Harvard basketball’s ‘neat’ journey to the NCAA tournament

Siyani Chambers and the Harvard men's basketball team will need to play its best game of the year to upset New Mexico. (Photo: Getty)
Siyani Chambers and the Harvard men’s basketball team will need to play its best game of the year to upset New Mexico. (Photo: Getty)

Not long after a cheating scandal took away his co-captains last fall, Harvard men’s basketball coach Tommy Amaker uttered these words: “We believe in our system, our philosophy and our approach.”

Essentially, losing his leading scorer and starting point guard in Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry, respectively, only meant that the components had changed. The formula remained the same. And by reaching the NCAA Tournament for the second straight season, Amaker’s belief in that formula has been validated.
Of course, so much of the credit goes to the players who bought into the system, philosophy and approach. Amaker stressed in that early-season meeting with reporters that the scandal, in a way, provided an opportunity for “exceptional growth or surprises” and “neat stories.”

“Maybe this is another one that’s in our favor,” he said.

Among those surprises and neat stories is Wesley Saunders, a swingman who was a bit player on last season’s team and emerged, without Casey in the way, to become the top scorer in the Ivy League. One glimpse at a Harvard game and it’s easy to see why – Casey just moves in a different manner from the rest, almost like a seasoned pro trapped in the body of college sophomore.

Another neat story developed when Siyani Chambers, a freshman given an opportunity without Curry in the way, became a revelation as the Crimson’s new point guard. Amaker had his eye on Chambers from when the player was in eighth grade, but not everyone knew their union would yield such immediate success. Chambers ranks second on the team to Saunders in scoring and led the league in assists.

Chambers not only joined Saunders as an Ivy League first-teamer, but also won the league’s defensive player of the year honors, remarkable achievements for a kid who figured to learn from Curry for a season.

“With the youth of our team, the way these guys have responded — accepting different roles, stepping forward, young guys stepping in,” Amaker said Sunday after learning that his team would meet New Mexico on Thursday in the second round. “You can’t say enough about what this team has done for this season.”

Make no mistake, Saunders and Chambers were eyed by others. Amaker has a reputation as a top recruiter, even at a school like Harvard. But what happened with them, and their teammates, in 2012-13 goes beyond Amaker’s ability to sign talent. The players have to buy in, accept their roles, play hard and keep their noses clean. With that, success can come, and Thursday offers up a chance for Amaker’s formula to do something special.

Wouldn’t that be a neat story?

Three storylines to watch:

1. Chambers good to go – Sometimes freshman can hit a wall near the end of their first collegiate campaign. Chambers ended the regular season with a flourish. He scored 16 points in both of Harvard’s must-win games on the final weekend, shooting 11-for-15 from the floor and making 3-of-4 3-pointers.

2. Youth vs. experience – The age differences at the college level are never extreme, but while Harvard has just one senior on its entire roster, the Lobos rely almost exclusively on upperclassmen, many of whom were involved when New Mexico won its opening game in the 2012 tournament before nearly upsetting Louisville in the third round.

3. Tommy Amaker vs. Steve Alford – The coaches have a history in this tournament. They met as players in the Sweet 16 in 1987, when Amaker’s Duke Blue Devils fell to Alford’s Indiana Hoosiers. Amaker scored a game-high 23 points but it was not enough to slow down the eventual national champs.


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