Thursday, December 5, 2013
Shorthanded Harvard off to fast start
By Jack McCluskey
When the final buzzer sounded Wednesday night with Harvard in front of Northeastern 72-64, the Crimson had won their fourth straight and pushed their record to 8-1 on the young season.
That’s the best start of the Tommy Amaker era, now in its seventh season, and tied the coach for third all-time in wins in Harvard history.
Winning 88.9 percent of your games is impressive no matter how you slice it, but considering the Crimson have pulled it off without two starters -- Kenyatta Smith has yet to play in a game with a foot injury and co-captain Brandyn Curry has played in only two of the nine games because of his own foot injury -- it’s even more so.
“I told my team, this team that they faced tonight has gone to three straight NCAA tournaments,” Northeastern coach Bill Coen said after the game. “They upset New Mexico, a 3-seed, last year. They have all their players back, the return of Kyle Casey and so on. They’re a very good basketball team. And they will be in the NCAA tournament once again.”
While it may feel like Harvard has been to three straight NCAAs, the Crimson have actually been to only two straight -- getting knocked out of the Big Dance by a Douglas Davis buzzer-beater in the playoff with Princeton in 2010-11. Of course, two straight is still a big deal for a program that had been to only one NCAA tournament in its history before that, and that appearance came in 1946.
The Crimson were expected to be good in 2013-14, not only bringing back their entire core from last season but adding Casey, Curry and talented freshman Zena Edosomwan. And losing Smith and Curry threatened to throw a wrench into those plans.
“We’re certainly pleased with the record,” Amaker said Wednesday night. “But you know, it’s one at a time. Next one up is the next play. It’s a tricky time of the year for students in college and certainly student-athletes, and so we have to stay focused and stay disciplined. I’m anxious to see if we can push through.”
The Crimson are almost finished with a month-long stretch without a game at Lavietes Pavilion, a run that started with a road game at Colorado (the season’s lone loss) and included three at the Great Alaska Shootout in Anchorage (wins over Denver, Green Bay and TCU) before a return to the Boston area for games at Northeastern and Boston University (Saturday at 1 p.m.).
“It’s great to be back,” Amaker said. “It’s a long journey. We played well up in Alaska and won the tournament, so you’re worried about fatigue, jetlag. ... You get into the midterm, with school and exams and those things are right around the corner. So it’s lots happening with college kids, and especially college athletes or more specifically college basketball players. For us to be back at home, playing obviously not in our home gym but in our home area, was needed.”
The Crimson have used balanced scoring (five regulars averaging more than nine points a game, led by Wesley Saunders’ 15.1) and their usual steady defense (allowing 58.8 points per game) to achieve this early-season success. Their RPI sits at No. 41 after the win over Northeastern, and there will be plenty of opportunities to bolster those credentials with nonconference matchups left against Patriot League-leading BU this weekend, Boston College on New Year’s Day and No. 12 UConn on Jan. 8.
While Amaker said there’s no update on Curry or Smith, with both still out indefinitely, so far the Crimson have proven deep enough to withstand the losses. That'll need to continue to be the case.
“It’s always good to be home,” Casey said. “It’s good to be home and have a good game.”
Off to an undeniably good start, the Crimson just hope there are more good times ahead.
Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter @jack_mccluskey.