Across sports, there is a commonly-understood term known as the “must-win.” A Game Three for a team down 0-2 in a best-of-five series. A Week 15 game for a team on the bubble of playoff elimination.
Rarely however is the term “must-win” applied in context to an entire season. But here we are in October, before a single minute has been logged in the 2019-20 Harvard men’s basketball season, and the narrative that will loom over this team is unquestionably clear: the team is too talented, too experienced, too well-coached to achieve anything less than an Ivy League championship, an NCAA berth, and success deep into March.
As early as May, the so-called “pundits” of the college basketball ecosystem have quickly done their part in elevating this program into the national spotlight. Esteemed insider Jon Rothstein slotted the Crimson at No. 23 in his Preseason Top 25 on May 30. The Crimson was named the consensus Ivy champions in an ESPN mid-majors preview article, and a preseason Ivy media poll released Tuesday saw 15 of 17 first-place votes go to Harvard.
Moreover, for the touted Class of 2016 featuring four players in the ESPN Top 100, this is quite simply the last chance. After falling short their first three seasons, the expectations that will be placed on this group of seniors, two of whom were each recently nominated onto national watch lists, are simply championship or bust.
So yes, this team will be a must-see on campus and on the road.
The two aforementioned seniors in point guard Bryce Aiken and wing Seth Towns will finally have a chance to play together again; due to injuries these past two seasons, the pair enters this season having only shared the court for 39 games (about a season-and-half out of three).
Ivy League Rookie of the Year Noah Kirkwood will be joined by an exciting five-man class of first-years featuring Massachusetts Player of the Year Chris Ledlum. Returning of course will be the gritty defensive play of Justin Bassey and Rio Haskett, the rim-attacking prowess of Danilo Djuricic and Rob Baker, the mid-range deftness of Christian Juzang, the big-play potential of Kale Catchings and Mason Forbes, the untapped potential from Spencer Freedman and Reed Farley, and finally, all the benefits of having two traditional back-to-rim big men in Chris Lewis and Henry Welsh.
In other words, the biggest headache coach Tommy Amaker may have this season — if the team can make it to March relatively unscathed from the injury bug — is the question of playing time. The endless permutations of lineups will provide great fodder to fans and journalists alike, but it does not make the job of the man in the second floor Lavietes office any easier.
Unless Amaker attempts to adopt a platoon-style system reminiscent of the 2014-15 Karl-Anthony Towns/Devin Booker/Willie Cauley-Stein Kentucky side, certain players may see a surprising dearth of time on the court. There simply isn’t a way to allocate 40 minutes to a side that lost little in graduation and will add back the former Ivy League Player of the Year in Seth Towns and one highly-touted first-year into the rotation at the minimum.
This is why the theme of ‘sacrifice’ that Amaker made last season’s motto will need to be recycled again this season. For the new recruits up to the more seasoned upperclassmen — some who have never had to grasp the concept of being a bench contributor in their AAU and high school ball years — this season may be one of Sacrifice 2.0.
Furthermore, I argue that perhaps oxymoronically, what this ‘must-win’ season necessitates is Patience 1.0. The hodgepodge of unique strengths (and weaknesses) on this season’s roster means that it is equally critical that this program is given the time to adapt, experiment, and mold into the unit it aspires to be this season.
Call this the 2011 Miami Heat ‘grace period’ if you must. Obviously, I am not suggesting there is an equivalence to LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on this team, but those on the outside need to give this team some space to figure out what works and doesn’t. Unlike past seasons with a few ‘gimmie’ games, the Crimson will face a quite formidable early slate featuring Northeastern, Buffalo, and Texas A&M to kick off their season. So the experimental stage for Amaker’s squad will come straight against a Buzz Williams-led side, for one.
To make clear, I am not arguing that we should temper expectations — I for one will be the least bit surprised if the Crimson fight tooth-and-nail against these competitive non-conference foes. If this is the case, we must still understand that there will still be a great deal of variance over a five-month season. There will be significant hurdles to climb as well as late-emergers who claw their way into a spot in this deep rotation. Take Kale Catchings or Rob Baker, who both elevated their stock late in the season, as great examples of this.
Additionally, we do the rest of the Ivy League an injustice if we are not to acknowledge the strength of programs like Penn, Yale, and Princeton who have made leaps and bounds to compete against the recruiting prowess of Tommy Amaker. To assume this side will run over the Ivy League at ease is misinformed even if the Crimson achieves remarkable non-conference success.
Therefore, as much as excitement and ‘hype’ can fuel a program as talented as this one, it becomes dangerous if it is too unidimensional and those within a program become excessively glorified or commoditized. The spectator can be immune to the ups and downs that any individual or collective of individuals will face in a five-month span, expecting unwavering success. But no Division I athlete or program operates without some imperfections.
The 2019-20 Harvard men’s basketball program has the potential to be historic, but let’s allow that path to be more versatile and open-ended than a simple straight line upwards.
See you at Lavietes.
— Staff writer Henry Zhu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.