Even after Harvard went on its greatest stretch in program history, winning five consecutive Ivy League championships and making four straight NCAA Tournament appearances earlier this decade, there was a sense that the Crimson were just getting started.
In the midst of that legendary run, coach Tommy Amaker was piecing together a 2016 recruiting class unlike anything the school has ever seen. Throughout 2015, he received commitments from seven players, four of whom were ranked in the Top 100 nationally. By the end of the recruiting cycle, the class was ranked 10th nationally by ESPN, even higher than North Carolina’s. It was easily the most talented class in Harvard history.
And so after a rare down season in 2015-16, Harvard reloaded with a freshman class that had no shortage of potential. If the program’s previous run was historic, it begged the question: What could happen with this kind of talent?
“I thought we were going to come in, have it rolling, continue that and achieve those same levels of success,” said guard Bryce Aiken, one of the jewels of the class.
But it hasn’t exactly gone according to plan.
Despite winning back-to-back Ivy regular-season titles, the Crimson have yet to get over the hump and make it to the NCAA Tournament with this class. Injuries to star players have derailed them, but they’ve still found themselves in the conference tournament championship game the last two seasons, where heartbreak has followed them.
Despite being the No. 1 seed in both of the last two tournaments, Harvard has fallen short, and both times forced to watch its opponent celebrate under confetti in their respective home gyms.
The shortcomings have humbled a once nationally hyped class, one that forward Seth Towns said may have had a sense of entitlement when they arrived in Cambridge three years ago.
“You think you’re something until you’re proved you’re not,” Towns said.
“It’s absolutely heartbreaking to not have lived up to those expectations,” added guard Justin Bassey. “Knowing that we’ve had one of the most talented groups of players in the country and not being able to put it all together, it’s absolutely devastating.”
The experiences have been endured and the lessons have been learned. Despite how the last three years have gone, this class has one final chance to realize its dream of playing in the NCAA Tournament. And as they begin their fourth quest together in the opener against MIT Nov. 5, there are even higher expectations.
Harvard was again tabbed as a heavy favorite to win the Ivy League, and when the AP Top 25 poll came out this week, the Crimson received 24 points – the de facto 32nd-ranked team in the country. Everyone from their senior class is back and presumably fully healthy, and if and when the times comes in early March, Harvard will be hosting this season’s Ivy League tournament at Lavietes Pavilion with a chance to finally make the Big Dance.
“Is there pressure? I mean, shoot, there’s always pressure with anything you do in life, especially with sports,” Aiken said. “So yeah, there definitely is pressure going into the season. …
“The outside buzz, it’s nice to have. It shows the promise we have as a team. I don’t think anybody’s outside expectations are higher than what we have for ourselves. We know what’s in front of us, we’ve been working at it for some years now and obviously we haven’t achieved the success that we’ve wanted, but it’s a clean slate. New season, same goals, high expectations. We’re looking forward to it.”
The expectations are even higher because Harvard’s two best players will finally be on the court together again. Towns, the 2017-18 Ivy League player of the year, missed all of last season due to a knee injury, and he expects to be a full-go for this season. Same with Aiken, who missed almost an entire calendar year with a knee injury before returning midseason last year and nearly carrying Harvard to a tournament championship.
The Crimson have loads of talented depth behind their top duo. In addition to the rest of the senior class, they boast sophomore forward Noah Kirkwood, last year’s Ivy League rookie of the year, and another talented freshman class that includes Top 100 forward Chris Ledlum.
“On paper, I think is the most talented team that we’ve had in my time,” Amaker said. “But obviously that doesn’t mean we’ll be the best team we’ve had. We’ve had some really good teams. … The most talented team isn’t always the best team. We’re hoping to be the best team and not so much the most talented team on paper.”
Harvard has certainly learned the hard way that talent isn’t everything, and the Crimson are applying those lessons this season, using past failures as fuel. They’re ignoring the outside noise, too, something that was hard for them in the past, but they know how to channel it now.
They’ve been through it all over three years together, and in their now-or-never year, they’re ready to finally show the country why they were once so highly touted.
“I think everything is lined up for us to have an historic year,” said guard Christian Juzang. “It’s just about us focusing on us, staying within us and playing for each other, and everything else will fall into place.”
Bassey looked at the big picture.
“It’s going to come down to whether or not we perform in this last year, kind of with our legacy and looking back,” Bassey said. “Were we just hype and all talk or did we really do something special?”