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Harvard basketball preview: Tommy Amaker's team is no longer a sleeper

Our college basketball countdown continues with No. 24 Harvard.

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

It would be inaccurate to describe what Tommy Amaker has done at Harvard as a 'rebirth' of the program, because before Amaker came around the Crimson's most recent NCAA Tournament appearance happened in 1946. Three consecutive trips to the Big Dance later, simply winning the Ivy League and qualifying for the tournament no longer even constitutes a successful season. After two straight years with wins in the NCAA Tournament, Amaker has raised the bar.

For as impressive as it was to beat a New Mexico team with multiple pros in 2013 and a Cincinnati team led by All-American Sean Kilpatrick last season, the most remarkable game of Amaker's tenure might be one that resulted in a loss. Harvard was on the precipice of the Sweet 16 last season when it erased a 16-point deficit against a loaded Michigan State squad that was at that point a trendy Final Four pick. The Spartans were ultimately able to secure victory and end Harvard's season, but not before Amaker's team left a serious impression that they can no longer be brushed aside as an afterthought.

Harvard returns this year led by a backcourt that could compete with almost any Power 5 program. Wesley Saunders enters his senior year as already one of the best players in school history, and he'll have a heady point guard alongside him in junior Siyani Chambers. The Crimson don't have much in the form of proven depth, but freshman big man Chris Egi, a consensus top 150 recruit, is the latest evidence that what Amaker is building seems sustainable. If the defense remains top 40 in efficiency and the offense can find some shooting, the Crimson's success shouldn't surprise anyone this year.


Read David Tannenwald's longform on Harvard basketball.

Projected starting lineup:

PG Siyani Chambers, junior
SG Wesley Saunders, senior
SF Jonah Travis, senior
PF Steve Mondou-Missi, senior
C Kenyatta Smith, senior

Key bench players: G Alex Nesbitt (senior), G Matt Brown (junior), F Agunwa Okolie (junior), C Zena Edosomwan (sophomore), G Andre Chatfield (freshman), F Chris Egi (freshman)

How the Crimson can go deep in the tournament: Strong backcourt play and a tough defense.

There's no way to overstate the impact Chambers and Saunders have had on the program. Saunders' numbers actually dipped a bit in his second season in Cambridge, but he still averaged 14.2 points, 4.6 rebounds and 3.8 assists on 46 percent shooting. Think of him as the Dwyane Wade of the Ivy League -- a tough-nosed, two-way guard who does just about everything other than shoot threes.

Chambers was a revelation last season, establishing himself as the team's biggest outside threat with 38 percent three-point shooting on over four attempts per game. If he can improve finishing around the rim this season, he could be a candidate for a bit step forward.

Steve Mondou-Missi and the freshman Egi should combine to give the Crimson a formidable inside attack. Mondou-Missi moves back to power forward after playing a lot of center last following Smith's season-ending foot injury. He averaged over 10 points per game on 54 percent shooting even if it he lacks elite athleticism and size at 6'7, 225 pounds.

The defense thrives on making game-changing plays, placing in the top 40 in both steal and block percentage last season. So long as Harvard can continue to rely on its defense, they will be a tough out for almost any team.

How the Crimson can lose early: Lack of depth, lack of shooting.

For as balanced as the starting lineup seems led by three players capable of scoring in double-figures every night, there isn't much returning in the form of depth. The 225 minutes Okolie logged last year are by far the most for anyone on the bench, and he only averaged two points per game. Egi and fellow freshman Andre Chatfield, a three-star recruit, might have the best chance to give the Crimson some depth.

The other issue here is no one other than Chambers is a reliable outside shooter. Travis, the likely starter at small forward, hasn't even attempted a three in two years in school. Opponents will go straight zone against Harvard until they prove they can shoot over the top of it.

Anything less than another NCAA Tournament appearance will be disappointment for Harvard in Saunders' final season, and they have enough talent to make a push to the Sweet 16. It never feels good to paint Harvard as an underdog story, but in the case of the basketball program, it has really has developed into one of the better mid-majors in the country out of nowhere.