Before each season, Harvard men’s basketball coach Tommy Amaker and his staff place role cards above each player’s locker. The cards carry a few simple points of emphasis, defining the individual role a player must take on for the team to achieve success. The bullet points tell their own story, illustrating the team’s collective belief in a sum greater than its parts—a conviction in doing your job, not more and not less.
On a team as talented as Amaker has ever had, the cards are even more important. The Crimson, when healthy, goes two-deep at each position and there are more three-star recruits on the team’s bench than on the rest of the league’s starting rosters combined. Co-captain Brandyn Curry and senior Kyle Casey, All-Ivy League talents as juniors, have been forced to adopt new roles on a deeper team, playing fewer minutes and focusing on different areas.
“You have to do what is best for the team,” Casey said. “Maybe my freshman and sophomore year I had a bigger load in terms of attacking and looking for my shot, but I am focusing on what Coach wants us to do.”
Working within the system will be crucial for the Crimson (18-4, 5-1 Ivy) as it heads to the Empire State this weekend for its first pair of conference road games. Fresh off a 74-67 loss to Yale (11-11, 5-1) that snapped a 19-game home winning streak, Amaker stressed that the team must bounce back.
“I am expecting our guys to play better,” Amaker said. “Does that always translate into victory? No. But we didn’t play well this past weekend.... We have shown every time this season so far that after a loss—and fortunately, there haven’t been a lot—we have done what we always talk about, which is regrouping and responding.”
In a positive turn for the team, the coach said he expects junior Jonah Travis and sophomore Agunwa Okolie, both restricted for the past four games, to be at full health against Cornell (1-19, 0-6) and Columbia (14-9, 3-3), giving Amaker a ten-man rotation, extending the bench, and reducing starters’ minutes.
Minus the reserves, last weekend three players—sophomore Siyani Chambers, junior Wesley Saunders, and co-captain Laurent Rivard—logged at least 34 minutes a game. Amaker remarked afterwards that tired legs were a factor in the team’s 35-percent shooting over the two games, 10 percent under its season average.
“At this point in the year, it becomes a grind,” Amaker said. “Maybe our legs weren’t there initially [last weekend], but then it became contagious. We didn’t shoot well, and it cost us Saturday.”
On Friday, Harvard will be seeking revenge against the Lions after Columbia dealt the Crimson a 15-point loss the last time the Crimson went to New York. Little-used then-sophomore Steve Frankowski exploded for 27 points as the Lions shot 51 percent from the floor and put the game out of reach early in the second half.
“They beat us last year; our guys know that,” Amaker said. “We will see where we are this year. They are 3-3 in the league, and they have two games at home [where they could] put themselves in great position. We realize what is at stake.”
Going on the road also means antagonistic crowds in New York and Ithaca, which for Casey and Curry will mean jeers directed at the seniors’ leaves of absence in the wake of the Government 1310 cheating investigation last fall. Against Brown, a contingent of road fans began ‘cheater’ chants when Casey stepped to the free throw line—something the senior said he is ready for this weekend.
“Oh, it’s coming,” Casey said. “Essentially, it doesn’t affect me. I like playing in hostile environments and it’s a beautiful thing. I call it the Jeremy Lin effect because I have never seen it so perfectly executed—when someone steps into the gym and gets booed for whatever reason, and they walk out and you can damn near hear a pin drop.”
Casey’s card is simple: be the back line of the defense and be a monster competitor on the boards. As the team’s defensive anchor and vocal presence, Casey says it is critical that he and the team tune out both fans and the past and focus on what matters—the game.
“What happened, happened,” Casey said. “We accepted it and learned from it. Whether they are yelling my name or calling me a cheater or talking about the game, I gotta play my game.”