2008-2009 Record: 14-14 (6-8, T-6th Ivy)
2008-2009 Review: Through 15 games last season, Harvard was one of the biggest surprises of the year. Fresh off of wins over Santa Clara and Boston College and having survived the letdown contest at Dartmouth, the Crimson sat at 9-6 with five straight home games on the horizon. Then the wheels came off. Forward Doug Miller went down, exposing a thin frontline, and Harvard dropped seven of its next eight. At 2-7 in the Ivies and with star Jeremy Lin hobbled by a nagging injury, the Crimson could have limped home to its fourth-straight season of at least nine Ivy losses.
But senior point guard Drew Housman finished off his up-and-down career in style, while Evan Harris returned from injury to steady the frontcourt and Andrew Pusar provided his gritty leadership, as Harvard pieced together wins in four of its last five games, including victories at Penn and Yale, where the team hadn’t won this decade. The strong closing stretch likely contributed to the higher expectations placed on the Crimson this season.
Key Losses: Housman (9.6 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 2.8 apg), Harris (5.0 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 1.3 bpg), Pusar (6.4 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 1.0 apg)
While all three had their moments in Cambridge, Housman will likely be the biggest loss. His steady guidance at the point for most of the past four years will be difficult to replace. Harris wasn’t quite the offensive force last season that he had been in years’ past, but his strong defense in the middle will be missed. Pusar was relatively limited on the court, but had a savvy understanding that allowed him to get the most out of his game – most notably through his consistent in-traffic layups despite being just 6’1.
Key Returnees: Lin (17.8 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 4.3 apg), Keith Wright (8.0 ppg, 5.5 rpg), Doug Miller (6.1 ppg, 3.6 rpg), Oliver McNally (5.9 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 1.6 apg).
Any discussion of Harvard’s key returning players almost begins and ends with Lin. His unprecedented statistical performance through the first 20 games of the season began to unwind down the stretch as he struggled through injury. Wright went the other direction, as he fought off the mono that hindered him through the middle of the season to have a strong Ivy campaign. Miller posted tremendous offensive efficiency numbers until getting knocked out for the season against Dartmouth. McNally put together a few signature games and proved himself to be a viable replacement option for the departing Housman.
Key Arrivals: Kyle Casey, Brandyn Curry, Andrew Van Nest
Van Nest was a 2008 recruit that missed all of last season with a shoulder injury. He will be among the many frontcourt returnees (Pat Magnarelli, who hasn’t played since early in the 2007-2008 campaign, and Doug Miller) that will dramatically strengthen the depth at the forward positions. Curry is a highly touted freshman out of North Carolina who will battle with McNally to assume the starting point guard role vacated by Housman, while Casey should battle for a starting role either as a small forward or, more likely, as a power forward.
Top Non-Conference Games:
Harvard at Boston College, Wednesday, December 9th, 7:00 p.m. – The second of the Crimson’s three straight games against ACC and Big East competition, clearly this will be the only one where there’s no risk of the opponent looking past Harvard. The Eagles will certainly be looking for revenge and have the talent to get a healthy dose of it.
Harvard vs. George Washington, Wednesday, December 30th, 7:00 p.m. – Arguably the biggest non-conference opponent visiting Lavietes this season, it will also be Harvard’s first relatively evenly matched contest in 28 days. The Crimson will have to do a better job with Damian Hollis if it expects to win this year.
Harvard at Connecticut, Sunday, December 6th, 1:00 p.m. – Currently Harvard’s only appearance on the ESPN family of networks this season, it’s also just the fourth game of the year for the Huskies. It will be interesting to see where the Crimson’s confidence levels are both before the brutal three-game BCS stretch and after.
By The Numbers: You could write a thesis on Lin’s statistical resume – he finished in the top 500 nationally in 10 different Pomeroy categories. But the figure that matters for the Crimson is the horrific 109.2 defensive rating last year (actually more than two points better than the 2007-2008 rating). A lot of that was opponents taking advantage of Harvard’s threadbare frontcourt as well as the increased minutes down the stretch for relative defensive liabilities Housman (108 defensive rating) and Pusar (112). The forward spots will be strengthened by the return of several key members from injury.
Getting better defensive play from the guard spots could be as simple as sophomore stopper Max Kenyi being good enough offensively to stay on the floor, but if he can’t, then Harvard will have to find a way to compensate for the minutes given to weaker defenders McNally and sophomore Peter Boehm. Undoubtedly, the story of the season will be how much improvement the Crimson will be able to show on the defensive end.
Strengths: The Crimson were the 62nd best shooting team in the country, and 35th best nationally at getting to the line. Needless to say, Harvard had the best league offense of any team not named Cornell, and if it had been able to grab an average number of offensive boards, it might have rivaled the Big Red.
While its defense as a whole was nothing short of terrible, Harvard did boast three of the top 330 players nationally in steals (and it could have had four if Harris played a few more minutes). Lin and Kenyi return and are joined by McNally, who sat just outside the top 500 nationally.
Weaknesses: Despite having three of the top 10 defensive rebounders in the league (Lin, Harris and Wright), the Crimson finished last season 251st nationally, and despite Wright and Harris’s prowess on the offensive glass, Harvard finished 321st in that category. The Crimson needs a much better team effort on the boards this season, especially since Harris has graduated.
If there was any good news, it’s that Harvard’s porous defense and stellar offense allowed opponents to shoot so well that there were fewer rebounds up for grabs. Crimson opponents shot an effective 51.3% from the field last season. This number spiked down the stretch last season, likely a result of collapsing on the interior to compensate for its lack of personnel inside.
Season Outlook: While a lot of pundits are expecting Harvard to take a step forward this season, it’s important to remember that the Crimson has graduated the second most efficient player in the Ivies in Housman. Replacing that production will be difficult, even if Harvard has two players in Curry and McNally that appear ready to do so. As for the rest of the team, there are myriad unknowns. Will an “as healthy as he’s likely to get” Magnarelli be as productive as he was before he missed a year and a half to injury? Can Miller pick up where he left off before he got injured against Dartmouth? What production will Harvard get out of freshman phenoms Casey and Curry?
With the middle of the Ivy League likely as squishy as it was last season, one could make a logical argument that would leave Harvard anywhere from second to seventh in the league. The Crimson is nothing if not potential; however, it isn’t potential, but rather production that wins games and the translation of the former to the latter is where the questions lie for Tommy Amaker’s squad. With a favorable non-conference schedule (aside from the three BCS games in December) and a bunch of winnable league games, it wouldn’t be out of the question to see Harvard win 18 games this year. Finishing above .500 in the league and overall, however, will likely be the metric for determining whether this season will or won’t be a success.