It was a crash landing like no other.
After a school record eight straight 10-win seasons and an impressive 102 wins, the Crimson stumbled to a 4-23 finish (3-11 Ivy)—its worst campaign in 55 years.
“That was a hard season to get through,” Harvard coach Frank Sullivan says. “It was no fun. It was no fun to be the coach, the captain, a freshman, a new starter. It was a very difficult season for everybody.”
The lows were plentiful—the 86-42 loss to Boston University, the 100-59 defeat against Stanford and the 104-69 blowout at the hands of Penn—but the resiliency of the team was beyond compare.
Two nights after the loss to the Cardinal, the Crimson grabbed its first win of the year—a 58-53 decision over San Jose State. A night after giving The Palestra faithful free cheesesteaks for allowing the Quakers’ 100-plus point performance, Harvard took eventual Ivy champion Princeton to two overtimes before falling 58-50.
“Just watching these guys last year and all the stuff they went through, I don’t think they got enough credit for all the effort they put in,” says sophomore center Brian Cusworth, who sat out last season with a foot injury. “The outcomes weren’t what we expected, but the guys were putting in hard work and there were numerous shining moments.”
A year later, all 11 players are back, joined by Cusworth and three freshmen—point guard Tyler Klunick, guard James Lambert and forward Brad Unger. What was an extremely inexperienced team entering last season, now is a group of seasoned veterans—a squad which has encountered nearly every emotion possible, from sheer depression to utter exuberance.
And that, more than anything, could be the catalyst for a return to the upper division of the Ivy League.
“When you take inexperienced players like we had last year, who had never been through anything, and [a group which] had no experienced starters, that whole thing about team, not in a bad way, gets put aside, because players are still trying to find their niche,” Sullivan says.
One player that really found his niche last season was junior forward Matt Stehle. He played sparingly his freshman season, due to injuries, but enjoyed a breakout sophomore campaign. Stehle finished 10th in the league in scoring with 13.6 points per game, third in rebounding with 7.0 per contest and first in blocks with 43 on the season. For his efforts, Stehle took home All-Ivy Honorable Mention accolades—the only Harvard player to make the squad.
“I was put in a position as the year progressed to get more and more comfortable playing with the rest of the team,” Stehle says. “I learned a lot last year. Hopefully, [that experience] will help me out this year.”
“It was obviously a big transition for him,” Cusworth adds. “There was a point early on in the season when Matt started to see his role and the fact that the team really needed him to step up.”
The frontcourt combination of Stehle and Cusworth might be one of the best in the league, and the team has implemented some new offensive schemes to take advantage of it.
“Last year the offense revolved around doing perimeter handoffs and screening on the perimeter,” captain Jason Norman says. “Now, since we have what I think is the best frontcourt in the league this year with Cusworth and Stehle, we have to get those guys involved and get them some shots.”
Included in that new offensive package is a high-low game that will attempt to take advantage of the passing ability of the big men to create 1-on-1s in the post area—something which led each player to record three assists in the exhibition game against McMaster.