In some ways, the seniors have fulfilled all of the expectations that were placed on the group, which 247 Sports’ Composite Team Rankings regarded as the 25th-best recruiting class in the nation. They have won at least a share of the Ivy League title in consecutive years and last season advanced to the second round of the NIT for the first time in program history.
But one achievement is missing: an NCAA Tournament appearance.
Last year’s team was the first in Tommy Amaker’s 11-year Crimson career that was totally devoid of NCAA Tournament experience — this year’s team is the second.
That said, everything seems lined up for the Crimson to end that drought and find itself in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015. Harvard returns 96.4 percent of its minutes and 96.7 percent of its scoring from a year ago, second and third most in the country, respectively.
It should also eventually get 2017-18 Ivy League Player of the Year, Seth Towns, back from an injury that kept him out all of last season.
And unlike the last two years, when top-seeded Crimson teams had to face Penn and Yale in the finals of the Ivy League Tournament at Penn and Yale, Harvard will have home-court advantage should it reach the Ivy League postseason this time around.
With a healthy, seasoned roster and a friendly tournament atmosphere, the heralded 2016 recruiting class could be poised to end its Crimson career on a high note.
The Returning Roster
Towns’s eventual return — the team remains silent about his timetable — will boost a squad that already had a lot of depth. Scrappy senior point guard Bryce Aiken, a unanimous All-Ivy first team selection and the league’s leading scorer with north of 22 points per game last season, will lead the ranks with Towns. Aiken battled injuries for the second consecutive season, missing most of the non-conference slate and suiting up for 18 games after playing 14 the season before, but he showed his talent and his mettle in league play, consistently taking over games down the stretch.
Without Towns, Harvard did not have a second natural go-to scorer on its roster, and Aiken ably shouldered more of the load. He was responsible for Harvard’s signature moment last season, a double-clutch three-pointer against Columbia to send the game into double-overtime before the Crimson eventually won. The shot was the top play on SportsCenter and accounted for three of Aiken’s career-high 44 points, the second-most in school history.
The Randolph, N.J., native then hit a game-tying triple against Penn the following weekend and a game-winner against Yale a weekend after that before pouring in 38 points in the Ivy League Tournament final. Aiken tested the NBA draft waters after the season, a sign of the extent to which the former four-star recruit has improved, before opting to come back to school for his senior season.
Harvard should get Towns back at some point this year, and it will be interesting to see how the former Ivy League Player of the Year fits into the lineup next to Aiken. Two seasons ago, playing the forward position, Towns led the team in scoring and finished just a few ticks behind classmate Justin Bassey for the team lead in rebounding. With Cornell’s Matt Morgan having graduated, and Yale’s Miye Oni in the NBA, Aiken and Towns, along with Penn’s A.J. Brodeur, could finish at the top of the Ivy League scoring charts.
The rest of last year’s core also returns. Bassey, a do-it-all forward and often the team’s defensive stopper, has been the Crimson’s most consistent player over the last three years. He’s averaged upwards of 27 minutes per game each season and is in line for a hefty amount of playing time this year too. While he is not flashy, Bassey contributes hustle plays that do not always appear on the scoresheet. He has led Harvard in rebounds for two straight years while also adding a couple of assists and a steal or so per contest. No matter how Tommy Amaker chooses to sort out his rotation — and he has a multitude of options — Bassey, because of his versatility and role-player prowess, seems set to be a big part of Amaker’s plans.
In addition to the star power of Towns and Aiken and the heart-and-soul of Bassey, it is clear that the Crimson does not lack quality returning wing pieces. In the absence of Towns last year, then-freshman Noah Kirkwood grew into a key role off of the bench at first before later becoming a starter and often Harvard’s second-most dangerous offensive weapon. Kirkwood was the only player not named Bryce Aiken to crack double figures in the Ivy League Tournament final, and he went on to finish second on the team with 30 points in the Crimson’s two NIT games. While Kirkwood sometimes looked like the first-year he was — in particular, he spoke last season about improving his body language after a call goes against him — the broad-shouldered combo guard showed an ability to create his own buckets and also chipped in on the boards, finishing third on the team in rebounds.
Also back are senior point guard Christian Juzang and senior forward Chris Lewis, both of whom started regularly for most of last season. While some may have thought that the return of Aiken last season would have sent Juzang to the bench, the steady ball-handler started all but two Ivy League games and played at least 20 minutes in every single league game. Juzang will look to serve as the lead guard that Amaker trusts most after Aiken, and his ability to knock down three-pointers at a 36% rate should prove to be a valuable asset. While he might not start all season again, with the emergence of Kirkwood and the return of Towns, Juzang will remain part of the rotation.
Like Juzang, Lewis is a reliable option whose spot in the rotation seems assured. After earning an All-Ivy first team selection in his sophomore season, he shot better than 60% from the field for the third straight year and remains an excellent post player. Shooting 12-of-15 against Georgetown and NC State (both power conference teams) in the NIT should also boost his confidence.
While juniors Danilo Djuricic and Rio Haskett will likely have far bigger roles next season, by the time the 2016 recruiting class will have graduated, they will both have been regular members of Amaker’s rotation for two years. Djuricic received an uptick in minutes late in the season, while Haskett scored in double figures just twice all season but remains a sparkplug who can get hot in a hurry off the bench.
Senior bigs Robert Baker and Henry Welsh offer Amaker two very different options to play instead of — or alongside — Lewis. Baker has flashed the potential of a dangerous stretch-five, with the bounce to be a proficient shot-blocker and the skill to hit 36% of his threes, fly by slower defenders, and hammer home monster dunks. Welsh, meanwhile, plays a more traditional big man position who chips in on the boards and can, on occasion, punish smaller defenders.
Kirkwood was the most productive of last season’s first-years, but he wasn’t the only to receive important minutes. In fact, forward Kale Catchings went from being unused for most of the season to starting four of the last five regular season matchups and both Ivy League Tournament games, showing off his explosiveness and soft touch from beyond the arc. Given the roster depth of a talented group of sophomores like Catchings, Mason Forbes, and Spencer Freedman, deciding how to distribute minutes between the players will present a challenge for Amaker and his coaching staff.
The Crimson will again add what can be considered the Ivy League’s top recruiting class and its best since 2016 — a class that ranks 38th nationally per 247 Sports. While the crowded roster will make cracking the lineup difficult for first-year players, at least one freshman has broken into Amaker’s rotation in each of the last few seasons, so it is well worth considering the possibility that the same might happen this year.
The fifth ESPN Top-100 recruit to commit to the Crimson since 2016, Ledlum extends the trend of high-profile prospects joining Tommy Amaker’s program. Finishing his high school career at Northfield Mount Hermon—the same prep school that Kirkwood attended—Ledlum was named 2019 Gatorade Massachusetts Player of the Year, USA Today Massachusetts Player of the Year, as well as the 2019 NEPSAC AAA Player of the Year after leading his team to a NEPSAC championship in his final high school run. Ledlum’s explosiveness on the court and ability to guard virtually any position will make him an intriguing piece in a rotation loaded with talent and experience.
The freshman class’ second New York native, Tretout, spent his high school career playing at Wilbraham and Monson Academy in Massachusetts. He capped off his four-year, 1,600 point career at WMA earning First Team All-NEPSAC in his final season, receiving honorable mention recognition the year before. Tretout arrived on campus already having built some chemistry with Ledlum, as the two New Yorkers played together on youth teams. To go along with his high school career, Tretout played on the Under Armour Circuit with New York’s New Heights AAU team, winning the 2018 Under Armour Association championship alongside teammates Precious Achiuwa and Lester Quiñones — two members of Memphis’ number one ranked recruiting class this past year. His abilities to shoot the ball, attack the rim, and defend give him the potential to develop into the role that junior guard Rio Haskett takes on.
The Glencoe, Ill. native was Harvard’s first commit from the incoming freshman class. Brayboy graduated from New Trier High School, where he earned an All-State selection in his senior year. Brayboy played in the highly competitive Nike EYBL and Under Armour Association circuits, where he faced off against some of the nation’s top prospects following his seasons with New Trier. His rugged play and aggressiveness around the rim are reminiscent of current senior Chris Lewis, as Brayboy hopes to contribute another dimension of toughness to the roster.
The trend of Canadian Crimson commits continues with Sakota, who is the ninth Canadian in the Amaker-era to play for Harvard. Sakota’s success in Canada includes many accolades, among which are two Biosteel All-Canadian honors in 2018-2019 and his spot on the U16 and U17 Canadian national team rosters. Sakota’s 6’5” frame at the guard spot is complemented by great court awareness and a solid outside shot. He will have a chance to return home during the season when the Crimson travel to Toronto for the first time to play at Scotiabank Arena against Buffalo.
Harvard’s first Boston-area player since Kyle Casey ‘14, O’Neil hails from a basketball family: his older brothers Hugh and Harry currently play at Bowdoin and Johns Hopkins, respectively. He finished off his high school career at Vermont Academy after a decorated tenure at St. Johns Prep. O’Neil’s willingness to shoot the ball with a soft touch around the rim contributes versatility to his offensive game, as O’Neil is comfortable both in the post and from outside, much like junior Danilo Djuricic.
Guard: Bryce Aiken-SR
Guard: Noah Kirkwood-SO
Forward: Seth Towns-SR*
Forward: Justin Bassey-SR
Forward: Chris Lewis-SR
*Towns is not expected to be ready for the start of the season, and his return date is unknown.
Key Opponents — Non-Conference
MIT - November 5, Lavietes Pavilion, Cambridge, Mass.
Buffalo - November 16, Scotiabank Arena, Toronto, Ontario, James Naismith Classic
Texas A&M - November 28, HP Field House, ESPN Wide World of Sports, Orlando, Fla., Orlando Invitational
California - December 29, Berkeley, Calif.
San Francisco - December 30, San Francisco, Calif.
Key Opponents — Ivy League
Penn - January 31, vs. February 22
Yale - February 7, vs. March 7
Princeton - February 1, vs. February 21
Harvard received 15 out of 17 first place votes in the Ivy League’s preseason media poll, making the Crimson a near-unanimous choice to repeat as Ivy League Champions. The team returns meaningful contributors from last season, adds a solid freshman class, and should get former Ivy Player of the Year Seth Towns back at some point. While some warning signs remain — from Towns’s lingering knee injury to Harvard’s sky-high turnover rate last season — all of the ingredients are in place for another strong Ivy League season and an end to Amaker’s NCAA Tournament drought.
—Staff writer Lev Cohen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Amir Mamdani can be reached at email@example.com.
— Staff writer David Manikas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.