Even with Bryce Aiken out injured, the Harvard basketball team is chock-full of recruits that the Ivy League likely wouldn’t have gotten a decade ago. Tommy Amaker has raised the bar, and went to where no Crimson team had gone before, four straight NCAA Tournament appearances and two NCAA victories (and a near Sweet 16 visit).
In many ways, Amaker and Harvard have dragged other Ivy League competitors, particularly Yale and Princeton, with them (Yale also grabbed an NCAA Tournament victory, while the Tigers lost by two to Notre Dame last season).
So it remains outright baffling to watch this edition of Harvard, whose offense has been more than dysfunctional, largely non-existent for much of the season, which led to a 4-10 (against Division I) non-conference record. In 17 games this season, the Crimson have scored over 1 point per possession just twice (wins over Saint Joseph’s and Boston University), and couldn’t even accomplish it against neighbor MIT to open the season.
Despite a 62-57 overtime win over Dartmouth, Tommy Amaker’s 200th in charge of Harvard (in itself fairly remarkable) many of their problems were on full display Saturday night in Hanover, even in the first half, where the Crimson immediately went inside to 6-foot-9 sophomore Chris Lewis, ESPN’s 44th-rated recruit in the Class of 2016. But Lewis, who to be fair has been and was outstanding on the defensive end, could not break Dartmouth freshman Chris Knight down one-on-one. Amaker next tried to post up 6-foot-7 sophomore Seth Towns – who turned down Ohio State and Michigan to attend Harvard – but all that resulted in was a couple of turnovers.
Harvard eventually led 28-19 at the half and Towns took over from outside to start the second half on his way to matching his career high with 26. But even with a 41-24 lead, Harvard could not relax on the offensive end and would score just five points in 12 minutes, allowing Dartmouth to come all the way back. With Towns being overplayed, his teammates either passed up shots they weren’t confident to take or shot them without conviction.
“We talked a lot about composure. We talked about the “c” words: concentration, composure, confidence,” Amaker said. “And I thought that we knew at halftime we were going to need composure because they were going to make a run. We got into a drought there and couldn’t score, and in the end, you need confidence to finish it. I thought we did that well at the very end and in overtime.”
The Big Green would have stolen the game if not for a little luck and a head’s up play from Christian Juzang, another highly regarded recruit, who immediately threw a loose ball to Towns, who was fouled and made both free throws to tie the game at 48-48 with 2.6 seconds left.
Congrats to head coach Tommy Amaker, who becomes the fifth head coach in @IvyLeague history to win 200 games at an Ivy school! He is the second-fastest to reach 200 wins #CongratsCoach #GoCrimson pic.twitter.com/cXYfWKD0tE
— Harvard Basketball (@HarvardMBB) January 21, 2018
Harvard’s offense exploded for 14 points in overtime and prevailed 62-57, and so – even with the frustration and bewilderment on the offensive end – Harvard is 2-0 in Ivy League play, even if beating an Evan Boudreaux-less Dartmouth twice won’t exactly scare any contenders. But the numbers are hard to look at, especially considering Amaker put a Top 100 offensive team on the floor for five straight seasons (2009-2014) without many national recruits. Harvard has been a Top 100 team in eFG% in eight of his 10 seasons in Cambridge, and (except for his first season) has always been an above average three-point shooting team, eighth nationally in 2013-14 (39.8%) behind Siyani Chambers and Laurent Rivard and 14th just two seasons ago (39.2%) in large part due to a freshman named Corey Johnson.
This season Harvard is a almost unbelievable 29.6% from three-point range, 339th nationally. Not surprisingly, most of the teams that low on the list on not having great campaigns. Did all these players forget how to shoot? Are they being contested tighter? Do they lack confidence? A little from each column?
“We tell them to keep shooting good shots,” Amaker said. “That’s the key. We’re going to tell them all the time if we don’t make the good ones that’s on me and us as coaches. But if we’re taking bad ones, that’s not what we want. If we have good shots, we have to take them and that’s the only way we’re going to find our way through these shooting woes that we’ve had.”
Johnson is still on the roster, of course, scoreless in 33 minutes Saturday night, missing all five of his three-point attempts. He has missed 11 straight from the outside and is shooting just 32.1% this season after posting 41.4% last year and 40.4% in his freshman season.
On Saturday, Towns was 5-8 from three, but the rest of the team was 2-16 (both big shots from Justin Bassey, perhaps the least heralded of the 2016 recruiting class, which was ranked as high as No. 10 nationally). They finished with 0.90 points per possession against the 321st ranked defense, a spot that was worse before two recent games against Harvard.
“We stay really positive, even when we’re struggling,” Towns said. “We just give a quick rundown why plays break down and just try to correct it. We’re basketball players. We just have to figure it out.”
All this sounds grim, of course, but this would be a perfect time for the Crimson to emerge from its offensive slumber. Aiken should return Friday at a Yale team that will still be without Makai Mason and then goes to up-tempo Brown, which may help them lose some of the shooting anxiety that seems to have enveloped them this season.
Either way, it’s almost a lock that Harvard will be one of the four teams in Philadelphia for the Ivy League Tournament in March. It’s hard to see a team this talented not figuring some kind of combination to improve enough.
- The final play
Dartmouth coach David McLaughlin understood empirically that it was probably just bad luck, but when you’re that close to posting a signature win in that fashion, it still hurts plenty. The Big Green (4-11) had about a 1.5% chance of winning (per KenPom) when they trailed 41-24 with 12 minutes left in regulation. Yet when Knight held the ball and a 48-46 Dartmouth lead with 6 seconds remaining, Dartmouth was up to 97%. Alas, he didn’t have it for long.
So here's the play that eventually cost Dartmouth the victory. Hard to fault anyone, though, Chris Knight probably would have just held onto it if he had to do it again, but didn't have an hour to think about it. pic.twitter.com/gysQeqJSXy
— Ray Curren (@currenrr) January 21, 2018
“He made a play,” McLaughlin said. “He plugged on the ball screen perfectly and deflected the ball, went down and got it. In that scenario, he was worried about a travel and what are you going to do? It was actually a great play on their part from then to find Towns down there. What can you do?”
Towns wouldn’t have been in any position to be the closest player to the basket if he hadn’t fallen down trying to drive.
“I was just down on the ground and I looked up and Chris had the ball, so I had better get to the basket,” Towns said.