Programmed for Success?

Harvard men’s basketball prepares for conference play.

Zena Edosomwan (shown here against BYU) averaged 20.3 points and 13.1 rebounds in the Diamond Head Classic. The junior made the all-tournament team and was named Ivy League Player of the Week.
Zena Edosomwan (shown here against BYU) averaged 20.3 points and 13.1 rebounds in the Diamond Head Classic. The junior made the all-tournament team and was named Ivy League Player of the Week.
Photograph by Matt Hirata/HMSWIRE
Agunwa Okolie ’16 (shown here against Oklahoma) is the team’s top perimeter defender. His performance was crucial to the team’s success in Hawaii.
Agunwa Okolie ’16 (shown here against Oklahoma) is the team’s top perimeter defender. His performance was crucial to the team’s success in Hawaii.
Photograph courtesy of Harvard Athletic Communications
Former Honolulu mayor and Harvard basketball alumnus Mufi Hannemann '76 (first from left in the back row) hosted the team and a group of fellow alumni at a Christmas Eve dinner at a Waikiki restaurant. Following the tournament, Hannemann said he had "never been prouder" of the Harvard team.
Former Honolulu mayor and Harvard basketball alumnus Mufi Hannemann '76 (first from left in the back row) hosted the team and a group of fellow alumni at a Christmas Eve dinner at a Waikiki restaurant. Following the tournament, Hannemann said he had "never been prouder" of the Harvard team.
Photograph courtesy of Mufi Hannemann

In December 1978, former Harvard men’s basketball player Thomas Mannix ’81 recalls, the team arrived in Hawaii for the Rainbow Classic amid a year of transition. That season, Ivy League freshmen had become eligible to play varsity basketball, and an unusually young team had also faced stiff competition: second-year head coach Frank McLaughlin, had scheduled early-season matchups with the University of Massachusetts, Boston College, South Carolina, Stanford, and a Brigham Young (BYU) team led by future Celtics star Danny Ainge. After that gauntlet, the Crimson limped into Honolulu at 3-6.

Two weeks ago, Harvard returned to Honolulu in a similar position. After graduating seven seniors from last year’s team and losing star guard Siyani Chambers ’16 to an off-season injury, the Crimson has been starting two freshmen all season. Stemberg head coach Tommy Amaker also scheduled difficult fall-term opponents, including Providence College and the University of Kansas, currently ranked eighth and first, respectively, in the Associated Press poll. The result? Another 3-6 record.

But the 1978 team lost all three games in Hawaii, and this year’s team won two of three—reaching the final of the Diamond Head Classic. Harvard opened with a taut 85-82 overtime win over BYU; easily dispatched Auburn (from the high-powered Southeastern Conference) 69-51 in the semifinals; and finally fell to Oklahoma—now ranked second in the country—83-71 in a championship game that the Crimson led at halftime.

That Hawaii performance—along with a 77-57 drubbing of Wofford College (a 2015 NCAA tournament participant) in Cambridge on December 31—reinforced hopes that this team could win a sixth consecutive conference championship. Then January’s first game, a 65-62 setback at home against Vermont on Sunday, demonstrated how difficult that goal remains.

Harvard Hardwood
Sign up for Harvard Magazine’s basketball e-mail and follow the Crimson all season long! David L. Tannenwald ’08 will provide the latest news, game summaries, and insights as the Crimson chase another Ivy title and NCAA berth!

Programmed for Success

During the Hawaii tournament, ESPN’s Jay Bilas tweeted, “So impressed by Harvard. Lose an experienced point guard, have one of youngest rosters in NCAA, and continue to achieve. That’s a PROGRAM.”

That’s largely a tribute to Amaker, who has created a system (inside-out on offense and aggressive man-to-man defense) with clearly defined roles into which players can grow. Agunwa Okolie ’16 and Zena Edosomwan ’17 are cases in point. Last year, both played significant minutes but in supporting roles to Chambers and former Ivy League Player of the Year Wesley Saunders ’15.

In Hawaii, Okolie and Edosomwan demonstrated why they are so important. Okolie—who always guards the opposition’s best perimeter player—shut down Auburn star Kareem Canty, who had scored 27 points in a quarterfinal victory over New Mexico; against the Crimson, Canty made just one of 15 field-goal attempts. Edosomwan was even more dominant, averaging 20.3 points and 13.1 rebounds per game to earn a spot on the all-tournament team and recognition as Ivy League Player of the Week.

During the last two years, Okolie honed his defense in part by studying Saunders, who was exceptionally adept, he says, at using “quick hands” to steal the ball. Edosomwan has emulated another former player, Keith Wright ’12. After Jeremy Lin ’10 graduated, Wright saw an opportunity to assume a bigger role in the offense: that summer, he slimmed down, improved his skills, and went on to become the 2011 Ivy League Player of the Year. Edosomwan, following the graduation of Saunders, spent this past summer refining his post moves. After his performance in Hawaii, he, too, is a conference player of the year candidate.

Such metamorphoses have happened repeatedly under Amaker. Team alumnus Mufi Hannemann ’76, a former mayor of Honolulu who attended all three Diamond Head games, pointed out that Amaker has won with star-studded, veteran teams and with a squad of underclassmen. That, he said, “is the mark of a great coach.”


A Crucial Transition

To an extent, the setback against Vermont stemmed from fatigue. Immediately after final exams, the team played three games in four days in Hawaii; the trek home was punctuated by a long flight delay. As Amaker said after the January 3 loss, the squad is nearing the end of a “brutal stretch.”

But the loss also underscores the transition the Crimson needs to make as it moves toward conference play. Tournaments like the one in Hawaii tend to reward a looser style of play, reducing the emphasis on each possession and favoring athletic teams that like using fast breaks on offense. In the Ivy League, the Crimson faces teams that are less athletic but extremely disciplined—and know its style of play and personnel well. Those teams will be eager to knock Harvard from its perch.

Shifting to conference play hinges in part on tactics. After the recent loss, Amaker called for sharper defense; the team also has to find ways to score when Edosomwan is double-teamed, as he was against Vermont. Focus and resolve are perhaps even more important when every game affects whether the team will win the league title and the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament that accompanies it. That means, as guard Corbin Miller ’15 (’17) has said, the team’s mentality every night has to be “You gotta win.”


Injuries—and the Sophomore Class

Against Vermont, Patrick Steeves ’16—a star reserve up to this point—was injured, and starting point guard Tommy McCarthy ’19 left the game after hyperextending his knee. Their absence was a reminder of the importance of depth (all three point guards on the Harvard roster are now injured) and highlighted the significance of two sophomores, Andre Chatfield and Chris Egi, who must assume larger roles as Ivy play begins.

During his freshman year, Chatfield provided a spark off the bench, playing strong perimeter defense, occasionally hitting a three-pointer, and showing a flair for the dramatic, including a monstrous dunk in the season opener against MIT. This season, the guard has been slowed by injury; a bone bruise and high-ankle sprain sidelined him for almost all of the first nine games. He expected to return in Hawaii, but had to sit out after his throat swelled on the flight to Honolulu, leaving him unable to speak. He finally returned against Wofford, and against Vermont tallied a steal, two rebounds, and two assists in 14 minutes.

Egi’s role has similarly expanded. As a freshman, he appeared in just 11 games and averaged only one point per contest. This year, he has appeared in every contest and played a crucial role in backing up the Crimson’s starting front line of Evan Cummins ’16 and Edosomwan.

Amaker will need both reserves to spell the starters during the draining series of back-to-back Ivy League games, and Chatfield acknowledged that after Sunday’s game. He and Egi, he said, need to remember, “We’re not freshmen anymore.”

The team as a whole is similarly maturing. Whether the boost from Hawaii carries over into conference play, starting this Saturday against Dartmouth, remains to be seen.

Harvard Women’s Basketball Update 

After a three-week break for final exams and the holidays, the Harvard women’s basketball team lost three of four games on the road. The most recent setback came on Monday night at Chattanooga, which defeated the Crimson 62-58. Seniors AnnMarie Healy and Shilpa Tummala, who are averaging 14.8 points and 13.3 points per game, respectively, continue to lead the team as head coach Kathy Delaney Smith’s squad (now 5-8 on the season) starts conference play this Saturday in Hanover.


Read more articles by David L. Tannenwald

You might also like

Harvard Overhauls Disciplinary Procedures

To cope with violations of University statement on rights and responsibilities

Harvard’s Development Chief Departs

Brian Lee to step down at end of 2024

Immigrant Workers— America’s Engine?

Harvard economist Jason Furman on immigration and the U.S. economy.

Most popular

Mechanical Intelligence and Counterfeit Humanity

Reflections on six decades of relations with computers

The Power of Patience

Teaching students the value of deceleration and immersive attention

Who Built the Pyramids?

Not slaves. Archaeologist Mark Lehner, digging deeper, discovers a city of privileged workers.

More to explore

Relabeling Medical Definitions for Obesity in the United States

For obesity patients, improved treatments and a nuanced understanding of the disease may lead to better health.

How Was Brooklyn Bridge Park Planned?

Michael Van Valkenburgh and the making of Brooklyn Bridge Park

The Mystery Behind an Incan Tunic

Unraveling an Inca masterpiece’s secrets