When a ranked team loses to a 13-10 squad, it’s not surprising that a scapegoat is sought. So after the Harvard men’s basketball team’s 70-62 loss to Princeton on Saturday, the media (myself included) looked for a place—or person—to pin the blame. This time around, it fell on junior forward Kyle Casey.
Casey missed four of five critical free throws down the stretch, and Princeton closed the game on a 28-18 run to grab the eight-point win that gave the Crimson its first Ivy League loss of the season.
“I thought we had many chances in that game to come out on top,” said Harvard coach Tommy Amaker two days after the loss.
One of those chances occurred with the Crimson trailing by two, 48-46, with 5:14 to play. Harvard put the ball in the hands of Casey, and the 6’7” forward put the ball on the deck, attacking the basket. He reached the rim, drawing contact and a whistle while tossing the ball at the hoop. As the ball rolled around the top of the cylinder, it seemed as if Harvard fans were about to witness another special night courtesy of Kyle Casey.
Throughout his time with the Crimson, Casey has put together a number of Greg-Jennings style, “I-put-the-team-on-my-back” performances. In last season’s regular season finale against Princeton, Casey delivered Harvard a share of its first Ivy League title with a 24-point performance. And earlier this season, Casey brought the Crimson back from a 10-point halftime deficit against St. Joseph’s, dropping 20 in the second frame.
But on Saturday it was not meant to be. Casey’s layup attempt rimmed out, and the junior went to the line, where he proceeded to knock down one of two tries. After Princeton nailed two free throws on the other end, the Crimson went back to Casey. Again the forward put his head down and drove to the hoop, and again it looked like Casey was primed to swing the momentum back to the Crimson with an and-one finish. But the ball did not cooperate, and Casey returned to the charity stripe where his struggles continued. After two missed free throws and a Tigers score on the ensuing possession, the Crimson found itself down by five with time running out.
Casey had one last shot at redeeming himself, going to the line with a chance to bring Harvard within three at 2:58 to go. But he misfired on the front end of a one-and-one, marking his fourth missed attempt.
“I sucked from the free-throw line,” said Casey on Monday. “It was horrible.”
While it’s easy to pit the blame of Saturday’s loss on Casey and his missed free throws, Harvard fans should not be so quick to get upset with the forward. The result may have not been what the Crimson faithful desired, but Harvard needs that aggressiveness from Casey offensively going forward.
With Amaker opting to go with lineups featuring spot-up shooters Laurent Rivard and Corbin Miller on the wing, Casey can provide a different dimension to the Crimson offense by putting the ball on the floor and drawing contact at the rim. Last season, Christian Webster filled that role, getting to the line 123 times as a sophomore. But 22 games into his junior season, Webster has gotten to the stripe on just 13 occasions. And with Rivard replacing Webster in the starting lineup in December, it has become even more important for Casey to play a penetrating role for the Crimson.
“That’s exactly what we need is to be aggressive going to the rim, creating the opportunities to get fouled,” Amaker said. “We couldn’t ask for anything more. He’s going to be a much better foul shooter. What happened [Saturday] is unfortunate, but I have the ultimate confidence in Kyle.”
Casey, it seems, has accepted his position as an attacker first and a spot-up shooter second.
“We don’t exactly need me to get ’em up from the three-point line,” Casey said. “If I can attack the basket and get to the free throw line, get to the rim, and knock my open shots down, that’s what we need from me.”
It may not have worked out on Saturday, but Amaker and Casey feel that the future will be brighter.
“[After the Princeton game Amaker] said, ‘Keep your head up,’” Casey recalled. “He knows I’m a better free-throw shooter than that. [I’ve got to] just keep attacking and stay aggressive because I feel like we’ll definitely need that if we want to get to where we say we want to go.”