Call it a logjam. Call it a loaded backcourt. Call it a quarterback competition. Call it what you want, but Harvard has three starter-caliber point guards on its roster.
Co-captain Siyani Chambers is a four-year starter and three-time All-Ivy selection, sophomore Tommy McCarthy started in Chambers’ place last season and averaged nearly nine points and four assists per game, while freshman Bryce Aiken is the most highly touted guard to ever put on a jersey for the Crimson and has the highest ceiling of the trio. Unfortunately, all three play the same position. Does that mean that they can’t be on the floor together this season? For a potential answer to this question, let’s take a 300-mile trip to the Philadelphia Main Line.
You could say Villanova coach Jay Wright is the antithesis of Harvard head man Tommy Amaker. While Amaker opts for an open collar on the sideline and sweats at practice, a three-piece suit is as much a Wright trademark as the discipline of his teams.
Wright graces the cover of GQ while Amaker is reluctant to reveal which quarter of his team will be starting that night. Wright gets in his players’ faces and has no shortage of words for referees while Amaker has not picked up a technical foul since 2007.
However, both coaches have made it a priority to recruit and develop players who fit their systems and have been successful in reinvigorating previously dormant programs.
Taking chances on undervalued talent has recently paid dividends for Wright, who is beginning his 16th season on the Main Line, and his Wildcats. Wright has often steered clear of the basketball hotbeds that are the Philadelphia Catholic and Public Leagues in favor of creating a group composed of players from across the East Coast who fit his team-first system.
Villanova has brought in the four or five-star recruit every now and again but it is by no means outrecruiting Kansas or North Carolina, two teams it defeated last season. Instead, Wright is instilling the “Villanova Way” in his players. Wright’s teams are known for their talented guards, suffocating full-court defense, and ability to shoot the lights out. Few players leave early for the NBA and young players are eased into the college game. The Wildcats rarely beat themselves, largely due to the team’s continuity and personnel. Each player knows his role on the team.
The recruiting and incorporation strategies have worked. In case you forgot, Villanova won the national championship last season in what was perhaps the most exciting title game in NCAA history. Last year’s starting five for the Wildcats featured two seniors, two juniors, and just one freshman, something that has become almost unheard of in today’s power basketball conferences. Perhaps more impressively, neither of the juniors left for the draft and Villanova entered this season ranked fourth in the preseason coaches’ poll.
The last team to repeat as national champions was Florida in 2007. Villanova seems as likely as any team to return to the Final Four this season. The team is not starting a single freshman and players who got their feet wet last season will be eased into bigger roles for Wright this year.
You’re probably asking, what does this mean for the Crimson and its point guard dilemma? Bryce Aiken, meet Jalen Brunson. Siyani Chambers, you be Harvard’s Ryan Arcidiacano.
Villanova entered last season ranked 11th in the country, with several important players returning. The keys to the Corvette belonged to Arcidiacano, a three-year starter and captain since his freshman season. Brunson was the heir apparent but exclusively played point guard in high school. Where would he fit in? An old adage in baseball says that if you can hit, you’ll be in the lineup. Wright found out very early on that Jalen Brunson can hit and started him alongside Arcidiacano from the get-go.
Brunson remained a starter all season and went on to average 9.6 points per game, including a 25-point performance against Temple, his father’s alma mater. The similarities between the Harvard and Villanova situations abound. Chambers is the heart and soul of this year’s Crimson while Aiken is the crown jewel of a loaded recruit class.
“Siyani’s definitely a leader as everyone knows,” Aiken said. “Playing with him, he makes it a lot easier because he’s experienced, he’s been here for three years. He makes the job easier for everyone, he’s always communicating, the loudest person on the floor and I’m learning from him everyday. I’m thankful that he’s on my side.”
The parallels between Aiken and Brunson are striking. Each player grew up in New Jersey—Aiken in Randolph and Brunson 100 miles south in Cherry Hill. Each comes from an athletic family.