SALT LAKE CITY — Though he had never set foot in the Beehive State, Wesley Saunders found it difficult to take in any sights when he arrived here with his Harvard basketball teammates in the wee hours Tuesday.
After taking a bus ride from the airport to the team’s downtown hotel for a late check-in, Saunders awoke that morning for a practice at the University of Utah’s Huntsman Center. He threw open the curtains and was dazzled by the breathtaking sight of Salt Lake’s sun-dappled cityscape, framed by the snow-capped Wasatch Mountains in the background.
“Oh, man, it’s beautiful out here,’’ said Saunders during a quiet moment Tuesday at the team’s headquarters at the Radisson hotel. “It’s a nice place to play. Obviously, we’ve got to get used to the altitude and whatnot, but I’m excited for it.’’
For Harvard, which earned a No. 14 seed in the West Region and a second-round matchup against third-seeded New Mexico Thursday night, the emergence of Saunders — who went from a timid freshman to a confident sophomore scoring leader — has been a breathtaking sight.
“We thought the success of this team and the growth of this program was going to sit solely on the shoulders of our sophomores,’’ said coach Tommy Amaker, who was forced to lean on that class after the departures of Oliver McNally and Keith Wright were compounded by the losses of projected senior cocaptains Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry, who withdrew from school after being implicated in a widespread cheating scandal that rocked the Ivy League institution.
“That’s the class we really believe [had to step up], and you look at it and they really have performed like that.’’
While 6-foot-8-inch forward Kenyatta Smith emerged as a starter late in the season and 6-6 Steve Moundo-Missi was perhaps the unsung hero, there was no doubt Saunders was best in the class.
The 6-5 guard from Los Angeles was an All-Ivy League first-team selection after he led the conference in scoring at 16.5 points per game — a vast improvement from his freshman season when he averaged 3.3.
Saunders started all 28 games for the Crimson (19-9), scoring in double figures in all of his starts, including a career-high 27 points at Columbia Feb. 10.
“I’ve definitely had to take on more of a leadership role on the team,’’ Saunders said. “We have a really young team and, obviously, losing some of the players that we had before, it was a real gap that needed to be filled.
“I think it’s been a collection of people, but I definitely had to step up and be more vocal and lead the team not only by example but with my voice.’’
But the example Saunders set during the offseason helped his game and his status on the team.
“I was doing a lot of work on conditioning, ball handling, shooting, and just trying to become a better all-around player. And that work has paid off so far this season.’’
That was evident during Harvard’s preseason trip to Italy, where Amaker was so impressed with his sophomore’s play during a 10-day, four-game trip that he called Saunders “our best player in Italy.’’
“Even if those other guys [Casey and Curry] were here, during the summer Wesley was still our best player when we went to Italy,’’ Amaker said. “So it’s not like this is happening because others aren’t here. He was hands-down our best player this summer when we went on our foreign tour.
“I mean, he was dynamite. In some ways, he was even better than what he’s been here for us this season because of the other pieces we had with him during that tour. He was our best player this summer and he worked very, very hard because he knew how much he had to do to become a factor.
“I think that kind of drove him to become what he has emerged into for our program right now.’’
Saunders’s confidence has grown by leaps and bounds since that summer sojourn to Italy.
“Going into the season, I was really confident in what I could do, and obviously my teammates have helped me out so much,’’ Saunders said. “They’ve had a lot of confidence in me, just getting me the ball and telling me to go out and be aggressive, and I think a lot of that has to do with Coach Amaker and the way he’s been able to change the way our team is running, even with the missing pieces and stuff.’’
Last year, when Harvard drew a No. 12 seed in its first NCAA appearance since 1946, Saunders played just 11 minutes in the Crimson’s 79-70 loss to fifth-seeded Vanderbilt, scoring just 2 points on 1-for-4 shooting.
When Harvard faces off against New Mexico Thursday, Saunders will be expected to step up and shoulder more of the scoring burden.
“We’ve been here before, and we kind of know — the upperclassmen, anyways — what to expect in terms of, like, the excitement around it and not getting too caught up in the moment,’’ Saunders said.
“Last year, it was more of a shocking experience because we had always dreamed of being in the NCAA Tournament, and now that we’ve been here before, we can just calm down and focus on the task at hand.’’
So what must the Crimson do to survive and advance?
“We’ll just have to trust what we’ve been doing all year and stay to our principles and the way that we play and not really get out of character, which is what tends to happen a lot when people get on the big stage,’’ Saunders said.
“We just have to stick to playing our brand of basketball and doing the things that got us here, and I think we’ll be fine.’’Michael Vega can be reached at email@example.com.