BOSTON — Thursday afternoon in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Harvard will face Vanderbilt in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. The last time the Crimson qualified for the tourney, Harry Truman was president and the Boston Celtics were still months away from playing their first ever game.
The Harvard men’s basketball team is having an unusual season. The Crimson cracked the top 25 in some national polls. Harvard’s ranked in the top 25 for a lot of things but basketball isn’t usually one of them.
Then there’s Linsanity. Crimson alum Jeremy Lin is the most talked about player in the NBA. And for the first time in school history, Harvard clinched an outright Ivy League men’s basketball title.
Harvard Head Coach Tommy Amaker says his team is comfortable in unfamiliar territory.
“To do something that’s never been done before, I mean that’s been the calling card with a lot of our players,” Amaker said. “They’ve embraced that. They’ve loved that, actually, to be able to come to this great institution, arguably the number one school in the world, and be able to do something that can be pretty unique and different and special.”
The Crimson missed that chance last year. With a trip to the NCAA tournament on the line, they lost a one-game playoff to Princeton – on a Tigers buzzer beater. Last week, Harvard’s fate was once again in Princeton’s hands. This time, to make the NCAA tournament, the Crimson needed the Tigers to beat Penn, but Harvard guard Brandyn Curry decided to play the video game “Call of Duty” instead of keeping an eye on the score.
“I was one of the players who didn’t want to watch the game. I couldn’t watch it,” Curry said. “I couldn’t handle it. I watched it last year and it was too nerve-wracking. I get too nervous. But when I got the news, my phone blew up. It was so, so exciting.”
This time Princeton helped out, beating Penn and sealing the Ivy League title for Harvard. Senior Keith Wright says the team has received support on campus all season, but there’s been a noticeable change since the Crimson qualified for the tourney.
“Walking to class, to and from class, you get a lot of congratulations and people are really happy for you,” Wright said. “People that you’ve never talked to before. It’s nice. Just feeling the love and genuine excitement for your team is awesome.”
Louis Desci, Jr. knows the feeling. Desci, 89, was a member of the last Harvard team to qualify for the NCAA tournament. The year was 1946.
“I don’t think anybody ever imagined that we would be invited to the NCAA tournament,” Desci said. “We played in the original Madison Square Garden and I do recall the smoke was so thick you could almost cut it with a knife.”
In 1946, the “Big Dance” wasn’t so big. Today there are 68 teams — back then there were 8. Now living in Florida, Desci still remembers Harvard’s opening round loss to Ohio State. The Crimson fell by a score of 46-38. Time has put the defeat into perspective.
“It was a tough game. They were an excellent team. We were unhappy to be knocked out so quickly, but somebody’s got to win and somebody’s got to lose,” Desci said.
Coach Tommy Amaker understands winning and losing, too. Now in his fifth year at Harvard, Amaker played on the Duke team that lost in the 1986 NCAA title game and was an assistant coach for two Duke championship teams. But in his last head coaching job at Michigan he failed to reach the tournament and was eventually fired. Amaker says those experiences have shaped his message for his current players.
“Embrace the moment. Sometimes as a younger player, even as a younger coach, you think that things can continue to happen a certain way,” Amaker said. “You’re not always guaranteed the next shot or the next opportunity.”
Keith Wright says while he and his teammates are not satisfied with just reaching the tournament, he is taking time to appreciate the moment.
“It’s a goal accomplished,” Wright said. “One of the goals off the sheet that you can check off is going to the NCAA tournament. It’s not something that many people get to do. So I’m definitely just grateful for the opportunity and the experience.”
The next goal for Harvard is getting the first NCAA tournament victory in school history. To do that, the 12th-seeded Crimson will need to upset the 5th-seeded Vanderbilt Commodores in Alberquerque.