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Harvard’s Seth Towns thriving in bigger role

Harvard forward Seth Towns (31) fights for a loose ball with Minnesota guard Amir Coffey (5)during a December game.

Around late December, when the losses were piling up so much for Harvard that it was easy to forget they started the season on the fringes of the Top 25, and when their star point guard was out of the lineup with a knee injury that would ultimately leave him sidelined for the season, the Crimson had identity issues to address.

The first part was figuring out who would fill the void left by Bryce Aiken. The playmaking, shot-making, and overall embrace of being the focal point fueled the Crimson’s offense as much as his 14.1 points per night.

When it fell on sophomore Seth Towns to step into the role as the Crimson’s centerpiece, he didn’t flinch.

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“I knew I had to take on a big responsibility with Bryce going out, especially on the offensive end,” he said.

“All my life, I’ve kind of been that guy, so coming in this year, it was actually harder for me to adjust — last year especially — in terms of learning my specific role on the team. So it really felt pretty natural to me.”

His days at Northland High School in Columbus, Ohio, following in the footsteps of Trey Burke and Jared Sullinger taught him what it was like to play with a bull’s-eye on his back.

But doing it at the college level was different.

It means taking the slightest details into account — from postgame treatment to midweek film sessions.

“I was reminding him of the responsibility that comes with that,” said Crimson coach Tommy Amaker. “It’s not just, ‘Hey, I’m just going to do this on game day.’ There’s pieces to it that he’s learning what comes with being that kind of marked guy from the other team where they’re focused on stopping him.”

In order to turn around their season after a 5-9 start and become the team that captured its first Ivy League crown since 2015 and the top seed in the conference tournament Saturday at the Palestra in Philadelphia, the Crimson had to lean heavily on Towns.

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And Towns had to develop not only into the Crimson’s leading scorer (15.8 points per game, 18.6 in conference play) but its leader.

“He’s the guy that we felt like we had to get that offensive production from consistently,” Amaker said. “I think he knew that. He knew that he had to take on that burden and that role even more so when than Bryce was healthy and playing. But I think he’s excited about that. He likes that we’re relying on him even more so from the offensive perspective.”

For Towns, the work started as soon as the Crimson’s season ended all too soon a year ago with a first-round loss to Yale in the inaugural Ivy League tournament.

The Crimson had a highly decorated freshman class and a talented core of seniors led by point guard Siyani Chambers and forward Zena Edosomwan.

The 73-71 loss they took at the hands of their archrival fell short not only of outside expectations, but expectations they had for themselves.

If anything, Towns wanted to win for Chambers.

Chambers was a calming influence on the floor. He was an example of leadership off the court. On the court, he was the kind of creator who made Towns’s life easier.

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“He was really a huge mentor to me on the court,” Towns said.

Instead, he spent the summer working.

He spent sessions in Columbus working with his trainer Lance Sullivan, refining his shooting and shot selection.

It translated into Towns becoming a more efficient scorer. As a freshman, he took 278 shots and connected on 42.8 percent of them. This season, his shots spiked to 352, but his field goal percentage held firm at 42.3 percent. A solid season from 3-point range as a freshman (38.8 percent) ballooned to the best 3-point percentage in the Ivy League (44.4 percent).

“Over the offseason I think I became a better shooter,” Towns said. “It was easy getting shots with Siyani, but the college game is so much different. Last year, I was like exhausted maybe 10 minutes into the game. So just learning how to adjust to the college game and where to find my shot and not taking bad shots.

“That was also something I had to improve on was my shot selection. Just getting a better feel for the game and finding the right opportunities to shoot. That’s just something you have to consciously work on. Part of it is having trust in your teammates and making the right basketball plays. So it comes with experience.”

The funny part about becoming better at selecting shots is that it means trusting teammates enough to pass up a decent look knowing that a better one’s coming. The Crimson will always be an inside-out team, and all the pieces work in concert. If Chris Lewis (12.7 points per game, 5.5 rebounds) feasts in the post and Christian Juzang (10.9 points in conference play, 4.0 assists) creates off the dribble, then it makes the looks Towns gets that much cleaner.

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“A big part of it, too, is seeing that and still being good enough, disciplined enough to make the right decisions, the right plays,” Amaker said. “When you can make your other teammates better around you, boy does that come back to you in so many different ways eventually.

“The more balanced we are, the better it’s going to be for you. And that’s what I think has broadened Seth’s horizons. I think he’s seeing that. I think he’s really understanding how that works in his own favor. For others to do well, it certainly comes back to help him do even better.”

The Crimson found absolute harmony when they started the Ivy League schedule 9-1, their best start since 2014-15.

“We came in with a lot of hype,” Towns said. “We were getting Top 25 votes. It was easy to fall into expecting or feeling entitled. So after we were getting hit in the mouth by a few teams, we just kind of had to look at each other like, ‘All right, what’s our story going to be?’ ”

After turning the page on a turbulent start, the tournament is a chance for the Crimson to write another chapter.

“That’s one key emphasis in our team is what’s our story going to be,” Towns said. “It’s hard — and it was especially hard in the beginning of the season. But we always talk about toughen together and we had to hone in. We had to look at each other and be conscientious about what other people were out for.”

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Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @julianbenbow.