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Harvard vs. Cincinnati

Harvard players buy into team concept

Harvard's Wesley Saunders smiled during practice in Spokane on Wednesday.

Elaine Thompson/AP

Harvard's Wesley Saunders smiled during practice in Spokane on Wednesday.

SPOKANE, Wash. — The cards are posted above every player’s locker.

They’re more than just instructions. They’re reminders. They’re affirmations.

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The cards spell out precisely what Harvard coach Tommy Amaker expects.

Steve Moundou-Missi knows his by heart.

Be a great competitor on the glass. Play off penetration. Make aggressive moves in the post.

Wesley Saunders’s card might as well have a jack in the corner. He has so many roles there’s barely enough room for them all on the card.

Be our best player every day in practice. Deny one pass away and be disciplined off the ball. Rebound from the wing. Get to the free throw line.

Siyani Chambers’s card essentially tells him to think of everyone else before he thinks of himself.

Play with pace and space. Be our best decision-maker. Lead the league in assists.

By and large, the roles remain consistent.

“You can definitely talk to [Amaker] about it,” said senior guard Brandyn Curry. “The door’s always open.

“But,” said Moundou-Missi. “the chances of it changing are probably really small.”

They haven’t changed at any point during the Crimson’s run to their fourth straight Ivy League title and their third straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament, where Thursday they will take on Cincinnati in the East Regional.

The roles have been carved out for a reason.

“The role cards are meant to maximize your abilities as a player,” said Saunders. “So the things that Coach Amaker thinks that you can do best, if you focus on doing those things then your game overall is going to improve. I think this is the best we’ve done, each player, of sticking to their roles, and I think that’s why this is one of the best seasons we’ve had.

“It definitely makes you stick to it and it holds you accountable for your roles because we all agreed to this and this is what we talked about we wanted to get. In order to get that, we have to do things that Coach Amaker and we all have talked about. I think it works. “

That consistency and clarity is why Amaker hung up the cards in the first place.

“We want to be precise on what we want them to embrace,” he said. “We want them to embrace their roles. We want to spell it out. We want it clear. Three to four things per card, per player. We want it above their locker. We want them to see it every day.

“The roles have been consistent. They know. I never want them to feel like, ‘I don’t know what my role is on this team.’ ”

Then he added an important disclaimer.

“Now, they may not like it,” he said. “But they know what it is.”

The fact that everyone on the roster — from the Crimson’s six all-Ivy Leaguers to their practice players — has embraced his role is a large reason the Crimson machine has run so smoothly this season.

They have a surplus of players who can score, an overflow of players who can control the game with the ball in their hands, and an army of players who could grab the reins on defense. But rather than all trying to do it, they each understand where they fit.

“We have so many different options that everybody just kind of has to find their little niche of where they fit in,” Saunders said. “Everybody just came together and decided that it’s not all about scoring or getting their own shots. It’s about what we can do as a group to be the best team we can be.”

Year of sacrifice

Embracing those roles took some sacrifice, and at the end of last season — after Harvard shocked New Mexico in the first round of the NCAA Tournament — Amaker planted that seed in the minds of his players. He knew that on top of the core group that took the Crimson to the tournament, he would have to reincorporate Kyle Casey and Curry, who sat out last season in the wake of a school-wide cheating scandal.

“At the end of last year, he said this year’s going to be a year of sacrifice,” said senior forward Laurent Rivard. “I can’t be selfish and just think that I’ll have the same role as last year even though we have more weapons, more guys.”

Casey and Curry also knew their roles would change.

Before he left the team, Casey was averaging 11.4 points per game. But when he returned, he saw all the talent around him and wanted to make sure he meshed with it. He also was mature enough to understand that there were things he could do on the floor, outside of scoring, to help Harvard win.

“I just think we have different pieces than we had before,” Casey said. “Quite honestly, I think we’re a better team than we were when I left. So, me coming back not having to score a lot, it’s just part of that. It’s something that it does take time to kind of accept and embrace coming in as someone who’s used to being the guy, but I’m a fifth-year senior now. I’m mature to know that winning is the goal.”

There was a point earlier in the season in a game against Dartmouth when the ball swung Casey’s way at the top of the arc. The 3-pointer was there for him to take. Nothing was stopping him — except his conscience.

He took a jab step, sized up the shot, then stopped himself.

Two years ago, there wouldn’t have been any hesitation.

“I would have jacked it,” Casey said.

But he passed to Wesley Saunders and restarted the offense.

“You’ve got to do what’s best for the team, honestly,” Casey said. “Sometimes it’s good to skip a good [shot] and get a great one. Maybe my freshman, sophomore year I had a little bit of a load as far as trying to attack and look for mine and things like that, but I’m just trying to focus on what Coach wants me to do for our team.”

The role Casey has settled into isn’t much different from the one he left.

Be the back line of our defense. Be a monster competitor on the boards. Protect the rim.

Now, he takes pride in ripping the ball down with one hand as soon as it comes off the backboard and yelling out where the screens are coming from.

Typically, his voice is the loudest in the gym. He knows it’s infectious. He knows that’s his job.

“You come with a swagger, you come with a confidence, and I know my team looks for me to be that vocal leader, to bring that swag, to bring that tenacity,” Casey said.

Before his forced hiatus, Curry had started every game as a junior, averaging 7.9 points and 4.9 assists.

This season, he’s been asked to be just as dynamic a playmaker, but to do it off the bench.

Be our best on-ball defender. Take and make open shots. Get to the free throw line.

“That’s one thing Coach talked about at the beginning of the year,” Curry said. “With me and Kyle coming back and our team having so many guys, people’s roles are going to change. We just had to accept that. That’s basketball, that’s life. People come back, whatever, your role is not always the same. So, my role has definitely changed from the past, but no matter what, accept it.”

Whatever questions there were about how Curry, a proven veteran, and Chambers, a young catalyst, would coexist, Curry answered not by doing anything extra, but by doing his job. He’s been Harvard’s hired gun off the bench all season, reaching double-figure scoring nine times.

“It makes things a lot easier,” Curry said. “Coach says he doesn’t want us to be robots and he wants us to play our game. He certainly gives us a lot of freedom, but at the same time he wants us to know what is expected of us. By having that clearly set it just leaves no room for misinterpretation or anything like that. He puts out what he clearly expects from us. So, we’ve just got to go out there and just do it.”

Winning as a team

If anyone has the ace of spades hanging from his locker, though, it’s Rivard.

“He’s got the green light,” said Curry.

Shoot the ball when you’re open. Make sure to take good shots. Try to get to the free throw line. Be a good rebounder on the defensive end.

Amaker has no issues putting Rivard in that role.

“He’s earned it,” Amaker said. “It’s not like I’m just blindly throwing that out there for someone that we like. Or because he’s from Canada. It’s a reason for it.”

In turn, Rivard, who has made 282 career 3-pointers, has had no problem embracing that role.

“The green light for me is take any shot that’s a good shot for the team,” Rivard said. “Whether I’m 6 for 6 or 1 for 9, if I don’t shoot a wide-open shot, he’s going to tell me. I remember at Colorado, I ended up 2 for 9, which was a pretty bad performance, but I passed up a wide-open shot and he yelled at me. He definitely wants me to be aggressive with it, but as long as it’s a good shot for the team.”

The byproduct of it all is balance. Eight players have led the Crimson in scoring this season. Nine have led them in rebounding. Four have led them in assists. Five have hung 20 points up in a game.

“That’s what great about our team, is any night can be anyone’s night,” Rivard said.

It didn’t take long for the concept to crystallize for the Crimson. In a 94-86 win over Fordham Dec. 28, six players finished in double figures, including backup big man Agunwa Okolie.

“When we saw that, it was like, we don’t really have to work as hard individually if we can lean on each other,” said Saunders. “We can get the job done more efficiently. You don’t have to strain your body or anything like that. You lean on your teammates and work together and it feels a lot easier.

“Our team, we’re all about winning as a team. It’s nothing about individuals. So, when Coach came in and said we needed to sacrifice, that might be minutes, that might be shots. Whatever it was, we’re willing to do. We all bought into what we had to do to get the job done.”

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.
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