The first four times Harvard’s season began with a “Crimson Madness” showcase, it ended in the NCAA tournament. But at the fifth annual event last Friday night, with only one of last year’s top six scorers in uniform, the mood was more speculative than celebratory.
If the Ivy League was decided by a dunk contest, Harvard might still be the favorite. Every team has high flyers in today’s Ancient Eight, but even by those standards, Agunwa Okolie and Zena Edosomwan put on a show. Okolie, the two-time reigning dunk contest champion, earned a round of 10s with his powerful 360-degree slam. But Edosomwan one-upped him in the final round by donning a Michael Jordan jersey and skying over freshman Balsa Dragovic (plus three innocent children):
Video via ESPN3
The most gaping hole is at point guard. Siyani Chambers had long been penciled in as this year’s ball-handler and leader, but a torn ACL will sideline him for the full season. (Chambers withdrew from school to preserve his eligibility for 2016-17.) While his former teammates were introduced to the crowd under dimmed lights, Chambers watched from the courtside seats, munching on a plate of nachos.
Chambers and Wesley Saunders, now trying to win a full-time spot with the New York Knicks, combined for two-thirds of Harvard’s assists last season. Without them, Friday’s intrasquad scrimmage featured less ball movement and more one-on-one play. Harvard has had an assist rate above 55% in each of the last six seasons, but less than 40% of its field goals were assisted in the exhibition, and both teams combined for nearly twice as many turnovers as assists.
On that front, Harvard’s hopes lie with Tommy McCarthy, a three-star recruit from California. As the only true point guard likely to crack the Crimson’s rotation, McCarthy will be asked to play a leading role as a rookie, much as Chambers was three years ago. He showed good passing instincts and a quick first step in his first collegiate showcase, offsetting a few turnovers with three baskets and two assists in 20 minutes.
“I’m definitely getting a lot stronger and faster. The weight training and conditioning here is a huge change from the high-school level,” he said. “Obviously with Siyani coming out, I have to step into a big leadership role, and that’s something I’m really trying to do. Even though I’m a freshman, it’s still important for me to be a leader on this team.”
Harvard is also thinner than usual in the frontcourt, with the graduation of Defensive Player of the Year Steve Moundou-Missi as well as Jonah Travis and Kenyatta Smith. It will be time for Edosomwan, perhaps Tommy Amaker’s most famous recruit, to shine. The 6’9” center was always ball-hungry as an underclassman, and as a featured player in Harvard’s offense this season, his appetite will only increase. He had a 49% usage rate Friday — insane even for a split-squad scrimmage — and was effective with those possessions, shooting 65% from the floor.
Edosomwan was rarely double-teamed (a kryptonite for him in the past) and will have to cut his foul rate as he takes on a full-time role. Still, he appears ready for a breakout junior season. “Every single facet of his game has improved,” said captain Evan Cummins, who defended Edosomwan for much of the game. “He’s in great shape, his scoring in the post has improved, and his jump hook looks awesome.”
Cummins fell out of Harvard’s crowded rotation late last year, but his proven skills as a solid-but-not-spectacular big man will be in much higher demand this season. Chris Egi sat out Friday’s festivities, and his health is an important question in the frontcourt.
Even with Saunders’ graduation, the Crimson has more continuity on the wing. Sharpshooter Corbin Miller played starters’ minutes last year and should get a title worthy of the role this season. Okolie will also remain a mainstay in the rotation, likely sliding up to power forward on occasion. Other options include Andre Chatfield, who battled foot injuries as a freshman, and rookie Corey Johnson, who impressed in Friday’s three-point contest.
Harvard has won with an overhauled roster before, claiming the Ivy title after losing four starters in 2012-13. But that was a different team in several ways: Saunders and Moundou-Missi had already shown hints of stardom; no freshman can be expected to repeat Chambers’ star-caliber performance; and its key players were extraordinarily durable.
Just as importantly, this is a different league. In 2012-13, six of the Crimson’s seven Ivy opponents ranked 190th or lower nationally (per KenPom). That won’t happen this year — Princeton, Yale and Columbia should all challenge for the top 100, while Dartmouth, Brown and Penn might all be better than they were three years ago.
It won’t take long to find out where Harvard fits in. The Crimson visits Providence (and potential NBA lottery pick Kris Dunn) on the season’s opening weekend, travels to Kansas a month later, and plays in the Diamond Head Classic over the holidays. In between, the schedule is littered with fun mid-major opponents like Northeastern, Wofford and Vermont.
“That’s the stuff I’ve dreamed about since I’m little — playing in Allen Fieldhouse, games like that, playing against a great Providence team with Kris Dunn,” McCarthy said. “I think I play my best when I’m against the best competition, so I’m really excited to get out there and get the season going.”