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Men's Basketball Opens Season against Crosstown Challenger MIT

Locked In
Sophomore guard Rio Haskett prepares to release a free throw as junior guard Justin Bassey looks on. Both players figure to see significant playing time despite a crowded backcourt heading into the season.
The 237-day offseason for Harvard men’s basketball is finally over.

On Tuesday night, Lavietes Pavilion will open its doors to crosstown rival MIT as Harvard suits up for its first competitive game since bowing out of the NIT eight months ago.

Nov. 6 also marks the 127th day in office for recently-elected Harvard President Larry Bacow, who is expected to be in attendance in a clash of his two alma maters. Bacow earned his undergraduate economics degree from MIT before receiving a M.P.P., J.D. and Ph.D. at Harvard.

When asked where Bacow’s loyalties will line up, Coach Tommy Amaker wittingly expressed confidence that his heart would be with the Crimson.

“We will find out, but I do think we will have his allegiance,” Amaker proclaimed. “But he’s coming, he’s excited...with Harvard Athletics but obviously this game has special meaning in different ways for him.”

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Beyond this eminent appearance, the focus now shifts to the play on the court. Counted as an exhibition in past seasons, this year’s encounter with the Engineers is a legitimate contest for both teams.

Harvard is facing an MIT team that is currently ranked fifth in Division III basketball, straight off its second consecutive NEWMAC championship in 2017-18. Coach Larry Anderson guided the Engineers to a 25-6 overall mark in his 23rd season at the helm, ultimately concluding in the Elite Eight of the DIII Tournament.

“We are going into it to see where we are and to certainly play the players and lineups that have earned opportunities to be out there,” Amaker said. “I am not going into it thinking of ‘X’ amount of minutes, as we would in an exhibition or in closed scrimmages…. We are hopeful that we are going to be ready with the bodies and personnel we have.”

The reference to overall team health is particularly salient at the dawn of the campaign, as two of Amaker’s expected starters, juniors Bryce Aiken and Seth Towns, are still recovering from offseason knee surgeries. At the Nov. 2 preseason press conference, Amaker stated he is still awaiting news from medical staff and that both Aiken and Towns would be “out indefinitely.”

In their stead, junior forward Chris Lewis will likely retain his role as the centerpiece in Amaker’s “inside-out” offense. The 2017-18 All-Ivy first team awardee averaged 12.8 points per game last season and tallied a conference-best 60.1 field goal conversion percentage. Lewis also led the Crimson in overall player efficiency and win shares, with a PER of 24.2 and WS of 3.8.

The Alpharetta, Ga., native has continued to improve his physique and looks to embrace an even larger role for Harvard this season.

“For mine, it’d be conditioning and rebounding,” Lewis said. “That’s something that me and the coaches have talked about. We think I can be more effective if I work on that, both defensively and offensively. For about the last month, I went vegetarian, multiple professional athletes have done it to get better performance. I feel a lot more energy, my body feels a lot better.”

Surrounding Lewis will be other familiar faces in the junior class, who consisted of 76 percent of total Crimson scoring in the 2017-2018 campaign. Point guard Christian Juzang will no longer need to play all 40 minutes of the game with bench reinforcements from four-star freshman Spencer Freedman and healthy senior guard Tommy McCarthy. Defensive stalwart Justin Bassey, an 8.0 PPG and 2.8 DBPM (defensive box plus/minus) contributor, will be complemented by freshman Noah Kirkwood, sophomore Rio Haskett and senior Corey Johnson at the wings.

Amaker also noted a significant improvement in sophomore forward Danilo Djuricic’s game this offseason, who will play a versatile role as a stretch big in the rotation.

“Danilo has really been one of our front-court players thus far in practice,” Amaker said.

Johnson, alongside classmate Weisner Perez, has taken over the captain’s role this year from Chris Egi ’18. The fellow Canadian also noted an emphasis on diversifying his game from his traditional spot-out shooting role, which in his three seasons at Cambridge has netted him 189 total treys at an .381 clip.

“As a captain, I need to take that leadership role to the next level,” Johnson stated. “From a game perspective, being able to create off the dribble, not just being a shooter. Defensively, be aggressive.”

On the opposing side, Harvard challenges a squad that it eclipsed by a single-digit margin in last year’s opener. The Engineers’ high scorer in the 73-64 Crimson victory, then-junior Bradley Jomard, was tabbed as a preseason DIII third team All-American after averaging a team-leading 15.5 PPG in 16 double-digit scoring performances.

Jomard will be accompanied by captain AJ Jurko, who finished his season with a 14.2 PPG and 4.7 RPG tally. The NEWMAC Tournament Most Outstanding Player has a good eye in terms of ball distribution, landing him a conference-high 158 assists last season and is a danger from deep, with a team-high 45.8 percent clip.

Coming off the bench against the Crimson, then-freshman wing Hamilton Forsythe also gave the hosts problems on defense with 13 points. The NEWMAC Rookie of the Year logged a 0.523 field goal percentage, 0.447 three-point percentage, and holds a career-high of 29 points.

With dangerous perimeter weapons, MIT will be a sure-fire test for a short-handed Crimson roster. Outside of Lewis, complementary pieces will determine whether Harvard can turn the page of the first night unscathed.

— Staff writer Henry Zhu can be reached at henry.zhu@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @Zhuhen88.

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