After Harvard's landmark 2011-12 season, which ended with the team making its first NCAA Tournament appearance in nearly 70 years, the Crimson lost senior forward Keith Wright to graduation and juniors Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry after an academic scandal.
All of a sudden, then-sophomore swingman Wesley Saunders found himself thrust into the spotlight.
“I knew that I was definitely going to have to step up and take more of a leadership role with the team,” Saunders, now a junior, said. “I just got to the gym more, got a lot of shots up, and just worked on my all-around game to help the team as best I could.”
And stepped up he has. After coming off the bench and averaging only 3.3 points per game in his rookie season, Saunders took off as a sophomore. He scored in double figures in all 28 regular-season games—even scoring 27 in a blowout loss on the road to Columbia—en route to a unanimous first-team All-Ivy nod.
“They had three ridiculous perimeter shooters at all times,” Light Blue head coach Kyle Smith said of last season's Crimson squad. “And then Saunders would just wheel and deal.”
To top it off, in Harvard's opening-round game of March Madness last year, Saunders scored 18 points in an upset of third-seeded New Mexico, which he called a “surreal moment.”
Saunders has made a habit of having big games in crucial moments. In addition to the win over New Mexico, just a couple of weeks ago, in the matchup between the Ancient Eight's two strongest teams through nonconference play—Harvard and Princeton—Saunders dropped 24 points, nine rebounds, and seven assists in a 82-76 Crimson win.
“He's a guy you can go to to get to the foul line or get to the bucket,” Smith said. “He's got good poise.”
Forwards who can get to the rim have posed trouble for the Lions lately. Penn's Fran Dougherty dominated the Lions inside, and Yale's Justin Sears and Brown's Rafael Maia also put up big performances against the Light Blue.
Saunders, though, adds versatility. He noted that his already solid all-around play has improved even further from last season. This season, he ranks in the top 10 of the conference in scoring, assists per game, steals per game, free-throw percentage, and blocked shots per game. He also ranks 16th in rebounds per game.
“I'm still a work in progress, but definitely making strides in the right direction,” he said.
With Casey and Curry back in the mix this year—as well as an extra year of development for sophomore guard Siyani Chambers and others—Saunders said the dynamic of the team has changed for the better.
“This team has a lot of camaraderie,” he said, noting specifically that the return of Casey and Curry has “brought even more energy.”
With two games remaining against the Crimson over the next three weeks, the Lions essentially must win one or both to have a chance at the Ivy title. But to do so, they will have to find a way to slow down Saunders.
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