The Breakdown: Vintage Brandyn Curry performance boosts Harvard on both ends

Senior Brandyn Curry is announced before his first home start of the season. (Beanpot Hoops photo)

Senior Brandyn Curry is announced before his first home start of the season. (Beanpot Hoops photo)

Brandyn Curry was 10 seconds away from going down in history as an all-time Harvard hero. In the waning minutes of the 2011 Ivy League playoff — which is either “famous” or “infamous,” depending on one’s allegiences — Curry, as usual, had the ball in his hands. With the Crimson trailing by one point, Curry drew a switch and drove into the lane; then, with the shot clock winding down and Harvard’s set broken, he received a pass from Christian Webster, took one dribble and banked it softly off the glass and through the net, giving Harvard a 62-61 lead with 10 seconds left.

If not for what came next — Princeton guard Doug Davis’ buzzer-beating jumper — Curry would have been in headlines, that night and forever after, as the player who sent Harvard to its first NCAA tournament in nearly 70 years.

He certainly wouldn’t have been just a one-shot wonder. Curry finished that playoff game with 12 points and six assists, just a week after torching the Tigers in a 10-dime masterpiece that clinched Harvard’s first-ever Ivy championship. He finished that season as the Ivy League leader in assists and assist-to-turnover ratio; the following year, he was one of three co-leaders on a team that was ranked in the top 25 and finally reached the NCAA tournament.

With those memories of Brandyn Curry in mind, it was sad to see him mostly absent for the first half of his senior season. After sitting out 2012-13 due to his involvement in Harvard’s academic scandal, Curry returned with a bang in the Crimson’s season opener against Holy Cross (14 points, six assists, three steals, two blocks). But an Achilles injury sidelined him for nine of the next ten games, and in the exception — a five-point, four-turnover performance at Colorado — he wasn’t his old self. Even when Curry was cleared to play at the end of December, he was eased back into the rotation cautiously: Nine minutes at Fordham, 10 minutes against Boston College, 19 minutes at Rice.

When Wesley Saunders was sidelined with a leg injury of his own this week, however, Curry was forced back into a full-time backcourt role while still playing his way back to full strength. On Saturday, Harvard eclipsed Dartmouth 61-45, thanks in large part to a vintage Curry performance: 17 points, six assists, six rebounds and two blocks, all Crimson bests.

“I feel like I’m almost [100%],” Curry said after Saturday’s game. “I’m not in total game shape yet, so that’s definitely a factor, but I’m getting there. The Achilles is really good now, it’s almost in the final stages, and I’m starting to be able to explode off of it, so it’s all coming together.”

Curry missed his first four shots, as well as two free throws, against the Big Green; after the fourth, a wide-open three that clanged off the back rim, a nine-point Harvard lead had disappeared and the game was tied at 30. With the hosts needing a spark, their co-captain took over. Curry cut along the baseline and received a Kyle Casey pass for an easy layup, breaking the deadlock; at the other end, he drew a push-off foul on Tyler Melville; and back on offense, he stepped past two defenders with a nifty drive and scored again, giving the Crimson some breathing room.

The guard continued to engineer Harvard’s offense, setting up Steve Moundou-Missi in the post for two points, then adding two free throws and another layup of his own on drives from the perimeter. Later in the half, Curry showed his full offensive arsenal, including pull-up jumpers, drives through a Dartmouth zone, and a 25-footer from the top of the key that gave Harvard a 55-41 lead. “I was feeling it then,” he said. “My teammates did a great job of finding me … It makes it a lot easier, especially when your shot hasn’t been falling.”

But for all of Curry’s scoring exploits on Saturday, his impact is felt more on Harvard’s defense. As a junior, he posted the Ivy League’s third-best steal rate, and throughout his career, the Crimson has consistently allowed fewer points per possession with Curry on the court. At Connecticut on Wednesday, Curry went through stretches of passivity on offense — but in his first full game post-injury, he used most of his energy chasing Shabazz Napier on defense, helping hold the Huskies’ star to a pedestrian 103 offensive rating.

At his best, Curry can be a terrifying playmaker all over the court, as he was on Saturday afternoon:Brandyn_Curry_defense_chart_Harvard_Dartmouth_Beanpot_Hoops

When Curry was the primary defender, Dartmouth’s guards (mainly Melville, but also occasionally Mike Fleming, Malik Gill or Alex Mitola) made only two shots and never reached the free throw line. (Keep in mind that Dartmouth relies heavily on its forwards for offense, so its guards generally take fewer shots.) Curry wasn’t credited with any steals, but he forced two dead-ball turnovers and had several deflections — often by sinking into the paint to cut off drives or passes to Dartmouth’s post players.

Perhaps the senior’s most impressive talent, however, is the ability to block shots with his 6’1” frame. Curry swatted two Dartmouth jumpers, making up ground after trailing the shooter on both plays, which is something he does frequently: He had a block rate of 2.2% as a sophomore and 2.1% as a junior (roughly equivalent to 0.7 blocks per game), and was in the same range this year before improving in Saturday’s game.

How rare is that for a player of Curry’s size? According to Basketball State, only six qualifying D-I players who are 6’1” or shorter have a block rate of at least 2.1% so far this year.

“Brandyn has long arms and really good timing, and has pretty big hands,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said. “He can go make a play on the ball, especially with jump shooters.”

Saturday’s performance was encouraging for another reason — in scoring all 17 of his points after halftime, Curry proved he could play a full game while showing no signs of wearing down on either end. If Saunders’ injury (which Amaker described Saturday as a knee bruise) lingers into February, Curry will be asked to play high-30s minutes on back-to-back nights in Ivy play, which requires top-notch conditioning.

And when Saunders does return, Harvard will have a weapon that hasn’t been complete since the season opener: A diverse, experienced backcourt featuring Saunders, Siyani Chambers, Laurent Rivard and the Brandyn Curry of old.

“He’s finding his rhythm and feeling more and more comfortable and confident. I think you see his conditioning and stamina improving as well,” Amaker said. “You can see the old Brandyn emerging … but it’s a process.”

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4 Responses to The Breakdown: Vintage Brandyn Curry performance boosts Harvard on both ends

  1. Well-played, well written. Thanks.

  2. George Clark says:

    Earlier this season a Harvard player was recognized as Ivy POW, according to the Harvard SID’s office. Actually, the player shared the honor with a player from another school, who was not deemed worthy of mention in Boston. Similarly, while Curry “torched” the Tigers in Cambridge, its “first Ivy championship” was shared by the “torchee.” DD’s buzzer beating heroics gave the Tigers a 2-1 record that season against the “champs”. A week later Princeton gave NCAA champs-to-be Kentucky the closest shave they would have in the tournament. Curry will have two more chances to bedevil the Tigers, thanks to the fortuitous timing of his withdrawal from school last year.

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