Men's Basketball Poised to Rebound in 2016-2017

Senior Steeves
Y. Kit Wu

Senior forward Pat Steeves, pictured here against Columbia, is one of three Harvard seniors who will be playing his final collegiate games this weekend.

Freedstyle

Defensive Power
Senior forward Agunwa Okolie was the second consecutive Crimson player to earn Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year honors, but junior forward Zena Edosomwan poised another strong post-presence. The duo of Edosomwan and sophomore Chris Egi will look to defend the paint in 2016-2017.

It’s difficult to choose the right epithet for the 2015-2016 Harvard men’s basketball team.

Disappointing? Sure, fourth place didn’t seem in the cards a team that entered Ivy League play ranked second in the conference in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings—on the doorstep of the top 100. The five straight losses—two where Harvard blew a double-digit lead—that followed a conference-opening win spanned the gamut from heartbreaking (Columbia) to numbing (Penn). The team’s seniors had seven Ivy losses in three seasons before seeing five in three weekends; presumptive Ivy League Player of the Year Justin Sears basically shrugged after beating Harvard for the third straight time on its own floor, calling it just “another game.”

An analysis like that is almost disingenuous, however. At its peak, this team pushed top-10 foes Providence, Kansas, and Oklahoma to the limit—throw in a win over BYU and Harvard demonstrated a peak on par with Crimson squads of the past. Four wins in five games to close the season brought Harvard exactly to where prognosticators thought it would be. Had a free throw or two gone down in February, Harvard might be one of only two teams in the league to claim wins over Columbia and Princeton.

Given the recent past and the rapidly approaching future, then, maybe the best way to see season is as an interregnum.

I don’t mean to suggest Harvard will be the clear league favorite next year—after going 12-2 and bringing its entire rotation back, Princeton has earned that right. Yet, the future looks as bright as it ever has for Amaker’s Crimson.

The good news starts up top with the return of Siyani Chambers ’16-’17. The senior, who withdrew after suffering a torn ACL early in the year, will be the de facto leader of a team that will still be very young. Barring massive improvements over the summer, freshmen Corey Johnson, Weisner Perez, and Tommy McCarthy figure to be part of the rotation alongside incoming four-star recruits Chris Lewis and Bryce Aiken. How Amaker manages the minutes of his backcourt will be one of the season’s most important storylines.

Inside, junior Zena Edosomwan is poised to take yet another step forward after falling four rebounds short of averaging a double-double and earning a second-team All-Ivy selection in his first season as the focal point of the offense. With quality big men around the league (Penn’s Darien Nelson-Henry, Brown’s Cedric Kuakumensah, Columbia’s Alex Rosenberg, Sears, and Yale’s Brandon Sherrod) poised to graduate with no obvious replacements, Edosomwan should compete for the mantle of the league’s best frontcourt player. The graduation of the team’s frontcourt depth—seniors Evan Cummins, Patrick Steeves, and Agunwa Okolie could all play the four capably alongside the junior—only accentuates how important he will be to the squad.

Nowhere will this dependence be more pronounced than on the defensive end. Most of what’s been written about Edosomwan this season—these pages included—has focused on his improved offensive game. Blame the availability heuristic (Harvard fed Edosomwan ad nauseum at times) or the more obvious improvements on the offensive end, but the junior’s biggest contribution to the team was as a defensive anchor. Teammate Agunwa Okolie may have won the Defensive Player of the Year award, but it was Edosomwan who carried the team’s best defensive rating by a county mile. His domination of the defensive glass never got enough credit this year, nor did his ability to protect the basket.

If Edosomwan can routinely stay out of foul trouble, the ensuing squad may be a defensive juggernaut. Sophomore Chris Egi struggled in limited minutes this year but showed promise as a help defender—as a starting frontcourt, the pair may break school records for blocks and free throw percentage. Chambers is an underrated defender at the top of the key and a possible ascension of Andre Chatfield to the starting lineup will give the Crimson the lengthy wing defender it needs.

The good news for Harvard isn’t matched around the league. Yale and Columbia, two of the league’s three best teams, will see their lineups decimated by graduation. Brown and Penn lose their offensive focal points, while Dartmouth and Cornell appear stuck in their yearly offseason cycle of promise-cum-disappointment.

Of course, predictions nine months out mean almost nothing (ask Chip Kelly). But with a mixed season in the rearview mirror, Crimson fans have a good reason to turn their focus to a bright road ahead.

—Staff writer David Freed can be reached at david.freed@thecrimson.com.

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