With just 1.8 seconds remaining in the first quarter of the Ivy League Men’s Basketball Tournament semifinal at the Palestra, the Crimson held possession of the ball at its own baseline. Sophomore forward Robert Baker hurled a football pass over to classmate Chris Lewis, who, with his back facing the basket, snatched the ball over Cornell junior Jack Gordon’s outstretched arms and tossed the ball over to its final recipient. Standing at the “Y” of the midcourt IVY logo, 40 feet away from the basket with milliseconds left on the clock, sophomore guard Christian Juzang calmly swished in the buzzer-beater.
This staggering sequence of plays certainly involved a certain degree of luck. But for the Harvard men’s basketball team and Juzang especially, past preparation came into play even for rare situations like this one.
“Me and my teammate Corey Johnson try a couple of those in after practice everyday,” Juzang said. “Lewis had an amazing catch, Baker had a long throw to kind of put me in position, and then a little bit of God, a little bit of practice, and then it went in.”
This play epitomized the ready-at-all-times mentality that has propelled Juzang into a leading role on coach Tommy Amaker’s roster this season. Starting his second year as the backup point guard behind classmate Bryce Aiken, Juzang was placed in the spotlight during Ivy play after a knee injury sidelined Aiken for much of the latter half of the season.
With little remaining depth at the point guard position, Amaker entrusted Juzang to take over floor general duties on the sophomore-heavy team.The point guard had seen little action prior to early December, averaging only ten minutes of playing time per game over the first nine games of the season.
However, with the team struggling to shoot consistently and piling up losses to Northeastern, Holy Cross, Cal State Fullerton, among other opponents, Amaker recognized a need to switch up his rotation. Against Fordham on Dec. 6, Amaker gave Juzang his first night with double-digit minutes, with the exclusion of the MIT exhibition. Although he had a quiet night, the guard saw gradual increases both to his minutes and offensive production as Aiken could no longer suit up beginning on Dec. 21 against BU.
Then, in the Crimson’s first Ivy League contest against Dartmouth, Juzang recorded his first double-digit scoring performance of the season with 12 points in 35 minutes of game action. As the team began to gain momentum entering conference play, Juzang’s role continued to expand. In wins against Princeton, Penn, and Brown in mid-February, the point guard played in 119 out of 120 possible minutes with 14 made field goals and 11 assists in that span.
“I think [Juzang] has been playing tremendous basketball,” said Amaker after the Crimson’s win over Yale on Feb. 17. “Really proud of how he’s been able to come in and take the reigns of the team as our quarterback, still have an aggressive mindset, and also be really savvy and smart about when to pick his spots.”
"Really proud of how he's been able to come in and take the reigns of the team as our quarterback, still have an aggressive mindset, and also be really savvy and smart about when to pick his spots," Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said.
Juzang’s breakout game came on Feb. 9 against Princeton. With leading contributors Towns and Lewis mired in foul trouble, the Crimson turned to its point guard to generate offense. Juzang delivered a team-high 13 points in the first half, before adding two more baskets and three free throws for a new career-high 20 points. Harvard carried a double-digit halftime lead to the buzzer and knocked off last year’s Ivy champion, 66-51.
“Coach always talks about letting the game come to us,” Juzang said post-game. “Shots were just there to take. Just trying to make the play whenever I can, and credit to my teammates and coaching staff for that.”
The point guard would eclipse that performance with a 21-point, four-triple outing against Brown followed by a March 10 Cornell victory in which he tallied 20 points and four assists. A consistent presence at the charity stripe, Juzang would finish the season shooting over 88 percent from the line to go with a 40.9 percent clip from the field.
Juzang’s tenacity on the defensive end has earned him recognition among teammates as well. Throughout the season, Juzang was typically the first player to initiate a mark-up on an opposing guard, applying pressure on opponents before they even crossed half-court. Although he earned just 14 total steals on the season, this conscious effort at defending earlier in the possession helped the team lock in and stabilize its overall presence.
“The big thing for us is stopping the ball in transition,” said junior Corey Johnson after the Feb.17 Yale win. “That’s one thing Juzang does exceptionally well. He did a great job of just corralling the ball handlers so that they don’t get open and start finding guys, shooters with open looks. So that was a big thing for us, finding the shooters, getting back on defense and playing a full team defense all over the court.”
Juzang’s guidance at the lead guard role ultimately contributed to a strong Ivy season for the Crimson, which finished 12-2 in conference play to win its first Ivy League championship since 2015. Prior to the Ivy League tournament, Amaker noted Juzang’s performance as a significant reason for Harvard’s late season success.
“[Juzang]’s play has been very inspiring for the rest of the team,” Amaker said. “I thought his play on the ball defensively was the catalyst for us to get a lot better.… I think rhythm, I think leadership, I think the play of Juzang, I think all those elements really propelled us to really turn this ship around.”
The SoCal native will return to Cambridge with reinforcements, as fellow Californian and ESPN 4-star point guard Spencer Freedman headlines the incoming 2018 recruits for Amaker. Bryce Aiken, who Amaker stated was the team’s best player at the start of the 2017 season, will also figure to re-take a prominent role once he fully recovers from his knee injury.
This soon-to-be crowded backcourt will certainly alleviate expectations for Juzang to play all 40 minutes every game. Nevertheless, as competition continues to grow in the Ivies and with new talent bountiful, success will likely depend on a repeated mantra of Amaker’s “bench and balance.”
Juzang’s efforts in taking over for a star player this year put into action this importance of depth and readiness on a college basketball roster. It also showed that, even if just for one play, it doesn’t hurt to shoot threes from Curry range during practice.
—Staff writer Henry Zhu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.