Harvard Basketball Enjoys Rare Top 25 Ranking

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Brown's Sean McGonagill thinks maybe he won't try to penetrate Harvard's defense after all. (Bill Littlefield/Only A Game)
Brown's Sean McGonagill thinks maybe he won't try to penetrate Harvard's defense after all. (Bill Littlefield/Only A Game)

Last Saturday night, the Harvard University men's basketball team, which had beaten Yale by 30 points 24 hours earlier, traveled to Providence, R.I. There they scored the first seven points in a game against Brown University.

Brown head coach Jesse Agel called a timeout, but his resources were limited. The scoring for his injury-depleted squad would come from just five players, each of whom would end up playing at least 34 minutes.

Harvard has counted on depth this season. Kyle Casey would score 20 against Brown, but six of his teammates would contribute as well, and nobody from Harvard would be overworked.

"Try and stop me. Come on! Get in my way!" (Bill Littlefield/Only A Game)
"Try and stop me. Come on! Get in my way!" (Bill Littlefield/Only A Game)

A few days before that game, Tommy Amaker, Harvard's head coach for the past five years, spoke with the press. Amaker's pedigree includes playing for Mike Krzyzewski at Duke, where 10,000 fans, many of them painted blue, roar from the beginning of each home game until it's won. Amaker coached under Krzysewski for nine years before taking over the head coach's job at Seton Hall. From there he moved to Michigan.

Those schools all grant athletic scholarships. Amaker spoke about the challenge of building a program at an Ivy League school, where, historically, lots of the basketball arena's 2,000 seats have been empty, and where, theoretically, even an exceptionally bright future neurosurgeon who happens to be 6-10 and whippet-fast will only get a scholarship if his family can't afford the tuition.

"In our league, we don't give any kind of scholarships, not just for athletes," Amaker said. "Going against some of the usual suspects that we have to recruit against, if they're outside our league, they're going to have scholarship opportunities to present to these student-athletes, and that is a tough hurdle to overcome in a lot of ways."

This season, Amaker has cleared that hurdle by feet rather than inches. His team has been ranked as high as No. 21 in two of the three national polls. To achieve that level of distinction, Amaker has had to recruit creatively. Last year he went after Corbin Miller, a 6-2 guard from Sandy, Utah, who came with a catch that probably discouraged some Division I coaches: Miller told Coach Amaker that after his freshman year, he'd be leaving school for his Mormon mission –- an absence of two years. It's a plan Miller said he will embrace.

"Well, it's really who I am," Miller said. "The things that I'll be doing, and being able to go out and serve other people and share a message that brings joy to my life — these things have always just been very important to me. It's a big part of my life."

Harvard stretches. (Only A Game/Bill Littlefield)
Harvard stretches. (Only A Game/Bill Littlefield)

This winter, a big part of Miller's life has been playing basketball, and a couple of weeks ago, he played it well enough against Dartmouth to claim the distinction of Ivy League Rookie of the Week. But Miller's mission requirement presented Amaker with a recruiting challenge.

"That was something that his family was very open and up front about," Amaker said. "They wanted our thoughts. We kind of made them aware of the community we have, of students who have done that, that have gone on their mission and come back, then they were comfortable looking at this as a serious option for him. And he had a number of other options, but, again, it's Harvard.”

When asked whether being the only ranked Ivy League team put extra pressure on his players, Amaker nodded.

"Well, it does. And that's such a neat category to be in. If that's something that we don't like, or something that we're looking upon as a burden, then we’ve got to reevaluate who we are and where we are."

Where Harvard was at the end of the game in Providence was up nine points. In the corridor outside the gym after the game, Brown's head coach Agel was asked if Harvard's depth had made the difference.

"Absolutely," he said.

A few moments later, the spectacularly terse Agel acknowledged that Amaker's success this season has had an upside, even for the Ivy League teams Harvard beats — a conclusion with which Providence Journal sports columnist and former Brown basketball player Bill Reynolds agrees.

Harvard On "D" (Bill Littlefield/Only A Game)
Harvard On "D" (Bill Littlefield/Only A Game)

"I think what Harvard is doing is great for the league," Reynolds said. "It sends a message to all the other schools: If you want to –- this is Division I basketball. This isn't Division III. If you want to be in Division I, do some of the things it takes to be successful in Division I. And obviously Harvard has set the gold standard here, and I think it's great."

Whatever the future impact of Harvard's ascension into the ranks of the ranked might be, the team's current status has changed the ambiance at Ivy League games this winter, at least according to Harvard senior forward Andrew Van Nest.

"You can tell, even when we go on the road now, fans come out. They're cheering for their team and against us, and it's an atmosphere that big time programs get," he said. "We don't have the big-time gyms, but it makes the atmosphere that much better, because it's louder, it's all in your face, it's right up beside the court, and we love it."

At this point, Harvard looks like a lock to finish on top of the Ivy League, which would earn Amaker's team a trip to the NCAA tournament in March, though Van Nest said that probability hasn't surfaced in team meetings.

"I don't really think that's in our minds at all. We're just trying to be ourselves, play as hard as we can, be as good as we can, and see what ends up on the scoreboard, and I think that's helped our success a lot. We're just...we're just us."

The only potentially negative aspect to this story, at least as far as Harvard basketball is concerned, is that success like Amaker's hasn’t gone unnoticed. Last April, the Harvard Crimson reported that the University of Miami had courted Amaker, and that the coach had leveraged Miami's interest to secure from Harvard's boosters higher salaries for the assistant coaches, among other perks. More success will likely generate more offers, though Amaker, whose wife is on the faculty of the Harvard Medical School, said his phone messages have not included inducements to relocate.

"That's not a factor," he said. "We're excited what we're doing here at Harvard, and you get blinders on this time of year, get really focused on what's in front of you, and for us, this week is a huge week. And, you know, the next game is the biggest one, and that's where we are with everything, focused on that."

In their next "biggest games," Harvard's will host Cornell on Friday night and Columbia on Saturday.

This segment aired on February 4, 2012.


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