For the Harvard men’s basketball team, Friday has been a day marked on its calendar since the start of its offseason program.
On the surface, the team’s first game of the 2017-2018 season against MIT is nothing more than an exhibition. But for a team coming off a devastating loss at the hands of Yale in the inaugural Ivy League tournament, Friday is more than just a showcase game.
Come Friday, the Crimson begins its trek to redemption at Lavietes against MIT. While Harvard’s starting lineup is still anyone’s guess, one thing is for certain: the Crimson’s sophomore class will be at the center of the team’s success.
The class will be spearheaded by sophomore guard Bryce Aiken—in this same matchup a year ago, the rookie finished with a team-high 17 points off the bench. That first game would be telling of the Ivy League Rookie of the Year season that was to come, and as the team begins its season on Friday, the sophomore will no doubt again be at the heart of the Harvard’s offense.
“[Aiken] has worked this summer, and I think he’s been more willing to think about how much more other players are going to have to help for us to reach certain goals, talking to guys through the summer and spring and making sure we’re getting our workouts in,” head coach Tommy Amaker said. “It’s not golf or tennis where it just matters what you do, it matters what we do.”
In last year’s matchup against the Engineers, the Crimson’s victory was a largely offensive effort. Harvard finished the game with 78 points, holding the Engineers to 63. MIT was lead by sophomore guard Bradley Jomard, who finished that game with a team-high 14 points and would finish the season averaging over 15. As the Crimson look to Friday’s matchup, containing Jomard will be key to coming away with a win.
Led by Aiken and an athletic wing in sophomore Justin Bassey and forward Seth Towns, Harvard’s offense looks to be just as potent as it was a season prior.
“I’m just thinking with the team that we have that we should have a team that can score with the weapons that we anticipate having,” Amaker said. “They’re playing for us and hopefully they’re playing well. We think that we should be able to score fairly well.”
The Crimson’s real test, however, comes Sunday.
In a season that saw Harvard start the season 1-4, an early loss to UMass was a low point for the Crimson’s squad last year. In that game, Harvard shot only 37 percent from the field and a still developing Aiken went 0-of-9 from the field, earning all six of his points at the stripe.
Come Sunday, the Crimson will be looking to avenge that 66-70 loss in Amherst.
Just as the development and on-court experience of coach Amaker’s sophomores will certainly be a key for Harvard, the same is true for the Minutemen—UMass return a class of five sophomores, with guard Luwane Pipkins coming off an impressive freshman campaign. One crucial loss for the team is Donte Clark, who opted to transfer to Coastal Carolina as a graduate student for his final year of eligibility after previously declaring for the NBA Draft.
All told, the Crimson returns nearly 75 percent of its scoring from last season—much of it concentrated in the sophomore class.
“One main thing is we have seven sophomores instead of seven freshman. I think that’s one of the biggest differences,” Towns said. “I think with all of us freshman last year having those roles and that translating into what we have now is really nice because there’s so much growth in everybody’s game.”
Also imperative to Harvard’s success is its emerging frontcourt. While much of the Crimson’s minutes last season were split between senior forward Zena Edosomwan and freshman Chris Lewis, the graduation of Edosomwan puts the bulk of the rebounding on Lewis coming into his second year. Lewis, along with classmates Robert Baker Jr. and Henry Welsh, will look to anchor a Harvard defense that has been the staple of Amaker’s tenure in Cambridge. Whether they’ll bring the same tenacity Edosomwan brought to Harvard remains to be seen.
Despite the questions surrounding the young squad, Amaker remains excited for the prospect of a new season.
“I think we’re kind of anxious to find out as we go against someone else,” Amaker said. “Kind of where we stand with certain things.”
—Staff writer Troy Boccelli can be reached at email@example.com.