders to the hoop. If the defense crashes on the driving man, he can swing a pass to one of the team’s four combo guards, each shooting over 36 percent from three. If the defender doesn’t leave his man, that leaves Saunders or Chambers against a big, a matchup coach Tommy Amaker would take any day.

However, Saturday’s most important players may have been lost in the shuffle. Sophomore forwards Jonah Travis and Steve Moundou-Missi quietly made the comeback possible. While the quartet of guards each average more than 30 minutes a game, Moundou-Missi and Travis form a platoon at center. On Saturday, they combined for 21 points, 12 rebounds, two steals, and only two missed shots on 12 attempts. To put this in perspective, Travis scored one less point on nine 2-pointers than the rest of the team did on its combined three-point tries (5 for 21 on the day).

Of course, without Chambers’ play or Webster’s clutch threes we’d be wondering why Harvard has a 1-1 record against the league’s worst team of 2011. But the same could be said of Travis’s 10 first-half points or Moundou-Missi’s and-one with 90 seconds left in overtime.  The sophomore big men kept the game close despite the Crimson’s absymal shooting numbers (one shot made in 10 attempts outside the paint).

Moundou-Missi and Travis provide even more on defense: size. Saunders, Webster, and Chambers are all quick and lengthy on-ball defenders that allow the Crimson to pressure opposing guards into turnovers, but this trio puts the team at a height disadvantage. When Rivard plays alongside those three, that leaves the Crimson on-court squad with only one player listed above six-five. Thus, it’s imperative that the team protects the bucket inside. In years past, Kyle Casey and Keith Wright anchored the middle for the Crimson; this year, the onus falls on Travis and Moundou-Missi to protect the paint.

Although undersized for their positions, the sophomore big men fight hard and were key Saturday in deterring guards from charging into the paint. Sure, the Dartmouth guards recorded 29 points, but let’s look inside these numbers. They needed a combined 25 shots and 11 free throws to get there—not terribly efficient. The opposing trio also combined for two made layups all game, evidence of a good job protecting the paint. Furthermore, six of the 29 points came on threes and six more on end-of-game free throws, shots that Travis and Moundou-Missi can’t affect.

In addition to anchoring the defense, Travis and Moundou-Missi fulfill another job for the Crimson. In the Crimson’s offense, the bigs need to be mobile when the team gets out and running. Both players use their quickness to outmaneuver larger, slower bigs (see Travis’ 19 points and five steals against a big St. Mary’s frontcourt or 14 points and two steals against Boston College). Harvard is at its best when the big men get out on quick outlets and allow Chambers to get running

Chambers has received plenty of well-deserved praise in the absence of departed senior Brandyn Curry.  This is not totally unexpected, though, as the freshman is a former Minnesota Mr. Basketball.  On the other hand, finding replacements for Keith Wright and Kyle Casey has been a pleasant surprise. The duo of Moundou-Missi and Travis has flourished this year, combining for 16.1 points, 8.7 rebounds, and 2 steals per game. Their impact was felt in a big way Saturday, and for the Crimson to achieve their postseason goals, it will need to be once again.

Staff writer David Freed can be reached at davidfreed@college.harvard.edu.

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