Zena Edosomwan’s layup beat the buzzer but it was not enough to extend his college career. Bryce Aiken held his head in his hands. Balsa Dragovic consoled Siyani Chambers as the rest of his teammates lined up to shake hands. Yale had lived to see another day.
Eight months after losing to the Bulldogs in a semifinal of the inaugural Ivy League Tournament, the Harvard men’s basketball team is hungry.
“We worked a lot harder, I think, than we started out last year,” sophomore forward Seth Towns said. “Coach harps on no regrets, and I think we have regrets after that game. We all attacked the summer with a ton of vengeance.”
“Going into this summer, we just grinded,” sophomore guard Bryce Aiken added. “I know each and every one of us just grinded, grinded, grinded because we know what our goals are this year and how we want to finish the season.”
It’s November and Harvard coach Tommy Amaker is discussing the defeat at the hands of his team’s biggest rival. He describes it as “crushing” and “gut-wrenching”, says that his players felt like they had had their hearts ripped out, and compares it to his team’s 2011 Ivy League playoff loss to Princeton, a game which Amaker often cites as one of the most devastating of his coaching career.
“They put everything they had into it and you can still do that and not get out of it what you wanted or what you thought you deserved,” Amaker said. “We always want to be in a position where we think we deserve things and even when you deserve things, that doesn’t always mean you get it.”
But Amaker, who is entering his 11th season at the helm, also uses words like “catalyst” and “propel” when describing the ramifications of this game for his program.
“I just felt like when you have it there like that and you’re able to push through later or next time, boy, sometimes the dam breaks and here comes the waterfall,” Amaker said.
Amaker emphasizes that every team that he has coached has been different. While this year’s squad returns 73 percent of its minutes from a season ago, the team will feel very different than the 2016-2017 version of the Crimson, which was largely Chambers and Edosomwan playing with an extremely talented but extremely young roster. Amaker has had ten different teams at Harvard, but his tenure can largely be broken up into a few eras. From his hiring in 2007 through the 2011 season, the Crimson was building its foundation—Amaker was bringing in his recruits, the team began picking up some wins against marquee opponents, and in 2011, it won a share of the Ivy League crown for the first time ever.
For all the raw emotion and heartbreak, the 2011 Princeton playoff game may have been the moment that took Harvard from good to great, from a cool story to a conference dynasty, from a middle-of-the-pack Ivy to a mid-major powerhouse. Following the loss, Harvard would go on to win 118 of its next 153 games (a .771 winning percentage), capture the league crown four years in a row, win two NCAA Tournament games, and take perennial powers Michigan State and North Carolina to the brink.
“I’ve always talked about how you can really trace some great organizations, teams, players where that moment, where they felt that their heart was ripped out, and that became the defining moment,” Amaker said. “I’ve been on some of those teams, I’ve been a part of some of those kinds of moments so we’re hopeful that we’ll look at moments that can define us and propel us and be catalysts for us going forward.”
Chambers’ ACL tear and the graduation of the 2015 senior class proved to be too much to overcome as Harvard took a step back in 2015-2016. Fast-forward to 2017. Coinciding with the renovation of Lavietes Pavilion is another project. It remains to be seen how long this one will actually take. It began last year when Amaker brought in the most heralded recruiting class in league history to play alongside six underclassmen.
“Last year was a lot of adjusting, especially for us freshmen,” Towns said. “This year with our whole sophomore class, it’s trying to contribute and help into building our team. The leadership’s coming from everybody in all different kinds of angles. That was the main focus and that’s where our growth was.”
This season, and essentially the next three, will be based on the growth and development of this year’s sophomore class. While the seven second-years will have a different cast of supporting players around them for each of the next three seasons, it is truly their team at this point. The class is certainly talented enough to win the next three Ivy League championships. With a year of experience under their belts, the sophomores face the question of whether they can do the little things well and make the jump from a talented group of recruits to the core of an enduring NCAA Tournament team.
“One main thing is we have seven sophomores instead of seven freshmen,” Towns said. “I think that’s one of the biggest differences. I think with all of us freshmen last year having those roles and then translating into what we have now is really nice because there’s so much growth in everybody’s game.”
While the talent is there, the question of how far this team will go largely centers around execution and development. Last year’s freshmen played about as well as a crop of 18 and 19-year-olds can in today’s Ivy League. Aiken brought home Ivy League Rookie of the Year honors and was a first team All-Ivy pick. Towns was Harvard’s second-leading scorer, Justin Bassey emerged as the team’s top perimeter defender, and Chris Lewis started 23 games at center. Robert Baker, Christian Juzang, and Henry Welsh all saw meaningful minutes off the bench.
What set the Amaker teams that made four straight NCAA Tournaments apart was often their ability to execute and develop. They won games that they were supposed to win—the Crimson went 47-5 at home and picked up at least six wins over each Ivy foe over the four-year period. Strong defense and an inside-out approach on the offensive end have been two characteristics of Harvard teams since Amaker has arrived in Cambridge. While the Crimson held opponents to 41.2 percent shooting from the field last season—which is in line with the percentages from 2011-2015—replacing Edosomwan as a physical defensive presence, excellent screen-setter, and rebounder will be key.
“I think [Lewis] has a chance to be one of the bigger keys for our team this season,” Amaker said. “Going back to the balance component, we talk about Lewis being kind of anchoring our frontline, being one of the interior guys for us. We certainly feel like the interior portion of our team could be the difference in how successful we are.”
Finally, the four NCAA Tournament teams could win close games. While Aiken has established himself as Harvard’s closer and was competitive in every game that it played last season, it struggled to win the close ones, dropping seven contests that were decided by four or fewer points.
“I think it’s obvious that he’s shown to be our best player,” Amaker said. “We need him to be who he’s capable of being, which is to be a dynamic, exciting guard that has confidence and can make shots in a lot of different ways.”
While recruiting services can project the scoring ability, defensive potential, and physical aspects of high school players, they are not as accurate when it comes to measuring when recruits will develop into the kinds of players that they were brought in to be. That’s where coaching, game experience, and preparation come in. Harvard’s sophomores showed flashes of what lies ahead for the program. The Crimson is talented enough to beat nearly every team on its schedule—the question is, will it?
The team’s rotation centers around its sophomore class. Aiken will be the team’s starting point guard and will likely be flanked by Bassey and junior sharpshooter Corey Johnson on the wings. Bassey will be a minutes eater and match up with the opposing team’s best offensive player. Johnson is the team’s best three-point shooter but struggled down the stretch last season, converting just five of his final 23 field goal attempts.
“I think he is in a great place, I think his mindset is very positive,” Amaker said. “He had a really good summer and really worked out hard as all of our guys did.”
Junior Tommy McCarthy and Juzang will battle for backup point guard minutes and freshman guard Mario Haskett figures to see some time on a wing, something which Towns and even Aiken may do.
In the frontcourt, Towns and Lewis will likely start at the four and five, respectively, but the team has a slew of big men with a wide range of skill sets. Welsh and captain Chris Egi are back-to-the-basket bigs while Robert Baker is a lanky 6’11” and can stretch the defense with his jump shot.
“I think it’s interesting throughout the season, especially in the Ivy League, you’re going to play some bruisers, you’re going to play some twos who play the four, so obviously having a huge variety of the guys on your team that you’re practicing with day in and day out, that prepares you for the games,” Egi said.
Junior forward Weisner Perez is undersized but is one of the team’s best rebounders and strongest players. Freshman forward Danilo Djuricic has been praised for his versatility, size, and shooting ability. The depth will be key not only for the team’s customary back-to-back conference games but also for its rigorous non-conference slate.
“We have a very challenging schedule, one that we are very excited about participating in, opportunities for us to play some of the best teams in the country, ranked teams on the road, holiday tournament with the Wooden Legacy, all really neat things for this team and our program as a whole,” Amaker said.
In addition to usual suspects like UMass, Holy Cross, Northeastern, Fordham, and Vermont, Harvard will square off with three teams that figure to make deep runs in March. The marquee matchup comes on Dec. 2 when Harvard travels to Rupp Arena to take on Kentucky. John Calipari’s roster boasts 7 five-star recruits and is ranked No. 5 in the AP preseason poll. The Crimson will also make the trip to the Land of 10,000 Lakes to take on a Minnesota team that returns six of its top seven scorers from a team that was a five seed in last season’s NCAA Tournament. Amir Coffey and Nate Mason make up one of the nation’s most dynamic backcourts. Additionally, Harvard will play in the Wooden Legacy, in which it will face a senior-laden St. Mary’s team that won 29 games a season ago. A strange twist to the Crimson’s schedule this year is that the team will play just four of its 15 nonconference games at home.
“It’s not easy, all this isn’t completely by design, we would love to have more home games but it has been difficult getting home games for people to be willing to play us here,” Amaker said. “It’s hard to win on the road, but if you can do that and show you are tough and confident and can execute in different environments, it will bode well for us overall [and] should give us some confidence in our conference.”
When the calendar switches over to 2018, Harvard will have its hands full with a loaded Ivy League. Penn finished last season as one of the hottest teams in the conference and returns its core from a team that topped both the Crimson and Elis down the stretch. Cornell and Dartmouth bring back two of the league’s best players in Matt Morgan and Evan Boudreaux, respectively. Harvard, Princeton, and Yale are the favorites to bring home the second annual Ivy League Tournament championship. The Tigers lose a lot of size and scoring ability from its frontcourt but brings back the three-headed monster of Amir Bell, Devin Cannady, and Myles Stephens.
“Princeton [is] obviously coming off of a tremendous year, historic year from them, losing some players but certainly when you have those kind of years, the confidence within your program, I would think, just going off experience with us, would be very high,” Amaker said.
However, the biggest hurdle to Ivy League supremacy for the Crimson likely resides in New Haven. The Bulldogs lose big man Sam Downey and will be small and thin in the frontcourt with 6’7” Blake Reynolds as the anchor. However, sophomores Miye Oni and Jordan Bruner proved to be program cornerstones as freshmen, junior Trey Phills is a steady hand on the wing, and junior guard Alex Copeland had his way with Harvard in each of the teams’ three matchups. Perhaps most importantly, Yale returns a healthy Makai Mason, the 2015-2016 Ivy League Player of the Year who won over hearts and minds in leading the Bulldogs to a 79-75 win in the 2016 NCAA Tournament.
Harvard and Yale are not particularly fond of one another and last season’s three matchups, including the showdown at the Palestra, did little to help. The Crimson certainly has the talent, depth, and size to topple the Bulldogs this time around and will look to do so on Jan. 26 in New Haven, Feb. 17 in Cambridge, and perhaps March 11 in Philadelphia. Whether this is the year that the dam breaks remains to be seen.
—Staff writer Stephen J. Gleason can be reached at email@example.com.