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The Other Top 25 preseason rankings: No. 25 Harvard Crimson

The Crimson bring back a ton of talent and are the preseason favorites in the Ivy League.

NCAA Basketball: Harvard at Minnesota Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

2017-18 Record: 18-14 (12-2 Ivy), First Round NIT
Key Returning Players: Bryce Aiken (G, Jr.), Seth Towns (F, Jr.), Justin Bassey (G, Jr.), Chris Lewis (F, Jr.), Corey Johnson (G, Sr.), Christian Juzang (G, Jr.)
Key Losses: None
Key Newcomers: Noah Kirkwood (No. 128 247 Composite), Mason Forbes (No. 167 247 Composite), Spencer Freedman (No. 197 247 Composite)

Harvard’s 2017-18 season wasn’t disappointing, but it left a lot to be desired. The Crimson came into the year as one of the favorites in the Ivy League, and the non-conference schedule was full of opportunities. However, The Crimson entered Ivy League play with just a 5-9 record with a neutral court win against Saint Joseph’s as the lone win of substance.

They quickly turned it around and went on to tie for the regular season title with a 12-2 Ivy League record. After losing to Penn in the conference championship game, the Crimson were bounced in the first round of the NIT.

This year holds a lot of potential for Tommy Amaker and Co. The Crimson bring back 99.1 percent of their minutes from last year, and have a crop of upperclassmen who have improved every season.

Key Non-Conference Games

Harvard has traditionally been willing to schedule good teams in the non-conference, and this year isn’t any different. Here are five key games from the Crimson’s non-conference slate:

Nov. 9 vs. Northeastern
Nov. 16 at Rhode Island
Nov. 24 at Saint Mary’s
Dec. 8 at Vermont
Jan. 2 at North Carolina

Three Things to Watch

Can the junior class continue to improve?

Amaker’s 2016 recruiting class was ranked in the top 25 nationally, and that group remains the core of this team. Bryce Aiken, Seth Towns, and Chris Lewis were all ranked in the top 150 and have lived up to that billing. Those three, as well as Justin Bassey and Christian Juzang, made up the Crimson’s top five scorers last season and accounted for 85 percent of Harvard’s scoring.

The one thing this group hasn’t done is get to the NCAA Tournament. They’ve reached the Ivy League Tournament (reminder that only the top four teams get in) in both years, but have suffered two losses by a combined five points. Harvard should enter the season as the Ivy League favorites, and there are high expectations as this group shifts into roles as upperclassmen.

Can the offense bounce back?

The Crimson were one of the better defensive teams in the country last year. They finished No. 55 in Kenpom’s defensive metrics, and held their Ivy League opponents to the lowest scoring average in the conference. The offense, however, was at the opposite end of the spectrum. The Crimson finished up at No. 248 in Kenpom, and scored just over a point per possession.

So what caused the Crimson to regress last year? A big concern was point guard play. For one, the turnovers were an issue all season. Harvard had a turnover rate of 20.5 percent, and only had seven games with fewer than 10 turnovers. With Aiken battling injury all season, Harvard had to resort to a point guard by committee. Juzang and Haskett are capable of running the show, but Aiken is the engine that makes them go. His return should hopefully give the offense some punch that it lacked last season.

Impact Freshmen

It was mentioned above that the 2016 class is the core of the team, but the incoming freshman class brings in a lot of talent as well. Noah Kirkwood is a four-star combo guard from Canada that should provide some much-needed firepower and size on the wing.

Spencer Freedman might be the most important recruit. The three-star point guard comes in as a crafty lefty who excels as a passer. This is a bit of a stretch, but he’s kind of Steve Nash-ish in the way that he operates in the pick and roll. If he can give the Crimson solid minutes at the point, the ceiling for this team gets higher.

X Factor

Bryce Aiken’s health

When he plays, Aiken is one of the best guards in the Ivy League. He struggled to stay on the floor last year as he played in just 14 games. He battled a knee injury at different points in the season and could never really get back to full strength.

If Aiken is able to stay on the floor, that obviously makes Harvard a better team. At times, he’s shown that he can be their best player and is capable of taking over a game. To make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015, Harvard needs Aiken on the floor.