Harvard counting on fast learners

Any time a team makes a title run, its depth will be tested. You’re only as good as the players at the end of your bench, at the far reach of your rotation.

Harvard’s depth will be tested early and often this season. First, the Crimson lost Keith Wright and Oliver McNally to graduation. Then they lost Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry to a cheating scandal that has embroiled the historic Cambridge campus.

That means Tommy Amaker will have to rely more heavily on his youngsters than he would’ve liked.

Wesley Saunders, Steve Moundou-Missi and Jonah Travis will have to grow up in a hurry. Laurent Rivard and Christian Webster, selected as co-captains to replace Casey and Curry, will have to lead.

And the freshmen can’t afford to be freshmen for long.

In particular, that may mean a quickened initiation for point guard prospect Siyani Chambers.

“We have always been very excited about who he can become at Harvard,” Amaker said of Chambers last month at the Massachusetts basketball media day at Boston College. “We were thrilled to get him to come here with us. He’s a winner. He’s a kid that won three state high school championships and lost at the buzzer in the semifinals in his senior year to possibly play for a fourth.”

The 6-foot, 170-pound Chambers was named Minnesota’s Mr. Basketball in 2012, even though his Hopkins High team fell short of the state title. ESPN rated him as a two-star recruit, and summed up the scouting report on him this way: “Siyani may be the best pure point guard, in terms of running a team, in the entire Class of 2012. He is smart and crafty and understands the position.”

“He expects to do well,” Amaker said. “There’s no doubt about it. We’re very confident in his ability to help us throughout his time at Harvard.

“Now, does it seem like things could be sped up a bit? Maybe so,” Amaker continued with a chuckle. “But we were thinking that he was going to contribute for us as a freshman.”

The Crimson took a trip to Italy this summer, playing four games against Italian teams. Because of Ivy League rules, they weren’t allowed to bring their freshmen on the trip, but the remainder of the roster made progress. Amaker praised the play of sophomore Saunders, in particular.

“I was very pleased with the growth of a kid like Wes Saunders, he was exceptional,” the coach said. “Actually he was our best player. I was very, very pleased, not surprised, but again very pleased at how he played.”

The Crimson need Saunders and the other sophomores, including Travis, Moundou-Missi and Kenyatta Smith, to play a significant role this season.

“We’re excited to see where these guys can take us,” Amaker said. “I think we have some depth there that can be very valuable to us.”

Last season was historic for Harvard. Amaker led the Crimson to their first outright Ivy League title (and second title in a row) and the first NCAA berth in 65 years.

Before the fallout from the academic scandal, the Crimson were expected to repeat. Now they’re picked to finish second in the league, behind Princeton.

The Tigers received 16 first-place votes in the preseason media poll, while the Crimson received just one.

But Amaker believes every year is a new one, regardless of who’s returning, and said he has never believed in paying attention to outside expectations. He prefers to focus on Harvard’s internal standards.

To live up to those standards this season, Harvard will have to prove the guys at the end of its bench are good enough to slide over a few spots.

“I think you find out the strength of a program as kids within your program develop and grow and start evolving into different, bigger, better roles and produce for you,” Amaker said. “I think you see that around the country, whether it’s a Syracuse, whether it’s a Duke, whether it’s a number of different places you can pull out that have guys that maybe didn’t play for one or two years but then all of a sudden become very prominent figures.

“[When that happens] you feel like you have a program that is starting to take traction and become established a little bit. I’m anxious to see if that’s something that can develop for us this year. Because I think it’s right there for us to do and I’m very confident and hopeful for the guys that are in those positions to make that transition.”

Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter @jack_mccluskey.