Harvard’s pursuit of a fifth consecutive Ivy League basketball championship took a critical blow yesterday when the team announced that star point guard Siyani Chambers will not be with the Crimson this season due to injury.
The three-time All-Ivy selection will take a voluntary leave of absence for the 2015–16 school year as a result of a torn ACL in his left knee suffered during summer workouts. The decision to withdraw enables Chambers to maintain one remaining year of Ivy League eligibility, assuming a healthy return for the 2016–17 year. The Harvard coaching staff could not be reached for further comment regarding the injury and its impact on the team’s title defense.
Yale head coach James Jones experienced a similar dilemma two seasons ago, when, during the 2013–14 campaign, point guard Javier Duren ’15 injured his ankle late in the year. Jones said his initial reaction was disbelief.
“You just don’t think that that’s going to happen to anybody,” Jones said. “It’s not great for our league to have one of its best players go down, but he’ll be back, and I’m certain that Harvard will be a better team because of it in the long run.”
With Chambers sidelined, Harvard’s chances at extending its dominant run at the top of the Ancient Eight appears to be in jeopardy as co-Ivy League champion Yale returns a solid veteran core led by reigning Player of the Year Justin Sears ’16. Columbia, no stranger to devastating season-ending injuries, will also contend for the league crown. The Lions bring back former first-team All-Ivy recipient Alex Rosenberg, who sat out last year following a preseason foot fracture, to join last season’s scoring champion, Maodo Lo.
Sears acknowledged that while the injury may increase Yale’s title chances on paper, the team’s focus cannot waver.
“This puts a little less pressure on us but anything can happen,” Sears said. “Penn, Dartmouth, Columbia, etc., they can all make a huge jump so we just have to go out there and worry about ourselves, and take care of business one day at a time.”
The loss of Chambers leaves the Crimson sorely lacking experience, as the captain started the first 64 games of his career and has started 90 of 92 possible games in his time in Cambridge. The returning roster has started a combined 48 games across their respective careers.
Chambers’ injury paired with the loss of graduated seniors leaves Harvard head coach Tommy Amaker tasked with an enormous amount of production to replace.
More than half of Harvard’s offensive output from a year ago has graduated, highlighted by the departures of former Player of the Year Wesley Saunders and Steve Moundou-Missi, who knocked down the game-winning shot in last year’s Ivy League Playoff. Incorporating the loss of Chambers’ 9.9 points per game leaves Amaker with a roster responsible for just 30.7 percent of Harvard’s 2014–15 scoring.
While the loss of an all-conference player is not something that a coach can easily replace, he said that what matters is the team’s depth in that area. Jones referred to the Bulldogs’ own situation in which 47.8 percent of last year’s scoring and 48 percent of last year’s rebounding totals graduated.
“It all depends on how light you are at that position when you lose a starter, and then how far away is the guy that fills in for him in terms of ability,” Jones said. “If you lose Matt Townsend [’15] and replace him with Brandon Sherrod [’16], you’re not really losing much, or vice versa, because they’re similar in levels of ability.” The immediate question for Harvard becomes which player, or which combination of players, will step in to fill the void left by Chambers. Of the returning crop of players, senior Corbin Miller is the only true guard to average more than 10 minutes a game last season, but he rarely orchestrated the offense and served primarily as a threat from three-point range.
Junior Matt Fraschilla will likely compete for the starting job, though he has seen limited playing time and production in his first two years. Amaker could also turn to his most heralded freshman guard, Tommy McCarthy, a three-star recruit according to ESPN who received interest from schools such as Brigham Young and San Diego.
This is not the first time in recent history that Harvard basketball has had to deal with a sudden loss of talent. In 2012, the cheating scandal that involved 125 students resulted in a pair of implicated senior co-captains, Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry, who withdrew for the school year and left the team for a season.
Remarkably, the 2012–13 Crimson persisted to capture its second consecutive Ivy League championship, in large part thanks to the Rookie of the Year campaign by Chambers.
Chambers himself is thus an example of how an unexpected star can step up, even as a freshman, and contribute to a championship level team.
Yale has also been the beneficiary of surprising guard play, as captain and guard Jack Montague ’16 demonstrated a similar breakout last year. After averaging just 3.5 points a game in his sophomore year, Montague erupted for more than double that mark last season while leading the Ivy League in three-point percentage.
“My confidence not only in myself but the confidence I get from the coaches and my play helped me make my big jump,” Montague said. “I wouldn’t necessarily say I’ve gotten exponentially better, but my confidence and mindset going into games and practices allowed me to play better.”
Whoever fills Chambers’ sneakers will need the confidence to lead a team with a championship pedigree and NCAA tournament aspirations in the same way as Chambers has done so proficiently for three seasons.
Already a member of the coveted 1,000-point club, Chambers was also a finalist for the Bob Cousy Award given annually to the nation’s most prolific point guard.