When Wesley Saunders’ final three-point attempt clanked out last March in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, the Crimson spotlight immediately shifted to Siyani Chambers.
Had the shot fallen, it would have added to the recent folklore of Harvard hoops and, in turn, extended the career of one of the greatest talents to ever pass his way through the Ivy League.
But the upset was not completed. North Carolina halted Harvard’s pursuit of a third straight trip to the NCAA Tournament Round of 32 in a nail-biting 67-65 victory. Saunders would go on to pursue his professional dreams and suddenly Chambers, the junior point guard from Minnesota, became the face of the squad. Until Sept. 2, 2015.
That day, it was announced that Chambers had suffered a torn ACL, thus sidelining him for the 2015-16 campaign and forcing him to dis-enroll from classes in order to preserve his final year of eligibility per Ivy League rules.
Harvard was well aware that they would be without Saunders this season. But the blow of losing Chambers, the 2013 Ivy League Rookie of the Year who looked poised to breakout of his sidekick role, couldn’t have been accounted for.
Thus far, the Crimson (9-11, 1-3 Ivy) have come up short in their attempts to fill the voids in production that Saunders and Chambers left.
Coach Tommy Amaker, who orchestrated Harvard’s recent renaissance on the hardwood, acknowledged in a phone interview with The Daily Pennsylvanian the struggles his ball club has endured but is by no means throwing in the towel on the season just yet.
“We played some good stretches of ball this year,” he said before conceding that in comparison to last season. “We haven’t played as well.”
Despite their sub-.500 record the Crimson have indeed shown flashes of the brilliance of years past as well as hints of the damage they could inflict this season. In games against No. 1 Oklahoma and No. 7 Kansas, Harvard played like a legitimate contender, only losing to Kansas by six.
Still, winning the Ivy title will be no simple task, especially given their 1-3 start.
Amaker, who discussed the influence of Chamber’s injury also pointed to another key contributor to their recent woes.
“If we shoot free throws better ... I think the narrative of this team is different.”
To that point, Harvard is shooting a mere 57.8 percent from the stripe this year, placing them last in the Ivy League in that category. In 2014-15 they knocked down 71.9 percent of their attempts at the line, good enough for second in the league. Had they converted their shots at the same clips they did last season they would have 49 more total points (2.45 per game) thus far this year.
While initially their consistent misfiring on free throws may not seem to be a direct result of Chambers’ injury and Saunders’ graduation, a look at last year’s numbers reflect otherwise.
Not only did Chambers lead the team in free throw percentage at 81.4, but he was second on the team at getting to the line behind none other than Saunders, who converted 77.3 percent of his six attempts per game.
Of course, the backcourt duo left other holes as well. As the team’s primary ball handlers, they were part of a squad that only turned over the ball 11.6 times per game while forcing 12.8 on the other end of the floor. This season Harvard is committing 15.3 and only causing 11.8.
Similarly, Saunders and Chambers led the team in steals as well, with 1.8 and 1.5 per game respectively. This season only senior Agunwa Okoli is averaging more than 0.8 steals per game (he has 1.4).
These stats only scrape the surface of the gap the Crimson are being forced to refill. While they are scoring 2.7 more points per game, their offensive quotient — an average of how many points a team scores above or below the average amount of points their opponents concede — has fallen from a high of 4.5 in 2013-14 to negative 5.4 this season. Similarly, their adjusted scoring margin — which puts a team’s scoring margin into the context of its opponents — has fallen from an impressive 10.9 in 2013-14 to 1.0 so far this year.
With all that said the graduation of Saunders, amongst others, and the injury sustained by Chambers did not suck Harvard dry of any talent. Junior forward Zena Edosomwan is averaging a double-double and freshman guard Corey Johnson has emerged as a legitimate scoring threat.
Their contributions are part of why it would be silly to write off Harvard this early and why teams like Penn — which hosts the Crimson at the Palestra on Saturday — should not let their guard down.
Amaker points out that in this conference it can be easy to lose a couple contests and think you’re out of the race or win a few and get high on yourselves. He warned that neither sentiment holds true. But finding a way back in the race will not be easy for Harvard.
“We don’t have a very large, if at all, margin for error,” Amaker admitted. “We need to win this weekend.”
If anyone is fit to navigate the tough road back to a conference title it’s undoubtedly Amaker. After flipping a perennial bottom-tier program into a five-time defending league champion and national contender, three Ivy losses is no sweat.
“It’s a long horse race,” Amaker repeated multiple times throughout the conversation.
So, if Harvard can find its legs soon, it’s bound to be a photo finish.Comments powered by Disqus
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