Youth served as BC hosts Harvard hoops

December, 4, 2012
12/04/12
10:47
AM ET
In the battle of experienced youth versus inexperienced youth, it’s the fifth-year senior who will have been on both sides who must have the best perspective.

Andrew Van Nest was part of Tommy Amaker’s initial recruiting class at Harvard, and is now a graduate student at Boston College. So when the Crimson (aka the inexperienced youth) travel to Chestnut Hill for Tuesday night’s game (7 ET, ESPN3) against the Eagles (experienced youth), Van Nest will playing against the team he spent four years with (redshirting one becaue of a shoulder injury).

“We’re proud of Andrew. We’re happy for him,” Amaker said of facing his former player. “It’s a neat thing -- being a graduate student, getting it paid for and in the world we live in that’s a huge thing. So it’s good for Andrew.

“He seems to be healthy and obviously he’s getting some minutes playing for their team. Being an older player, I’m sure he’s providing a lot of benefits for their program.”

Van Nest has averaged 5.7 points and 2.3 rebounds in 13.1 minutes a game through the Eagles’ first seven games.

In his senior season in Cambridge, as the Crimson were winning their first outright Ivy title and securing their first NCAA berth in 65 years, Van Nest played a total of two minutes -- coincidentally, against the Eagles.

Chances are the way things have shaken out across the river, if Van Nest were still at Harvard he would be getting an opportunity to play for the Crimson in 2012-13. That’s because Oliver McNally and Keith Wright graduated and Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry left school to protect their eligibility after being implicated in the cheating scandal that’s roiled the Ancient Eight campus.

Combined, the personnel losses have left Amaker with a young, inexperienced roster. Sure, guys like Kenyatta Smith and Jonah Travis are talented, and have shown flashes in practices and games, but they’re still getting their feet wet at the Division I level.

“I think one of the things that [the Eagles] do have over even a young team like ours is they still have experience,” Amaker said before practice Monday. “We’re very young, as well, but we don’t have the experience that they have. Even though their young players are sophomores, they played all of last season as freshmen.”

Steve Donahue didn’t have much of a choice in 2011-12, often starting four freshmen and leaning heavily on the likes of Jordan Daniels (who has since left the program), Lonnie Jackson, Patrick Heckmann, Dennis Clifford and Ryan Anderson. And while BC piled up the most losses in school history in a 9-22 season, the young players it relied on gained valuable experience.

Experience Harvard’s young players didn’t get, as a senior-laden lineup led the Crimson on their remarkable run.

[+] EnlargeBrad Tinsley
Nelson Chenault/US PresswireWesley Saunders didn't see a lot of floor time for Harvard as a freshman.
“They’ve started a lot of games, they’ve been in situations,” Amaker said of BC’s youngsters. “That’s what we’re concerned with. They’re young in their years but I think they have experience which is something that we’re lacking with our freshmen, obviously, but even with our sophomore class. Even Wes Saunders, for instance, their sophomores have way more experience than our Wes Saunders does.”

Saunders, named Ivy Player of the Week on Monday, has been asked to carry a heavy load this season. After playing just 13.9 minutes a game as a freshman, averaging 3.3 points, 1.6 rebounds and 1.2 assists, he’s been bumped up almost by default to 34.0 minutes a game as a sophomore.

So far, Saunders has responded well. He’s leading the team in scoring at 15.8 points per game, and is second in rebounding (5.2) and assists (3.5).

“I think he’s done very well,” Amaker said. “Wesley is a terrific all-around player. We’re gonna look to him, especially in our league as we get toward obviously conference play, to be one of the better, if not the best, all-around [players on our team]. He’s a guy that we need to do everything.

“We need him to handle the ball, we need him to score, we need him to rebound, he’s our best perimeter defender. We need everything out of Wesley Saunders. And I think that’s what he wants.”

For his part, Saunders thinks he’s ready.

“Obviously it’s been a lot different than last season,” he said. “I’ve been asked to do a lot more. … [Coach Amaker has] put a lot of pressure on me to come out every day in practice and be our best player in practice and try to take on more of a leadership role this year.”

While the 2012-13 season is still very young, it has been filled with ups and downs for both the Crimson (3-3) and the Eagles (3-4) to date.

Harvard won rather handily in its three victories, but lost on a buzzer-beater to UMass and then got trounced by Saint Joseph’s and Vermont. BC managed to beat Penn State on the road in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge but lost at home to Bryant.

On Tuesday, the Crimson will focus on defending the 3-point line (the Eagles are shooting 33 percent as a team from behind the arc) and being disciplined in their assignments as they try to change their season’s trajectory.

“It’s gonna be a battle,” Saunders said. “We haven’t lost there in a while and we don’t want to start now. So I think we’re gonna go out there and play our hardest and compete and see what happens.”

Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter @jack_mccluskey.

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