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Around the Ivies: Prospective Point Guard Logjam Presents Question for Amaker

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In a season full of tough losses, Saturday’s looked to be the capstone.

A night after allowing Columbia to score nearly 1.4 points a possession—the most a Harvard team has given up since 2009—the Crimson defense was folding again. Cornell hit seven threes in the first eight minutes en route to a 27-10 lead, which the Big Red lengthened to 21 with 9:02 to go in regulation. A team that had overwhelmed Harvard in Cambridge was poised to knock the Crimson—longstanding residents in the Ivy League’s penthouse—firmly into the basement.

Harvard’s contest-ending 30-7 run, capped by a game-winning floater from freshman Tommy McCarthy with six seconds left, did not save a season; it brought up a question: What, exactly, are the Crimson to do next year with the rookie?

For much of the season, the answer seemed obvious. Harvard coach Tommy Amaker will face a logjam at his playing position next year with three-year starter Siyani Chambers ’16-’17 poised to return from injury and top-100 recruit Bryce Aiken seemingly a lock for playing time. Throw in prospective seniors Matt Fraschilla and Corbin Miller—who closed out many nonconference games as McCarthy looked on—and it is not clear where McCarthy fits in.

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The freshman’s recent play has complicated the narrative. Over the weekend, McCarthy averaged 19 points, four rebounds, and 5.5 assists a game with just six turnovers in 64 minutes of action. He talked after the Columbia game about his increased comfort in Amaker’s system. The stats back up his assertions: McCarthy has scored 16 or more points in four of his last eight contests after doing so just once in the first 18 games.

Yet, the other four contests—where McCarthy scored just 21 points combined—illustrate what has been, at times, a complicated growing process. The man he took over for, Chambers, made stepping in look easy three years ago. In leading Harvard to an impromptu Ivy League title, Chambers averaged about 12 points and six assists a game, shooting 42 percent from three and getting nominated to the All-Ivy first team.

McCarthy, a long shot for any All-Ivy team, has a much more mixed record. His detractors note he’s shooting a horrifically low 27 percent from two and leading his team by a county mile in turnovers. Amaker has grown more talkative about the struggles he and fellow freshman Corey Johnson have faced defending opponents on the perimeter all season—the leaks in an otherwise sturdy defensive starting five. His critics might argue that he’s the fourth best freshman point guard in the conference behind Princeton’s Devin Cannady, Cornell’s Matt Morgan, and Penn’s Jake Silpe.

His supporters would note that he ranks third in the league in assist rate and props up the offense for long stretches with herky-jerky bombs off the dribble and nifty passes in the lane. After struggling to generate chemistry with junior Zena Edosomwan early on—the big man characterized their pick-and-roll play early in the season as “he’s going to throw it up, and I better go get it”—McCarthy has developed a nice partnership with the junior.

His field goal percentage can be directly tied to the team’s lacking of end-of-shot-clock maneuvering, which often involves McCarthy calling for a screen and taking a wild three (to be fair, many go in). Many of the frustrating early-season turnovers from trying to push the ball on the break have dried up; over the last seven games, the rookie is averaging nearly twice as many assists as turnovers.

Moreover, a direct comparison between the freshman years of McCarthy and Chambers ignores key differences amongst the teams. Chambers was able to cede ballhandling duties to future Ivy League Player of the Year Wesley Saunders ’15 and had ace shooters Laurent Rivard ’14 and Christian Webster ’13 to space the floor around him, helping smooth the transition. Chambers’s shooting numbers do not give due credit to a mixed conference season where he made more than half of his shots just four times. With the team on the precipice of clinching a tournament spot, he had just 15 points and 11 turnovers in a road sweep at the hands of the Killer P’s.

While Chambers rebounded, hitting decisive shots down the stretch to deliver Harvard its second-ever outright Ivy League title the next weekend, his freshman year had its share of up and downs. Distressingly, it also represented the senior’s offensive peak—in the two subsequent years, his field goal and three-point shooting percentages dropped every year while his assist-to-turnover ratio roughly plateaued. Due to improved three-point and free-throw shooting, McCarthy actually has nearly the same true shooting percentage as a freshman that Chambers did as a junior.

To suggest McCarthy should be the presumptive starter is heresy—Chambers is a worse shooter but much better defender and, when healthy, the soul of this team. While McCarthy has talked all season about his need to develop into a leader, he does not get the same rave reviews as Chambers for his leadership. Amaker repeatedly referred to Chambers last year as the “team’s most important player,” praising his soul and intensity. His teammates—who made him a captain as a junior—echo their coach’s praises.

However, the gap between the two is not as big as conventional narrative dictates. McCarthy has been an assertive leader from day one—he isn’t reluctant to admit he wants the ball in his hands at the end of games. He’s improved significantly and has the shooting skills to prove useful as an off-ball guard next year if Aiken plays as expected and Amaker stays with the returning senior he began recruiting in eighth grade.

But now, back to the present:

COLUMBIA AT PRINCETON

The biggest Ivy news of the weekend came at Jadwin Arena, where Governor Chris Christie—the GOP’s personal section kid—downed three hot dogs in 20 minutes. Princeton’s league-changing victory—which put it in the driver’s seat with four games to go—was merely a footnote.

The biggest thing separating the Tigers and the playoff is the feisty Lions, who had Princeton on the ropes two weeks ago at home. Columbia was dominant in a home sweep of Harvard and Dartmouth and is 8-0 against the bottom five teams in the conference. It came in a year ago without Alex Rosenberg and nearly beat Princeton behind a hail of Maodo Lo threes. By winning out, it would secure—at the least—a spot in a three-team playoff with Princeton and Yale.

Devin Cannady and co. will end that dream quickly.

Pick: Princeton

CORNELL AT PENN

At least it’s not in Ithaca.

Pick: Penn

HARVARD AT YALE

At least there’s still football.

Pick: Yale

DARTMOUTH AT BROWN

At least … spring break is coming up?

Pick: Dartmouth

CORNELL AT PRINCETON

Cornell profiles as a team that could give Princeton trouble. Unlike most teams in the league, the Big Red won’t be overwhelmed by Princeton’s athleticism and have two players in Morgan and Robert Hatter capable of taking over the game at any point. This is the proverbial “closer than the experts think” game of the weekend.

Pick: Princeton

COLUMBIA AT PENN

A sneaky trap game for the Lions. Penn stayed close with the Lions throughout its loss two weeks ago in New York and played Yale to a near-draw for the first 27 minutes last week at home. Quaker coach Steve Donahue—with the assistance of the first publicized Ivy League analytics staff—has his team playing its best ball in some time. A loss Friday in New Jersey could easily become two here.

Pick: Penn

DARTMOUTH AT YALE

The Ivy League news of the week was Yale senior Jack Montague’s withdrawal from the team for the remainder of the season. Montague was not an expert creator off the dribble a la Makai Mason, but he was a good shooter and steady ballhandler who kept defenses honest and helped a cramped two-big lineup find some breathing room. Yale obviously missed him in its rematch with Princeton and will find itself wishing for him again next week in Morningside Heights.

For now? They’ll be just fine.

Pick: Yale

HARVARD AT BROWN

Ranked a deceptive fifth in the league, Harvard will likely need to either beat Yale on Friday or Yale at home on Saturday to distinguish itself from the rest of the league’s bottom half. However, after showing a tendency to play up to its opponent’s level (BYU, Oklahoma, Providence, Kansas) during nonconference play, Harvard hasn’t yet made a run at the league’s upper echelon. It came as close as you can get to knocking off Columbia at home, but wasn’t particularly close late in its other three contests against the league’s top teams.

What Harvard has shown over the years, however, is an ability to routinely defeat the league’s bottom feeders. It hasn’t lost to Brown since 2009, a streak that should not stop here—even in Cedric Kuakamensah’s final home game.

Pick: Harvard

—Staff writer David Freed can be reached at david.freed@thecrimson.com.

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