Front and Center

Harvard’s Tournament hopes rest on two veteran big men with something to prove. Is the task too tall?

Robert L. Ruffins

Junior Kyle Casey and co-captain Keith Wright form a fearsome pairing in the Harvard frontcourt.

When co-captain Keith Wright donned the Crimson uniform as a freshman at the start of the 2008-2009 campaign, the Harvard men’s basketball team was in rough shape, coming off of a season in which it went 8-22.

Wright became a two-time Ivy Rookie of the Week honoree, and the Crimson finished the year at .500 for the first time since 2002, notching six wins in conference play.

A few miles away, in Chestnut Hill, Mass., then-high school senior Kyle Casey dominated the Massachusetts Bay Independent League, averaging five blocks and just under 20 points per game for the Brimmer and May School.

Three years and one Ivy League championship later—the first in program history—Casey and Wright have settled into their roles as the heart of the Crimson’s frontcourt.

“They’re our best voices on the defensive side, because they can see the whole court,” co-captain Oliver McNally says. “Kyle just skies up there; Keith protects the rim ... Offensively, we look inside every time down the court.”

Both big men earned All-Ivy nods at the end of last season, with Wright taking home Player of the Year honors, and accolades have continued to roll in for the frontcourt duo leading up to this season. On a recent CBS Sports ranking of college basketball’s Top 100 players in the country, Wright and Casey came in at No. 55 and 59, respectively. They were the only Ancient Eight players to make the list.

“I think they could play anywhere in [the] country, and putting them in the top 100 or even the top 50, that’s kind of what it means,” says CBS Sports analyst Jeff Goodman. “You could put them on any high major team and they’re going to play. Will they be stars at a Kentucky or a North Carolina? Maybe not. But they can play at those programs and definitely will be stars in the Ivy League.”

According to Jim Markey—Wright’s high school coach at the Norfolk Collegiate School, who flew to Cambridge last week to see his former player take the court—a strong work ethic has characterized the big man’s game since his pre-Harvard days.

“He’s gotten better each year,” Markey says. “He has taken the physical aspects of his game to a much higher level. … He put a lot of work into the offseason, into the weight room, and the biggest difference is that he’s really grown into his body.

“[Wright] was always a very skilled kid from a basketball point of view,” the coach continues. “Now he’s combining all of those skills and [has the] physical aspect too.”

Casey, the 2010 Ivy League Rookie of the Year and a key contributor to last season’s success, seems to share this natural focus on improvement.

“Kyle was a guy who developed an unbelievable amount in four years,” says Brimmer and May coach Greg Kristof. “He came into [high school] as a gangly underclassman and left senior year as one of the highest academic recruited players in the country. ... He’s a guy who had an unbelievable impact on our program.

“As a senior, it was his consistency that set him apart,” Kristof recalls. “With Kyle, there are a lot of great highlights, but it’s his day-in, day-out work ethic that separates him from the rest.”

This season, Casey and Wright will have help in the post from a strong freshman class on a Harvard team that boasts unprecedented depth down low.

“We’re hopeful we can be even more productive and efficient with less minutes,” says Harvard coach Tommy Amaker. “[Having more big men this year] is going to raise the level of our team. ... We’re going to use the old adage of ‘less can be more.’ Less minutes can equate to more production and efficiency with guys even like Kyle and Keith.”