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Harvard has a good thing going, and youth will not change that

October 20, 2012 Columns, Your Phil of Hoops No Comments

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – With the college basketball season not far away, we’ll talk about basketball at Harvard. We won’t dwell on the two players the Crimson won’t have this season that they were supposed to, and Tommy Amaker has probably been asked about that more than he cares to admit. But there is a basketball side to it, and while the Crimson still have very good talent, losing two players unexpectedly has a noticeable effect.

Seniors Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry won’t play this season, as both withdrew from the university while an investigation into a class they took is ongoing. There were over 100 students in the class that are part of the investigation, so they are hardly alone, but from a basketball standpoint it means the Crimson will be without four starters from last season’s team. That’s a pretty big hit to take, especially since Casey and Curry figured to be leaders on an otherwise young team.

The most notable place to watch will be point guard. The Crimson will hand the ball to Siyani Chambers, a freshman, although he will have help. Chambers isn’t lacking physical gifts, as he’s quick, but he also has a slight frame and is a baby physically. Freshmen point guards often have their share of growing pains, so it will be vital for others to help with the ball handling. That’s one thing sophomore Wesley Saunders figures to do, as he’s a natural wing but showed at Crimson Madness, the team’s opening day intra-squad scrimmage, that he can get in the lane and create.

“He had a great summer,” Amaker said of Saunders. “He looked like he was shot out of a cannon when we played in Italy. He’s capable of being a marquee guy for us.”

Senior Christian Webster is out indefinitely after dislocating his right middle finger. Over his career, Webster has had some very good stretches, but the Crimson will need a longer stretch like that this season. Junior Laurent Rivard may step into the starting lineup after providing instant offense off the bench his first two seasons, and freshman Patrick Steeves stood out with his shooting during the scrimmage, although he has an odd release.

While the Crimson aren’t lacking talent in the frontcourt, they don’t have a player quite like Casey. Steve Moundou-Missi had a nice freshman season off the bench and looks ready to make a jump from last year. Jonah Travis also contributed nicely off the bench as a freshman, and will be needed as well. Both are more like post players, although Moundou-Missi showed some signs that he could play some on the wing down the road if they want to go a little bigger.

The X-factor on this team is likely not going to be one particular player, but rather, the length this team has. Ivy League teams rarely have the kind of length this team has with the addition of freshmen Agunwa Okolie and Michael Hall. Okolie is an intriguing prospect who showed well in the scrimmage at the offensive end, while Hall’s body isn’t ready yet.

The Crimson put together a demanding non-league schedule, one that would certainly challenge a team like the one they looked like they would have. They play at UMass in ESPN’s Tip-Off Marathon and later host America East contenders Vermont and Boston University, and have road trips to Atlantic 10 favorite Saint Joseph’s, improved Boston College, Connecticut, California, Saint Mary’s and Memphis.

With a young team, that schedule will certainly challenge the team and have benefits, but Amaker is aware that the challenge isn’t just in how good the opponents are.

“We’ve improved our schedule every year by design as we’ve improved our program,” said Amaker. We need to stay healthy, and we cannot allow our schedule to break our spirit.”

Leadership will be a key with this team. Players like Rivard and Webster will need to take on those roles, and Chambers needs to grow up fast as the point guard. They were already taking a hit in that department with the graduation of Oliver McNally, who was more than the leader of last season’s team.

News broke last week that a new arena is in the plans, a sign of how far the program has come, although basketball isn’t the only one in mind. The Crimson sold out most games last season, including higher-priced floor seats that were introduced, so the fan interest is very much on the rise. Harvard has a good thing going, and a younger team this season won’t change that.

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