Coach Tommy Amaker says he couldn’t have predicted the success of the first-place Harvard men’s basketball team. On the other hand, he’s not surprised by it either.
“We’re building a program based on a sound structure, vision, and style of play,” he said. “It’s hard to say what we thought our record would be after losing the best player in the Ivy League, but we did believe that we had a chance to continue to grow.”
Last year, Amaker’s squad won 21 games, the most in the history of Harvard’s men’s basketball program, and was in the hunt for the Ivy League championship through the final weeks of the season. This year, the Crimson are better. At 21-5, the team has already equaled last year’s win total and, entering the final weekend of the season, has a chance to clinch its first Ivy crown and NCAA tournament berth.
Most fans probably wouldn’t have predicted such improvement after the graduation of star guard Jeremy Lin ’10, the first player in the history of the league to record at least 1,450 points, 450 rebounds, 400 assists, and 200 steals. Lin is now playing in the NBA for the Golden State Warriors. To make matters worse, junior forward Keith Wright sprained his knee in June, an injury that required extensive rehabilitation and kept him off the court for months.
“The doctor thought I had torn my anterior cruciate ligament,” Wright said. “I was prepared to sit out the season. Fortunately, it was just a sprain and stress fracture.”
The team welcomed Wright back to action weeks before the start of the season, only to experience another setback. Kyle Casey, last year’s Ivy League Rookie of the Year, broke his foot, sidelining him for training camp and the first month of the regular season.
“It was devastating when Kyle got hurt,” Amaker said. “We didn’t have him for the first four or five games. Then he had to get his conditioning and timing back. It’s only in the last month that he’s rounded into the player he was last year.”
Instead of folding, the Crimson made overcoming adversity their defining characteristic. On a team with no seniors and only three juniors, freshman and sophomore players made big contributions. Amaker said the efforts of lesser-known players such as junior Oliver McNally and sophomores Christian Webster and Brandyn Curry kept the team afloat early in the season.
“McNally is our vocal leader,” he said. “Webster is quiet and efficient. He hit the game-winning shot against Bryant, then scored a career high at Mercer. These were big road wins for us early on. And Brandyn not only sets the tone for us defensively, but he’s also leading the conference in assists. He makes everyone around him better.”
Wright even turned his injury into a positive. Unable to prepare for the season by playing basketball, he embraced the team’s strength and conditioning programs. As a result, Wright’s scoring and rebounding numbers have nearly doubled, from 8.9 points per game (PPG) and 4.6 rebounds per game (RPG) in 2009-10, to 15.3 PPG and 8.4 RPG this year.
“I felt extra motivation to work hard in the weight room,” Wright said. “I felt like I just owed it to the guys. I wanted to have a big year and to be part of the team’s success.”
The team lost the first game of the season to Colonial Athletic Association powerhouse George Mason, then ripped off five straight wins. Casey returned, and the team went on a 10-2 run, losing only to perennial NCAA heavyweights Michigan and Connecticut. Then came an away game against Ivy League nemesis Princeton, a 65-61 loss.
“We had mental lapses and didn’t finish some plays, some passes, and some of our possessions,” said Casey, lamenting an early lead that slipped away and a comeback that fell short.
The Crimson bounced back strongly on Feb. 12 with its most uplifting win of the season at home against a surprisingly strong Brown squad. Down by as much as 24 points early in the second half, Harvard rallied and won going away, 85-78. The victory was the team’s 15th straight win at home, and tied a team record.
“We talked about how much fun it could be to come back and make this win a part of our story,” Amaker said of the conversation he had with his team at halftime. “So we inched our way back. We played in three- to four-minute segments, and then stuck our heads up to see where we were. We cut their lead to 16, then to 10. You could see our confidence growing. It was really the defining moment of the season.”
Now, another defining moment is on the horizon. Harvard ends the season at home on Saturday (March 5). The opponent? It’s Princeton, currently a half game ahead in the Ivy League standings. With a win, the Crimson would tie the Tigers for first place and force a one game playoff to determine which team goes to the NCAA tournament.
Casey said he and his teammates know what a league title would mean for Harvard fans and for the basketball program, but are staying focused and taking things in stride.
“We came here to do something very special, something that’s never been done,” he said. “We’ve been working hard as a team. If we stay focused on what we need to do, we’ll reach the destination. We don’t look at it as expectations. We look at it as destiny.”
In one of the most anticipated men’s basketball games in Harvard history, the Crimson game against Princeton will be broadcast live from Lavietes Pavilion on March 5 at 7 p.m on ESPN3.com.