Tuesday, March 27, 2012
Harvard hoop has something to build on
By Jack McCluskey
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- As his Harvard team was making its run to the first outright Ivy League title and the second NCAA tournament berth in the program’s history, Crimson coach Tommy Amaker often cited good health as a great help.
His players, by and large, avoided serious injury and were able to stay on the court. He was able to settle on a rotation early, and for the most part stuck with it all season.
Considering the success the Crimson had with that rotation -- winning an early-season tournament (the Battle 4 Atlantis, in the Bahamas); being ranked in the AP and ESPN/USA Today Top 25 for the first time (reaching as high as No. 21); setting a school record for wins (26) -- why would he tempt fate by changing it?
In fact, Amaker went the other way. More often than not, when the fifth-year Crimson coach was asked about his team’s health, he showed his superstitious side.
He knocked on wood. And if no wood was readily available, he’d mime the knocking motion or tap his knuckles a couple of times on the side of his head.
Chalk it up to leaving no stone unturned in search of success.
“Obviously we’re really pleased with the body of work for this particular team this year,” Amaker said, sitting in the lounge at Lavietes Pavilion on Monday afternoon. “I’m proud of our kids. We did some magical things this year.”
One of the most magical accomplishments might have been living up to expectations, which were high after the Crimson came within 2.8 seconds of a landing a spot in the NCAA tournament last season before being felled by a Douglas Davis buzzer-beater in a playoff game against Princeton for the Ivy’s automatic berth.
“I’m pleased that when you look back at where we were a year ago, we were predicted to be where we are today,” Amaker said.
After their 12-2 Ivy season in 2010-11, the Crimson were the preseason favorites in the Ancient Eight in 2011-12 over traditional powers Penn and Princeton. They were tabbed as the team most likely to represent the league in the Big Dance.
They found themselves a target, taking opponents’ best shots night after night. With a few exceptions (including a bewildering road loss at Fordham in early January), they survived those shots and came back stronger.
“I’m proud of our team because that’s very hard to do,” Amaker said. “I actually thought that we probably exceeded some outside expectations, which I think is saying a lot because we know how high they were.”
Harvard returns most of its rotation for 2012-13, minus senior cocaptains Oliver McNally and Keith Wright.
“We have a lot to make up for in those kids,” Amaker said. “In no way, shape or form am I thinking about any one individual" replacing them.
Instead, Amaker hopes that a number of players will take steps forward to fill the voids in production on the court and, perhaps more importantly, in leadership on and off of it.
Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry, fellow starters this past season, seem like logical choices to assume greater roles in their senior seasons. But all that will work itself out, Amaker said.
The returning players, including Casey, Curry, Laurent Rivard (who led the Crimson with 20 points in the NCAA tourney loss to Vanderbilt, shooting 6-for-7 on 3-pointers) and Christian Webster, will have time to find their roles in the new configuration.
“We feel pretty confident that we’re going to have a good nucleus of returning guys, and then we’ll see what happens with our first-year players,” Amaker said.
While he couldn’t comment specifically on the incoming class due to NCAA restrictions, Amaker said the coaching staff is committed to continuing the program’s growth by adding talented players to the mix.
They’re hopeful that all the added attention the team got this season -- both for its on-court success and for the sudden NBA success of alumnus Jeremy Lin -- will help it in recruiting.
“We are thrilled with the group that we feel will be here with us,” he said.
The Crimson have a four-player class committed for 2012-13, including one three-star recruit (Agunwa Okolie) and three two-star recruits (Mike Hall, Sylvani Chambers and Evan Cummins).
They also have young players who should benefit from the season’s experience.
Steve Moundou-Missi and Wesley Saunders played important minutes for the Crimson as freshmen and will be expected to make increased contributions next season.
Amaker & Co. hope other young players on the roster will improve as well.
Kenyatta Smith, the Crimson’s top-rated recruit in the Class of 2011, was stuck behind Wright as a freshman and played sparingly. He appeared in eight games, scoring three points total and making his only shot attempt.
Yet when asked on Monday about Smith’s progress this season, Amaker was optimistic.
“We saw improvement with Yatt throughout the year,” he said. “I thought Kenyatta was improved, and I thought he did some really good things in practice. We think he’s going to be just fine.”
Smith, a 6-foot-8, 260-pound center, represents the best option Harvard has to replicate Wright’s presence in the post.
“We’re hopeful that he’s going to seize the opportunity and have a great spring and summer and then come back here in the fall and start up again,” Amaker said. “We’re very confident in his progress and in what we think he’s going to do for this program in the next couple years.”
And while Amaker is proud of what his team was able to accomplish this season -- not least of which was creating a buzz about Harvard basketball on the Cambridge campus and filling Lavietes to capacity more often than not -- he acknowledged that the Crimson came up short of the ultimate goal.
“Certainly this time of year, you see teams still playing and you’re hopeful that one day we can advance in the NCAA tournament,” he said.
To put themselves in position to do that one day, the Crimson will have to continue building on the foundation that McNally and Wright (and Lin before them) helped to lay. It will take hard work, commitment and, yes, a little luck.
So if you want to see the Crimson competing in late March some season soon, go ahead and do your part. Be just a little bit like Tommy Amaker: Knock on wood.
Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter @jack_mccluskey.