If one employs the transitive property, the Harvard men’s basketball team will face the 2003-04 NCAA champions this weekend in South Bend, Ind. Though No. 21 Notre Dame didn’t cut the nets down in March, the Fighting Irish did knock off eventual champion UConn last February despite being decimated by several injuries.
A sure-fire NCAA tournament season turned grim for Notre Dame last year, but the return of starting center Torin Francis—the McDonald’s National High School Player of the Year in 2002—has the Irish primed for a return to the Big Dance, a journey it will begin tonight against the Crimson in its season opener.
Harvard knows a thing or two about expectations too, with the Crimson coming off a 4-23 season last year. With hopes of being a perennial Ivy contender, Harvard spent last year prepping a young team for life without five seniors who started at the beginning of the 2002-03 season. The campaign last year has the Crimson ready for the hardwood again, especially against an opponent like Notre Dame.
“It should be an exciting game for everybody,” Harvard coach Frank Sullivan said. “I’m the only guy who’s ever done a game at Notre Dame, so it will be good for everyone else to go through that exercise.”
That opportunity carries a different significance for both squads this year, each coming off disappointing seasons and looking to reestablish themselves. After falling 66-58 to UConn in the Big East championship game, the Irish received a NIT bid last year and ended a three-year streak of NCAA appearances.
Meanwhile, the Crimson struggled to its worst finish in 55 years, but now-veteran squad is rejuvenated with the return of sophomore 7’ center Brian Cusworth. Like his counterpart Francis—who missed Notre Dame’s last 12 games with a herniated disk—Cusworth was also injuured, but he ended up having to sit out most the 2003-04 season with a stress fracture.
The post will be a battle between Francis and Cusworth, but junior forward Matt Stehle has been a reliable defensive force inside for the Crimson. At 6’8, Stehle led the Ivies in shot blocks last year with 43. The All-Ivy Honorable Mention last year also tallied 42 steals on the season, good for seventh in the league. Stehle will have his hands full with Arizona transfer Dennis Latimore, considered by many the best player on this year’s Irish squad. That’s scary, considering Francis has been tabbed as the Big East’s premier big man after the graduation of UConn’s Emeka Okafor.
“We have to get tougher, that’s for sure, and get more physical,” Sullivan said. “I said to the group, ‘are we ready to play Notre Dame?’ [That] team is big in the frontcourt, strong in the frontcourt, tough in the frontcourt.”
Notre Dame’s lethal post game creates opportunities on the perimeter for its guards, and point guard Chris Thomas needs little help to get open. Junior guard Michael Beal will have the unenviable job of containing Thomas, who turned down the NBA after his sophomore season and averaged 19.7 points last season. Both he and Francis are preseason candidates for the Wooden Award, given annually to the nation’s top college basketball player.
Bothered by a season-long knee injury last year, Thomas underwent surgery in the offseason, but he’s showed no signs of slowing down this year. He’s most dangerous in the open floor, and the 6’5 Beal must use his four-inch height advantage over Thomas to challenge his drives to the basket.
The Harvard backcourt will find it difficult to match the Irish’s speed, but senior guard Kevin Rogus wil look to contend with Notre Dame on the perimeter. The returning star from the backcourt, Rogus lit up then-No. 6 Stanford for 22 points and four three-pointers last season. Rogus shot 34 percent behind the arc last year, averaging 14.7 points per game, good for sixth in the Ivy League.
The inside-outside combination of Rogus and big men Cusworth and Stehle will give Harvard its opportunities, but the Crimson must execute efficiently against Thomas, who averages nearly two steals and 4.7 assists per game.
“We’ve got a lot of hard work ahead of us,” Sullivan said.
A noisy Joyce Center crowd will make that work even harder for Harvard, which has won just eight road games in the past two years.
But with the explosive Notre Dame backcourt and the hostile crowd staring Harvard in the face, freshman guard Tyler Klunick is doing his part to make the Joyce Center more comfortable for the Crimson.
“It [Notre Dame] a couple hours away from my house,” said the Springfield, Ill. native. “I’ve got about 15 friends coming.”
Tonight, a rebuilt Harvard team will hope to give the small gathering something to cheer about.