Ten minutes into the 2014-15 season, nationally ranked Harvard was losing at home to Division-III MIT.
The Crimson’s struggles didn’t last much longer, of course. After falling behind 22-21 midway through the first half due to sloppy defense and hot Engineers shooting, the hosts allowed just five points for the rest of the period, ultimately winning the cross-Cambridge meeting 73-52. But for a Harvard team whose expectations are higher than ever, Friday night’s opener offered a reminder that every game is its own challenge.
“They were playing well. We shouldn’t put it all on us — give them credit for what they were doing, they did a tremendous job,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said. “I wasn’t disappointed or down — I think we can do things better, which we’ll have to — but they’re a quality ballclub, and I think they’ll have a tremendous year.”
After graduating three major members of last year’s Ivy League champions, Harvard got encouraging performances from a few players in new roles. Rookie Andre Chatfield was electric in his debut, stuffing an aggressive dunk after one of his three steals. Kenyatta Smith was productive in his return from a broken foot, with eight points and four rebounds in 10 minutes. Corbin Miller, back with the team after a two-year mission trip, started in place of injured Agunwa Okolie and made a pair of three-pointers. (Amaker said Okolie is day-to-day with a hip flexor injury and may not be available for Sunday’s game against Holy Cross.)
Despite the Crimson’s depth, Friday’s game also showed that Harvard will still lean heavily on its two stars — guards Siyani Chambers and Wesley Saunders, both named top 50 players in the nation by ESPN.com. “I thought they were dynamic in their own right and their own way, scoring and setting other guys up,” Amaker said.
As usual, they played with dramatically different styles. Chambers was hot early on, splashing four first-half treys and punctuating each with three raised fingers. He initiated Harvard’s offensive sets, zipped all across the court and hounded MIT’s guards with full-court pressure, finishing with 15 points and a pair of steals.
“I love it. I love being out there and getting up and down the court,” Chambers said. “We do a lot of stuff in practice that’s really up-tempo — you get a lot of conditioning doing that, so it’s something I’m used to.”
In contrast, Saunders was less visible in the first half, attempting only three shots — but adding five assists and eight rebounds. Against a worn-down Engineers defense later on, the reigning Ivy Player of the Year attacked the basket repeatedly, finishing with 15 points on nine shooting possessions.
Tellingly, in a 21-point victory over a Division-III opponent, when many coaches let their reserves shine, Chambers and Saunders played 33 and 32 minutes, respectively. Harvard’s leaders will have little time to rest this season, given the team’s lack of backcourt depth (especially without Okolie). That may sound troubling given the back-to-back grind of Ivy play — particularly for Chambers, who plays with as much energy and emotion as anyone in the league — but the two guards have done it before: Each averaged at least 37 minutes per game in 2013, ultimately leading the Crimson to its first-ever NCAA tournament victory.