PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas—The Harvard men's basketball team hasn't had the best luck in tournaments as of late. For two years in a row, the Crimson has fallen flat in postseason competition—in 2009-10, the CollegeInsider.com Tournament, then in last year's National Invitation Tournament.
All of which makes Thursday evening's 75-47 drubbing of Utah in the first round of the first-ever Battle 4 Atlantis tournament even more encouraging.
"It's nice to get a nice, well-played performance—and a win—in a tournament as your first game," Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said. "We talk a lot about gaining momentum within a tournament, and I thought our kids came with a great deal of energy, and we started out terrific on the defensive end, which led to a lot of transition plays for us."
In just seven minutes following the opening tip, the Crimson (4-0) had opened up a 17-4 advantage over the hapless Utes (1-3), who turned it over six times in the span. A three-pointer by Utah's Chris Hines cut the deficit to 14, but a three-pointer by Harvard freshman Corbin Miller then made it 24-7 in favor of the Ancient Eight representatives, and after that, the rout was on. Harvard led at halftime, 49-24.
Co-captain Keith Wright led the way for the Crimson with 13 points and seven rebounds. Fellow front-court bruiser Kyle Casey had 11 points, seven boards, and three assists in 18 minutes of action. Miller, a Utah native, was next up with a career-high 13 points on 3-of-3 shooting from behind the arc.
Firmly in a rebuilding year under first-year coach Larry Krystowiak, the Utes were not expected to provide much of a challenge for the Ivy League favorite. The Pac-12 newcomers lived up to the lack of hype, allowing Harvard to shoot 18-of-33 (54.5 percent) from the floor in the first period and forcing just eight turnovers the whole game. Guard Josh Watkins once again led his team offensively, dropping 12 points, but failed to reach his lofty scoring average of 21 and had five turnovers.
"I think we came out a little sluggish but at the end, we fought," said Watkins, whose team has now lost three straight. "If we had played with the same intensity [in the first that we did in the second], it'd be a much closer game, and the outcome would probably be different."
Regardless of the caliber of its opponent, Harvard's ability to shake off any jitters about playing on national television—in a converted hotel ballroom seating 4,000 spectators, no less—was encouraging for Amaker, who notched a win over a Power Six-conference opponent for the fifth straight year.
"Maybe in years past it would have been a good draw to play Harvard, but right now it's a pretty well-oiled machine," Krystowiak said. "I think they're going to have a really successful year, and I wouldn't be surprised if they made some more noise in this tournament."
By midway through the second half, with the game's outcome no longer in doubt, Amaker felt comfortable enough to give double-digit minutes to a lineup of four freshmen—Miller, Wesley Saunders, Steve Moundou-Missi, Jonah Travis—and sophomore wing Laurent Rivard, who came off the bench to contribute six points.
It was that kind of night, one that allowed Amaker to rest his starters in anticipation of facing a much tougher opponent less than 24 hours later.
Harvard will face No. 22 Florida State Friday at 4:30 p.m. in the tournament semifinals after the Seminoles dismantled UMass Thursday.