Men’s Basketball Rebounds
Harvard Hardwood, the Harvard Magazine basketball report
The men’s basketball team arrived at the T.D. Garden (home of the NBA’s Boston Celtics) for their matchup against Holy Cross on November 16 feeling buoyant. After being ranked twenty-fifth in the country in the Associated Press pre-season poll—the first time an Ivy League squad had earned such pre-season recognition since 1974—the Crimson had opened their season two days earlier by dispatching MIT, 73-52. But after turning the ball over 24 times and losing 58-57 to the Crusaders, the Crimson left the court with a .500 record and the certainty that they would fall from the polls. Even more ominous were the questions swirling about the team’s long-term prospects. In the pre-season, some pundits had tabbed the Crimson as a dark horse to reach the Final Four. Suddenly it was unclear if the team ranked among the best squads in Massachusetts, let alone the nation’s elite.
Just two games into the season, head coach Tommy Amaker knew it was time to make a change. Make that several.
It began with what Amaker described as series of “spirited” practices this week. When asked to elaborate on the intensity of the workouts, senior co-captain Steve Moundou-Missi laughed, before responding, “You really want to know?”
A more conspicuous shift came with the starting lineup on Thursday night, when Harvard hosted Florida Atlantic University (FAU)—a team that had upset the Crimson last January in Boca Raton. Off the court were all five Crimson starters from the first two games, including Wesley Saunders ’15, the reigning Ivy League Player of the Year, who tallied 24 points against Holy Cross but started Thursday’s game benched for failing to meet the team’s internal academic standards; Jonah Travis ’15, in street clothes, who Amaker said is “day-to-day” with tendinitis in his knee; and Siyani Chambers ’16, Corbin Miller ’15 (’17), and Moundou-Missi, all of whom, Amaker felt, hadn’t performed up to team standards against Holy Cross.
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In their place were unfamiliar faces like Charlie Anastasi ’15, who began his career on the Harvard club team and had previously appeared in only seven games in his entire Harvard career; and Matt Fraschilla ’17, a seldom-used backup point guard. “Our standards weren’t met on and off the court,” Amaker said, of the decision to alter the starting line-up, which he acknowledged could be called “drastic.”
But the most significant change was tactical. Holy Cross had applied extensive full-court defensive pressure against the Crimson, prompting Amaker to play a smaller, four-guard lineup that put the squad’s best ball-handlers on the floor. That decision, however, made it more difficult for Harvard to establish its offense, which (ideally) involves feeding the ball to the post (players—often with their back to the goal—who are near the basket) and then playing “inside-out”—looking for a shot from the post, passing to another player who’s cutting through the lane, or passing back to a shooter on the perimeter if there’s no good inside option.
On Thursday against FAU, the Crimson offense returned to its preferred strategy. Early on, myriad Harvard big men—including Zena Edosomwan ’17, a highly touted recruit who earned his first career start, and Kenyatta Smith ’14 (’15), who scored nine points in his most spirited outing of the season—got touches in the paint (the area near the basket). “Our goal is always to get the ball into the paint,” Amaker said of the strategy, “by pass or by dribble.”
The changes quickly paid dividends. After falling behind 11-4 to start the game, Harvard closed the first half on a 34-9 run and never looked back. The closest the Owls would come was when they cut the lead to 56-43 with roughly six minutes left in the second half, but a quick flurry of baskets from Saunders, Moundou-Missi, and freshman Andre Chatfield—who has averaged 5.7 points in 20 minutes per game this season—pushed the lead back to 19. Harvard cruised to a 71-49 victory, pushing their season tally to 2-1.
The game featured a number of noteworthy individual performances: from Saunders, for example, who led Harvard in scoring with 19 points, and Evan Cummins ’16, who pulled down 10 rebounds and scored nine points in 17 minutes. But the team’s cohesive effort was even more impressive. The Crimson played aggressive man-to-man defense, frequently deflecting the ball and providing help off the ball. Offensively, the team passed extremely well: at one juncture in the first half, Chambers, Agunwa Okolie ’16, and Cummins exchanged a series of quick passes to break down the FAU defense and score a quick layup. Even the players on the bench got involved, shouting encouragement and insights about opponents’ maneuvers more loudly than usual. As Amaker said in the post-game press conference, it was a true “team win.”
But impressive as the team was yesterday, questions remain. Above all, was the Harvard performance against Holy Cross an aberration, or did it reflect more endemic problems? Truthfully, it’s far too soon to say. The season is just three games old, and Amaker and his staff are still figuring out their rotation and waiting for several injured players to recover.
What does seem clear is that the forceful reaction from both the team and others to the one-point loss to Holy Cross reflects—ironically—how far the program has come since Amaker arrived. Following Sunday’s game, Holy Cross coach Milan Brown began his post-game press conference by talking about the significance of beating a ranked team—something rarely heard in the past in reference to a Harvard squad. Amaker, meanwhile, said Harvard’s players “need to recognize that it’s meaningful to play against us” and the team needs “to find its way” to deal with that. Whether the Crimson’s path leads to the NCAA tournament or a more up-and-down year, it’s evident Amaker has made clear that his players need to hold themselves and one another accountable and need to be prepared to receive every opponent’s best shot. They’ll get their next chance to learn how to deal with that challenge next Tuesday, when Harvard hosts Houston at Lavietes Pavilion at 7 p.m.
Tidbits: Amaker’s decision to shake up the starting lineup was reminiscent of a similar move he made for a game against Fordham during the 2012-2013 season. After the squad lost a pair of games to Vermont and Saint Joseph’s, he sat starters Kenyatta Smith ’15, Laurent Rivard ’14, and Moundou-Missi and started then-freshmen Evan Cummins, Michael Hall, and Agunwa Okolie.
After missing the first two games of the season with a hip flexor injury, Okolie started against Florida Atlantic and tallied the game’s first bucket after capturing a steal. Amaker said after the MIT game that Okolie was a strong contender to start this season, but the player did not participate in the second half after injuring his knee before intermission.
Against FAU, Chambers (who, Amaker emphasized, is Harvard’s “most important” player) turned the ball over once, eight times fewer than he’d done against Holy Cross. As a team, Harvard cut its turnover total from 24 to 12.
In its strongest defensive outing of the year, the Crimson limited FAU to 36.8 percent field goal shooting.