Tommy Amaker has taken Harvard – a program where basketball success was not only non-existent, but largely unfathomable – to four NCAA Tournaments, actually winning games in two, over the last six seasons. Prior to last season, he had led the Crimson to six straight 20-win seasons, five consecutive Ivy League titles, and a 59-15 league record.
So while no one is immune from any questioning or criticism of his methods or substitution patterns, certainly Amaker has more than earned the benefit of the doubt.
But coming off a 14-16 (6-8 Ivy) season, where the Crimson lost seven of eight conference games at one point, Harvard still looks to be a work in progress. It was picked second in the Ivy League largely due to a heralded recruiting class, but mixing and matching the new guys with the veterans has proven problematic with only five players allowed on the court at one time per current basketball rules.
Amaker will tie Frank Sullivan for most coaching wins in Harvard history with his next victory, which he had hoped to do already, but Harvard is 1-3, with the last two coming to in-state rivals Holy Cross and UMass. Saturday at the Mullins Center, the Crimson led most of the way before falling 70-66 to the Minutemen, who were without freshman Dejon Jarreau.
“I thought our kids played very hard,” Amaker said Saturday. “I thought we competed. But I thought we made what we refer to as some inexperienced kinds of mistakes that we’re probably going to have a lot this year with the amount of young guys that we’re playing. I’m pleased with the effort, though, and I’m pleased with the spirit of our team, and I’m looking forward to what we’re going to be.”
Harvard boasts what is the best recruiting class in Ivy League history (at least since they’ve been recording those types of things), coming in at a remarkable 12th in ESPN’s ratings for the current freshmen. Long-term, the six members will surely be a boon for Amaker and Harvard and force current champion Yale and everyone else to step up (in case they hadn’t gotten the message already) or be doomed to watch Harvard dominate for the near future.
However, in the short-term, it’s a bit of a curse right now for Harvard. Forward Chris Lewis was the highest rated of the bunch coming in, but he scored just two points in a loss to Holy Cross and was scoreless Saturday, fouling out in just 10 minutes. He is joined in the frontcourt by somewhat less heralded center Henry Welsh, whose brother Thomas plays for UCLA. But Welsh has been more consistent in the early part of the season, averaging 7.0 rebounds and leading the team in minutes against UMass (33).
Before Lewis and his classmates, the highest rated recruit in Harvard (and perhaps Ivy) history belonged to current senior Zena Edosomwan, who unfortunately may be a bit of a cautionary tale for the expectations of this season’s phenoms. Edosomwan, who eschewed BCS offers to go to Harvard, was in and out of the lineup his first two years in Cambridge as Harvard didn’t really need him to play a major role, going to back-to-back NCAA Tournaments.
Last season, Edosomwan took a big step by scoring 25 points and adding 16 rebounds on Christmas Day in Hawaii against an Oklahoma team that would end up in the Final Four. But although Edosomwan would eventually make second team All-Ivy (the only Harvard player on first or second team with a team-leading 13.1 points and 9.9 rebounds per game), there were days late in the season like Feb. 26 at Yale, where a healthy Edosomwan played just 12 minutes and did not score, Amaker choosing not to play him more in a 59-50 loss.
Edosomwan started this season’s opener in China against Stanford, but played only 12 minutes, then got just 10 minutes against Division III Fisher, then seven in the Holy Cross loss, coming off the bench in the last two. He did not start again Saturday, and probably wouldn’t have had 21 minutes of action had Lewis not fouled out with 10:48 remaining. His final line was mediocre, to be fair: 5 points and 10 rebounds to go with 3 big missed second-half free throws (he shot only 47.5% last season, which helped Harvard finish 350th nationally in that category).
Amaker’s problem is simple, he can’t really play his three big men together, and – right now – he’d rather go with the two freshmen, leaving Edosomwan – who was talked about as a preseason Player of the Year candidate in the Ivy with Makai Mason out – with reserve minutes. Could it be a message to his senior? It doesn’t seem that way.
“I think all of our guys made some mistakes, but I thought Zena played really hard,” Amaker said Saturday. “I was pleased with his effort.”
The same problem has arisen at point guard. Siyani Chambers is a three-year starter, but was supposed to have graduated last May before tearing his ACL last preseason and withdrawing from school so he can play this season. Which leaves Amaker in a bit of a bind with freshman Aiken, another ESPN Top 100 recruit. Aiken got 31 minutes in the opener and played a lot with Chambers, but missed the Holy Cross game with an injury. He looked rusty Saturday, going 0-9 from the field with four turnovers in 23 minutes.
“Chris Lewis got into foul trouble and that kind of disjointed us a little into playing some different lineups,” Amaker said. “I felt good about the players who were playing the most minutes for us. Bryce is coming off an ankle injury and it’s his first game back, so he’s looking kind of like you’d expect with a tough day offensively. We didn’t take care of the ball with 19 turnovers, and that really killed us.”
Putting Aiken (who scored 20 points and had seven assists at the Jordan Brand Classic at the Barclays Center last year) at the off-guard takes away minutes from another member of the freshman class, Seth Towns, who was the best Harvard player on Saturday (17 pts., 6 rebs., 3 steals).
And we haven’t gotten to wing Justin Bassey, who started Saturday (27 minutes) and played 35 minutes against Holy Cross. An athletic 6’5”, Bassey’s defense might be his biggest asset. There’s also 6’10” Robert Baker, who had played four minutes all season before coming off the bench Saturday with not only a dunk, but a three-pointer much to the bewilderment of the opposing coach whose scouting report apparently wasn’t deep enough. The sixth member of the class, Christian Juzang, played 27 minutes against Stanford, but missed his second straight game against UMass.
“We kind of had to match Harvard’s physicality inside,” UMass coach Derek Kellogg said. “They look like a high major basketball team, and I think when they get everything together, they’re going to be a tough squad to go against. They had No. 35 (Chris Baker), I’m not sure if he played yet this season. Next thing you know, he’s shooting threes and flying over people for dunks. They have a real chance to be really good over time.”
Then there’s the players that return after last season’s tough road like sophomore Corey Johnson, who was second on the team in minutes last season, but played just 10 Saturday, although he hit both of his three-pointers. Last year’s starting point guard, Tommy McCarthy, played just three minutes, while Corbin Miller (fourth on last year’s team in minutes) and Chris Egi never saw the floor despite Amaker going 11 deep.
It’s very early, of course, and while the Holy Cross defeat (Harvard’s third straight to the Crusaders) is a bit disturbing, they easily could have beaten Stanford or UMass, even with their growing pains. While Princeton is a solid favorite, Harvard is probably still its biggest threat. Yale has a solid freshman class of its own, but the loss of Mason will be difficult to overcome. Columbia and Penn are still making their way through coaching transitions and probably a year or two away, while Brown, Cornell, and Dartmouth do not look like Ivy League Tournament contenders at the moment.
So Amaker will have a few more games to fiddle with his rotation and figure out what combinations work best for him, whether they include his veterans like Edosomwan or not. Next season, Chambers, Edosomwan, and Miller will have graduated and the experience the freshmen gained in 2016-17 may push Harvard into the dominant future force many envision (and they have an outside shot at future potential lottery pick Mohamed Bamba by then).
For now, though? It’s a work in progress. And that work might take the better part of a basketball season to be completed.
“We have a really good group of guys. I think the spirit of this team is really good,” Amaker said.