Examining the Soul of Harvard Basketball
As I drove toward the Monmouth Athletic Center on a mild January night, I certainly did not expect to be ruminating on the soul of the Harvard basketball team. Harvard has received all sorts of national accolades this season on its way to a 12-2 start, while Monmouth had struggled to a 3-13 mark under new head coach King Rice. While the Hawks had shown clear improvement in their last two games, not even the Monmouth faithful were expecting a close game.
Yet with 15 minutes to go in the second half, after another Monmouth run had cut the Harvard lead to four, I was prompted to wonder about the soul of Harvard basketball. The questioner was John Gasaway, Basketball Prospectus writer, analytics maven, and my company for the game. He turned to me and said, “Plays out of timeouts are a window into the soul of a basketball team. So tell me, John, what will [coach Tommy] Amaker run?”
In his time at Harvard, Tommy Amaker has built a program built on precision, toughness, and execution. These qualities that he has instilled in his team shine through in its play: its commitment to precise motion offense and tough defense. Other coaches might design a specific play for the situation to quiet the road crowd, but I had seen this before. I told Gasaway that, “he’s going to tell them to execute the offense.”
The following Harvard possession was a microcosm for the game as a whole. Harvard ran the motion offense, getting an open look for sharp-shooter Laurent Rivard late in the shot clock. Rivard’s shot missed, but two offensive rebounds later, freshman Wes Saunders made a layup to push the score to 48-42.
There is no doubt that Harvard has struggled the last few games. Last week, they lost at Fordham in large part because they were unable to execute against the Rams’ tightly packed zone defense. Last weekend, Dartmouth, too, adopted a zone defense that stymied Harvard well into the second half before the Crimson ripped off a 30-11 run to put the game away. Tuesday night was no different: Monmouth’s zone collapsed on the Crimson forwards, forcing turnovers and tough shots.
For the next four minutes, Monmouth played their best basketball, tying the score at 50-50 with twelve minutes remaining. The crowd in the MAC, a gleaming new on-campus facility, had came to life, swept up in a wave of belief that maybe, just maybe, their Hawks could pull off the upset.
For the next ten minutes, however, Monmouth could only manage six points. The Crimson defense stiffened, forcing five turnovers and holding the Hawks to 3-14 shooting in the vital stretch.
What was more interesting, however, was the Crimson offense. Coach Amaker did something unusual against the Monmouth defense: he changed his scheme. Harvard started running its guards off wing picks, freeing them for more open looks and more importantly freeing the lane for point guard Brandyn Curry to penetrate and pass.
With five minutes to go, Curry reset the offense with only eight seconds left on the shot clock. He called Keith Wright up to the top of the key for Harvard’s bread and butter late shot clock play: a high pick and roll. Monmouth’s Jesse Steele, who was beat to the basket on the previous two possessions, went under the Wright screen. Curry pulled up and calmly drained a three pointer.
For me, Curry is a large part of the soul of the Harvard team. His struggles this year with shooting and turnovers mirror the Crimson’s larger offensive issues. But his toughness, determination, and sense of the moment reflect the team’s resilience and successfulness. On the back of that three pointer, Harvard got three consecutive stops and put the game out of reach.
Monmouth fans departed into the Long Branch night disappointed, but they should be hopeful. Rice has his team playing its best basketball heading into the conference season. With such a beautiful facility and a young, energetic coach, the prospects for the program appear to be good.
Harvard, on the other hand, is in the middle of what is supposed to be its annus mirabilis. The team must struggle off court against hugely raised expectations, and on the court against teams that will almost certainly play more zone defense. Entering Ivy League play, the future is less certain than it appeared in November, but one cannot doubt the soul of this team.