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New challenge ahead for Harvard

October 6, 2015 Columns, Your Phil of Hoops No Comments

Under Tommy Amaker, Harvard has had an unprecedented run of success in recent years. A program that had never been to the NCAA Tournament before Amaker’s arrival in Cambridge, Harvard is now looked at as a perennial favorite in the Ivy League. The past two NCAA Tournaments, they were a trendy upset pick, making good in 2014 with a win over Cincinnati (one that probably should be thought of as an upset in name only) before a tough loss to North Carolina last season. Before that, they beat New Mexico in 2013.

This time around, however, the Crimson will have a much bigger challenge to keep that run going.

The Ivy League has been on a big upswing in recent years, and Harvard has been no small part of that. Not only have they had the aforementioned success, but others have done their best to stay with them, much like others did with Penn and Princeton for years. The league has a lot of good teams now, as well as coaching stability at every school. Should Harvard falter, there are plenty of suitable candidates to carry the flag for the league.

While we would be wise not to write off the Crimson just yet, there’s no sugar-coating it: this season will be a big challenge for them.

For starters, Harvard has lost a lot of key contributors the past couple of seasons. While they have been very deep the past couple of seasons, there’s no denying that the senior starters on each team – Kyle Casey, Brandyn Curry and Laurent Rivard in 2013-14 and Wesley Saunders and Steve Moundou-Missi last season – meant a great deal to those teams. Saunders arguably should have left Cambridge as a three-time league Player of the Year, but only received the honor after his junior season.

Now, add Siyani Chambers to the departed, for this season anyway. The senior point guard, a starter since he arrived, tore an ACL during the summer and will miss the season. He withdrew from school to preserve his eligibility for next season. He was to be the key holdover for this team, especially given the position he plays.

What remains is a solid, unspectacular cast with no clear go-to guy or star. There is still good talent, but no one will confuse this team with the ones of the prior two seasons in terms of talent and depth. There will be good size, but who runs the show will be an open question, and that’s not a good question to have in college basketball.

Harvard has solid veterans returning in the frontcourt with junior Zena Edosomwan, a once-highly-touted recruit, and senior Evan Cummins. Edosomwan has to turn into an offensive threat more than ever now with Moundou-Missi gone, while Cummins has been a steady glue guy who has waited his turn while contributing when called upon. Cummins also epitomizes the Harvard teams of recent years as one of the highest-character guys in the country. Senior Agunwa Okolie, who has always looked like an intriguing talent, should figure prominently on the wing. There are other talented players waiting to join them up front, like sophomore Chris Egi, but he barely played last season and as such is unproven.

The backcourt is where there are more questions, as they go from having the best backcourt in the league to one with neither starter returning. Corbin Miller can probably be penciled in as the starting shooting guard, as he’s the most experienced guard on the roster, and freshman Corey Johnson will probably get a lot of minutes right away. Sophomore Andre Chatfield is the only other guard with appreciable experience, so it will be up to a lot of unproven or new players to take over in key roles.

The non-league schedule will test this team early and often, so they’ll have to figure things out quickly. After opening with MIT from across town, they go to Providence, host UMass, go across town to play Boston College, then later have road games at CAA contender Northeastern, Kansas and Boston University before opening the Diamond Head Classic with Brigham Young. They still have home games against Wofford and Vermont, two perennial contenders in their respective conferences, before league play begins.

That schedule may mean the Crimson enter league play with more blemishes on the bottom line than in some recent years. It’s a daunting slate even for a team full of seasoned veterans like the one they had two seasons ago. While the Ivy League rarely produces an at-large team anyway, the more important question will be what some losses would do to a team’s confidence if they add up.

Harvard hasn’t just won by virtue of having the best talent and/or experience. Both have certainly helped, in some seasons more than others, but other than in 2013-14, they were not clearly better than the rest of the league on paper. Amaker has built a program whose teams consistently have high-character players and play tremendous team basketball to be greater than the sum of their parts. Those intangibles have gone a long way many times, especially when they have faced in-game adversity. More than ever, they will need those intangibles to help them this season.

Harvard likely won’t be picked to win the Ivy League this season. The Crimson would have had a lot of questions with Chambers, though some might have picked them to win out of respect and a belief in their team basketball, especially with an experienced senior floor leader. Without him, they could be picked near the middle of the pack. It’s indicative of how challenging it will be for them to keep up their winning ways this season.

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