Although the Crimson came up a basket short of joining the Big Dance after losing to Penn in the 2018 Ivy League Tournament Championship, Harvard will return 99.4 percent of its scoring from last season, good enough for second most in the country. In order to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015, the Crimson will once again rely heavily on its prestiged group of juniors while receiving additional support from a highly touted group of freshman recruits and other complementary pieces.
With two seasons of collegiate play in the books, youth or inexperience can no longer be excuses for the much heralded group of juniors that comprised over 76 percent of the Crimson’s total scoring and over 67 percent of the team’s total minutes played last season. Harvard will pose arguably the most dynamic trio of offensive weapons in the Ivy League next season, spurred by the return of a healthy guard Bryce Aiken. The 2016-2017 Ivy League Rookie of the Year suited up for only 14 contests last season, battling a knee injury for much of early 2018 before shuttering his season in February.
Even through an injury-riddled sophomore year, Aiken displayed impressive early performances including a 30-point outing against UMass and a 26-point showing against Northeastern. With an important part of his game deriving from his quickness and rim-attacking abilities, the Crimson will likely have to wait patiently for its point guard to return to full form and reap the full benefits of Aiken’s playmaking.
Guiding the Crimson offense throughout Aiken’s absence was last season’s Ivy League Player of the Year, forward Seth Towns, as well as All-Ivy first team awardee Chris Lewis, whose dominant interior play saw him convert a league-best 60.1 percent of field goals. Towns and Lewis combined for 28.8 points per game last season and trailed only classmate Justin Bassey in various non-scoring metrics such as rebounding totals and steals. Towns, who was second only behind Cornell’s Matt Morgan in Ancient Eight scoring last season, will likely be again competing with the Big Red senior in terms of end-of-season offensive accolades.
The aforementioned Bassey will continue to be a critical defensive cog for Harvard after he held opponents to a league-best 66.5 points per game in 2017-2018. The Colorado Academy product was lauded as the defensive team MVP by Coach Amaker and was consistently matched up with the opposing team’s greatest scoring threats throughout his sophomore campaign. Starting 27 out of 31 games last season, Bassey logged a team-high 184 rebounds and also led the team with 79 assists.
Complementing this cast are two upperclassmen, junior guard Christian Juzang and senior captain Corey Johnson, who earned significant playing time last season but have fewer guarantees in this season’s campaign. Juzang began last season battling for fringe minutes on Amaker’s bench but was quickly thrust into a starting role due to Aiken’s continued health issues, before playing nearly every minute as the sole point guard by the conclusion of the campaign. Scoring in double digits in nine Ivy contests and averaging 40.9 percent from the field, the Tarzana, Calif., native will need to continue his consistent play in the face of competition from returnee Aiken and newcomer Spencer Freedman.
A different narrative is in play for senior captain and sharpshooter Corey Johnson, who struggled in non-conference play from deep but improved in Ancient Eight challenges with strong outings in both Columbia contests and the victory over Penn for a combined 46 points. Amaker will still rely on the senior captain for his long range shooting abilities that saw him finish his sophomore season with a 41.3 accuracy rate, as compared to the 33.1 percent average he posted last season.
Amaker needs continued growth from guard Rio Haskett and forward Danilo Djuricic, both of whom saw significant playing time in their first season in Cambridge. Haskett and Djuricic were key cogs for Harvard in the back stretch of the year, and were fixtures in Amaker’s rotations at the Ivy League tournament in Philadelphia.
Rounding out the returning players include frontcourt complements Robert Baker and Henry Welsh, who saw limited minutes in 2017-2018 as energy boosters off the bench. Seniors Tommy McCarthy and co-captain Weisner Perez will also fight for minutes on the deep Harvard roster.
Along with returning nearly all of last season’s scoring, the Crimson will add the highest-rated recruiting class in the league based on 247Sport’s Composite Team Rankings. The four incoming freshmen will bolster a medley of positions on the Harvard roster and address several team needs, including ball distribution, wing versatility and frontcourt length.
Four-star combo guard Noah Kirkwood joins the team after spending last year at Northfield Mount Hermon, a nationally-ranked New England prep school which had 11 of its former players in the Ivy League in 2015-2016. The 6’7” native of Ottawa, Ont., was a Gold Medalist alongside fellow countryman Djuricic at the FIBA U-19 World Championships in 2017, following a stellar four-year stint at Asbury College High School in which Kirkword and broke almost all major school records in points, assists, rebounds and wins. Boasting a physical frame, strong rebounding skills and agile defensive ability at a variety of positions, Kirkwood’s aggressive play and versatility may create opportunities as a wing contributor similar to that of junior Justin Bassey.
The nephew of WNBA MVP and four-time Olympic gold medalist Tamika Catchings and grandson of 11-year NBA veteran Harvey Catchings, Missouri native Kale Catchings is certainly no stranger to basketball royalty. Nonetheless, the 6’6” forward and school valedictorian at Liberty High School holds plenty of accolades under his own name, including winning all-state honors and shattering single-season records in his sole year at Liberty. A mentee of current NBA All-Star and fellow St. Louis native Bradley Beal, Catchings can similarly catch fire from long range while also displaying athletic finishing at the rim.
Hailing from the greater Sacramento area, Mason Forbes received offers from West Coast schools including San Diego State and St. Mary’s but decided to pursue his college education in the frigid Northeast. With a 6’8” lanky athletic frame, Forbes will likely be known initially as the “AfroKid” by many onlookers. Regardless, the Folsom, Calif., native hopes to impress on the court in more serious ways, as a domineering shot blocker and stretch big on the beneficiary side of interior lobs. The son and grandchild of former Harlem Globetrotters, Forbes looks to continue a legacy of entertaining basketball amongst the Harvard frontcourt currently led by more traditional back-to-the-basket players such as juniors Chris Lewis and Henry Welsh.
Possessing his own Wikipedia page and boasting an impressive resume from his time at the famed Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, Calif., four-star point guard Spencer Freedman rounds out the 2018 recruiting class. Freedman enters his freshman year as a 20-year old and may be quickly propelled into an important contributing role, with likely starter Bryce Aiken still on the upswing from a knee injury. Standing at six feet even, Freedman was a three-time captain at Mater Dei and possesses strong passing and three-point acuity. Having faced fierce competition in the Orange County circuits throughout his childhood including the likes of the Ball Brothers, Freedman will be no stranger to packed crowds and the bright lights of the Ancient Eight.
Guard: Bryce Aiken-JR
Guard: Justin Bassey-JR
Forward: Seth Towns-JR
Forward: Corey Johnson-SR
Forward: Chris Lewis-JR
Key Opponents - Non-Conference
UMass - November 13, Amherst, Mass.
The Crimson will travel to play the Minutemen in the second year of a home-and-home series with its in-state foes. Despite ultimately finishing 13th out of 14 teams in the Atlantic-10 conference, UMass pushed Harvard to the limit in Cambridge last November.
In that contest, Bryce Aiken hit a game-winning three-pointer in the dying seconds to lift the Crimson to its second win of the young season. The then-sophomore also tallied a career-high 30 points in front of a sold-out Lavietes Pavilion crowd, as Harvard topped UMass for the first time in the teams’ previous four matchups.
Key to repeating last year’s final result will be Harvard’s attention to Minutemen’s leading scorer Luwane Pipkins, who registered over 21 points per game as a sophomore. The Chicago, Ill., native tallied 23 points in last year’s meeting and will likely remain the focal point of UMass’ offensive sets as a crafty playmaker.
Second-year coach Matt McCall will welcome a slew of transfers who were required to sit out in his inaugural season leading the Minutemen, including Vanderbilt transfer Djery Baptiste. Big man Rashaan Holloway, who tallied fifteen points and nine rebounds against the Crimson last season, will also return for a graduate year.
After last season’s nailbiter, the early-season matchup with the Minutemen should prove an apt measuring stick for the team as the out of conference slate heats up.
MIT - November 6, Lavietes Pavilion, Cambridge, Mass.
For the eighth straight year, Harvard’s season kicks off at home against its Cambridge neighbor, hosting MIT in the first game of the schedule for both squads. The Engineers will make the one mile journey down the Charles River in attempt to spoil the opening of the Crimson’s campaign.
Harvard’s trio of juniors—Towns, Lewis, and Aiken—all shined in last year’s matchup with MIT and will look to start the 2018-2019 season with a similar bang. Lewis recorded his first career double-double with 13 points and a then-career-high 10 rebounds, while Towns led the Crimson with 20 points to kickstart his campaign as the first sophomore Ivy League Player of the Year in 10 years. Aiken, the 2016-2017 Ivy League Rookie of the Year, added on another 12 to help defeat the Engineers.
MIT, a team even younger than Harvard that did not feature a single senior on its 2017-2018 roster, is coming off of a NEWMAC Conference Tournament Championship that earned it a bid in the Division III NCAA Tournament. The Engineers finished the season nationally ranked 19 following a loss in the Elite Eight of the Division III Tournament to Ramapo. Harvard, a similarly youthful team, will look to its gained experience from last season to launch the season in strong fashion.
St. Mary’s (Calif.) - November 24, Moraga, Calif.
Harvard will travel to the West Coast over Thanksgiving weekend hoping to avenge last season’s defeat at the hands of St. Mary’s. The Gaels, then ranked 21st in the nation, topped the Crimson 89-71 during the Wooden Legacy Tournament.
Harvard will face a tough challenge, as St. Mary’s finished last season at 30-6, second in its conference only to Gonzaga. Despite concluding the season ranked in the top 25, the then-number 25 Gaels were excluded from the tournament after dropping its WCC Tournament semifinal game to BYU. Despite what was criticized as a soft schedule, St. Mary’s felt its omission from March Madness was a snub and will look to avoid a similar absence from the tournament.
A very different team will take the court for the Gaels than the squad that prevailed over the Crimson last November. While Harvard is returning a second-best in the nation 99.4 percent of its scoring, St. Mary’s saw the departure of three of its top four scorers. This includes its star player of the 2017-2018 season, Jock Landale. The Australian center averaged 21.1 points per game last season, an average he surpassed in a 26 point showing against the Crimson.
Gaels coach Randy Bennett welcomes five new international recruits this season, including two New Zealanders, one Australian, one Estonian and one Brit. This array of talent with plenty of international experience at the youth level will bring plenty of new energy and excitement to Moraga after the departure of its “Golden Generation.”
Harvard hopes that the gained experience from its last season will be enough to tip the scales from last year and overcome the new-look Gaels.
Mercer - December 29 or 30, State Farm Arena, Atlanta, Ga.
Over the holiday break the Crimson will take on Mercer under the bright lights of State Farm Arena, home of the Atlanta Hawks. The trip to the Peach State will be a homecoming for junior forwards Chris Lewis and Robert Baker, both of whom hail from Georgia.
A basketball program most noteworthy for its 2014 NCAA Tournament upset over third-seeded Duke, Bob Hoffman’s Bears will field a young roster heading into this season. With the graduation of leading scorers Ria’n Holland and Jordan Strawberry, Mercer has retooled with eight freshmen.
The Bears finished in the middle of the pack in the Southern Conference last season, after compiling a 11-7 record against league opposition. Harvard played Mercer in 2002 and 2007, both handy wins for the Crimson in Cambridge.
The Crimson was handed a gut-wrenching, one-point road loss by the Wofford Terriers last season. The Terriers compiled a 1-2 record in 2017-2018 against the Bears, in Southern conference play. Mercer should, as Wofford did last season, provide an intriguing road test for a Harvard team that will attempt to block out the distraction (and excitement) of playing in an NBA arena.
University of North Carolina - January 2, Chapel Hill, N.C.
If playing at the Dean Smith Center, one of the most historic buildings in college basketball, does not provide enough motivation for the Crimson, facing off against coach Roy Williams and a perennial championship-contending program should.
The Tar Heels represent the most vaunted team on Harvard’s out of conference slate, and will in all likelihood open the season as a top-10 ranked team in the country. Despite losing centerpiece guards Theo Pinson and Joel Berry, UNC will mix a talented recruiting class featuring multiple five-star recruits with veteran players like Luke Maye, Cameron Johnson and Kenny Williams.
A mere three days after the team’s tilt with Mercer, the Jan. 2 date with the Tar Heels will serve a similar function as last year’s matchup at the University of Kentucky, testing the Crimson’s resolve against one of college basketball’s blue bloods.
Last season’s nine-point loss in Lexington, Ky., provided encouragement that the team could compete against the best teams in the country, and Coach Amaker will surely hope for similar competitiveness from his players.
And although the timing of the game might preclude the Dean Smith Center from featuring its typical student-driven fervor, playing on the road against a three-time national champion in Roy Williams will prove a daunting test for Amaker and the Harvard team.
Key Opponents - Ivy League
Cornell - vs. February 9, @ March 9
Harvard completed the rare three-game sweep on Cornell last season. The Crimson secured victories in a game decided by a three-point margin, going into double-overtime and a conference tournament runaway. Cornell proved to be the surprise of last season thanks to guard Matt Morgan and forward Stone Gettings, but will not be able to benefit from the same starpower this season.
The Big Red rode its pair of stars to surprisingly secure the final spot in the Ivy League Tournament. The worst defense in the Ancient Eight (80.4 points allowed per game) relied on offensive firepower from Morgan and Gettings. Morgan led the conference in scoring at an impressive 22.5 points per game, good for ninth in the country.
Gettings, however, has left a gaping hole on the Cornell roster. The Ivy League standout announced in May that he would be sitting out the 2018-2019 to become a graduate transfer. The forward committed to Arizona last fall and will graduate in December in order to join the Wildcats for the 2019-2020 season. If the Big Red hopes to challenge Harvard and shock the conference yet again by returning to the Ancient Eight tournament, it will have to find a way to fill the big shoes Gettings has left empty in Ithaca.
Princeton - @ February 15, vs. March 2
Following a disappointing campaign in 2017-2018, Princeton will hope to bounce back when conference play starts in 2019. The perennial powerhouse struggled under Mitch Henderson for the first time in several seasons. The Tigers finished the 2016-2017 season undefeated in the Ivy League, winning the inaugural conference tournament and even taking heavily favored Notre Dame to the buzzer in a dramatic NCAA Tournament loss. Princeton was without three top players last season, but faltered compared to preseason predictions in failing to make the Ancient Eight tournament.
The Tigers will look to its pair of newly minted senior guards, Devin Cannady and Myles Stephens, to lead the team back to the top of the Ivy League standings. Cannady and Stephens were the teams top two scorers, averaging 16.7 and 15.3 points per game, respectively. The pair contributed to a Princeton squad that shot the best in the league from beyond the arc at 37.4 percent last season.
The Crimson swept the Tigers last season, with a 15-point victory at home and an overtime thriller on the road. Both teams return key players this season and should compete in a pair of decisive heavyweight battles.
Yale - vs. February 1, @ February 23
Harvard’s oldest rival, like the Crimson, will field a very familiar team in this season’s campaign. Yale returns all five of its starters from last season, including star junior guard Miye Oni. Oni, the Bulldogs’ leading scorer with 15.1 points per game, stepped up to the occasion following a disappointing finale to the Yale chapter of 2016-2017 preseason Ivy League Player of the Year Makai Mason. Mason, who missed the entire 2016-2017 season following a preseason injury, played in only one game in his senior season. His next collegiate appearance will come as a member of the Baylor Bears.
Despite Mason’s absence, Yale safely made the Ivy League Tournament as the third-seeded team. Oni and company were not enough to move forward at the Palestra, being trounced by Penn in the first round.
Harvard swept Yale in two of its best defensive performances of the year last season, allowing only 52 and 49 points to the Bulldogs in the Crimson’s two wins over Yale. This time around will look similar, as both squads will return all of its starters as of last season’s end, with the addition of previously injured juniors in Aiken and Yale forward Jordan Bruner entering into the mix. These circumstances paired with the always-exciting Harvard-Yale rivalry set the scene for a pair of anticipatory matchups between the two squads this season.
Penn - @ February 16, vs. March 1
The reigning Ivy League Tournament champions that shared the regular season title with the Crimson will look to earn a second straight trip to the NCAA Tournament. Last season, Harvard and Penn split their regular season series, each winning at home. The deciding game, also played on Penn’s home court at the Palestra in Philadelphia, swung in the Quakers’ favor.
Although Penn lost guards Darnell Foreman and Caleb Wood, two of the team’s top four scorers, it returns its top two scorers, juniors Ryan Bentley and AJ Brodeur, who combined for 33 of the Quakers’ 68 points against the Crimson in the Ancient Eight tournament championship. Brodeur recorded a double-double in the contest with 16 points and 10 rebounds, which was not a rare sight for the forward, who finished second in the Ivy League in rebounds.
Penn’s balanced team won games on both ends of the court last season through solid play, with its third-ranked offense and second-ranked defense combining for a leading +7.0 average scoring margin. Harvard finished with a distant second-place at +1.7.
The Quakers will have to avoid letting off-the-court distractions get in the way of repeating last season’s success. This summer, it was revealed that former head coach Jerome Allen was incidentally caught up in a bribery scandal when a Miami businessman that had retained the coach for his son was indicted for Medicaid fraud. Although Allen is no longer with Penn and is now a coach for the NBA’s Boston Celtics, the recruiting scandal is unlikely to disappear from the media throughout the season. Nevertheless, the talented Quakers squad that earned itself a trip to the NCAA Tournament last season is sure to grapple with the Crimson for the top spot in the Ivy League.
After coming up four points shy of an Ancient Eight title and an NCAA Tournament berth last season, the Crimson will look to go the distance this season. Losing under one percent of last year’s scoring, the return of a healthy Aiken and another talented recruiting class for coach Amaker, the Crimson appear in good position to return to its first Big Dance since 2015.
Harvard will open its season at home, hosting MIT on November 6 at Lavietes Pavilion.
—Staff writer Henry Zhu can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @ Zhuhen88.
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—Staff writer Joseph W. Minatel can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @JoeyMinatel.