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November 23, 2011
Harvard's rise to national relevance as a college basketball program has emerged as one of the true feel-good developments from the past couple of seasons.
All that's missing is the storybook finish.
Harvard already has shown it can compete with major-conference programs by beating Boston College three consecutive years and knocking off Colorado last season. The one goal remaining is an NCAA tournament berth that has eluded Harvard since 1946.
The Crimson's hopes of making history last season ended when Doug Davis' buzzer-beater gave Princeton a 63-62 victory in a one-game Ivy League playoff. Harvard returns all five starters from that team and has begun this season intent on taking care of unfinished business.
"I feel like that's what everyone on this team is working toward, that total goal of winning the Ivy League and making it to the tournament," says junior guard Christian Webster, whose team opens play in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament Thursday in the Bahamas. "If we don't do that, I feel it would be a total disappointment."
Yes, you heard that right: Webster would label this season "a total disappointment" unless the Crimson reach a goal that no Harvard team has accomplished in more than 60 years. That underscores just how much the expectations have changed since Amaker's arrival in 2007.
Here's another example.
Harvard made headlines with its victories over Boston College and Colorado, but nobody would blink an eye Thursday night if the Crimson beat Utah in its opening game in the Bahamas. Frankly, it would be an upset if Harvard lost.
Sure, Utah reached 10 NCAA tournaments in an 11-year span from 1995-2005, including a championship game appearance in 1998. But there's no question Harvard has more talent and higher hopes right now as Utah adjusts to first-year coach Larry Krystkowiak. Last season, Harvard finished 35th in the RPI while Utah was 118th.
Harvard, which went 23-7 last season, will face Florida State or UMass on Friday. If Harvard wins its first two games, it likely would face Connecticut for the tournament title. Harvard already is scheduled to play at Connecticut in a Dec. 8 regular-season game.
Not that Amaker's looking past the game with Utah.
"It's so hard when you're playing in tournaments to think beyond the first one," Amaker says. "You can [lose] very quickly. We have Utah - obviously a terrific basketball name and conference and school. There's obviously been a changeover in coaching staffs and we understand how that is. With a new style and system, teams like that can be very dangerous because you don't have a lot of history to look back on and see how they've played."
Harvard has its own tortured history.
The Crimson never finished above .500 in Ivy League play from 1998 to 2009, and last season marked the first time Harvard had captured even a share of the Ivy's regular-season title. The 1946 NCAA bid came when the Crimson were a basketball independent.
This season's team is supposed to change all that. Harvard seemingly has all the elements in place to end the NCAA tournament drought that has lasted more than six decades. Harvard received 16 of 17 first-place votes in the Ivy League's preseason media poll.
Harvard returns 6-foot-8 senior forward Keith Wright, who earned honorable mention on the Associated Press All-America team last season. The lineup also features 6-7 junior forward Keith Casey and 6-1 sophomore guard Brandyn Curry, who were both second-team All-Ivy selections last season.
The addition of a talented freshman class has made Harvard stronger. Wesley Saunders, a 6-5 swingman from Los Angeles, was the nation's No. 88 prospect in the 2011 recruiting class, and 6-7 freshman forward Steve Moundou-Missi adds even more depth.
"We're hopeful that we'll be deeper," Amaker says. "On paper we are. We've been able to play a few more bodies this year thus far than we did last year. Most years we go in thinking we'll have a little more depth, and then you get drilled a little bit with an injury and some things that can set your team back. That's part of going through the course of a season. But I think at this point the difference in our ballclub is that we feel like we're a little deeper at this stage. We're hopeful that will remain the case throughout the season."
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Playing three games in as many days should test that depth. It also should help Harvard in another way. Although the Ivy League never has sent more than one team to the NCAA tournament in a season, Harvard had a case for an at-large bid last season. The Crimson ended the 2010-11 season with the best RPI of any team that didn't make the tournament. A strong performance in the Bahamas could help Harvard's at-large profile just in case it doesn't earn the Ivy's automatic bid.
Of course, Harvard would rather not have to rely on help from the selection committee. After coming about as close as a team can get to the NCAA tournament without actually making it, the Crimson have done everything possible to get over the top this year.
They fortified their bench. After ranking seventh in the league in 3-point percentage defense last season, they worked on guarding the perimeter better. Harvard's work has paid off with early-season victories over MIT, Holy Cross and Loyola Marymount.
Now that Harvard has begun generating buzz as a legitimate NCAA tournament contender, the Crimson must maintain their focus and avoid distractions.
"We've been able to achieve some things that have never been done here before," Amaker says. "So we're going to continually want to sacrifice and share as we move forward. With all the other bells and whistles that are now being thrown at us, can we stay focused like we were before to be incredibly hungry in wanting to be good and to make a name for ourselves.
"I think those things have been accomplished to a certain degree, but are we going to sacrifice, trust and have the discipline that we've had in the past to grow and develop each and every day?"
Amaker's players say that won't be a problem.
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They remember the heartbreak that resulted when Davis' shot went through the net last March. They don't want to feel that pain again.
And they also realize the price that comes with respect. Now that Harvard has made its mark, nobody figures to overlook this team anymore.
"We feel like we're not going to be able to sneak up on anyone like we did a couple of years ago," Webster says. "I think a couple of years ago, we kind of sneaked up on Boston College. And [we] sneaked up on Colorado last year."
They won't be able to sneak their way into the NCAA tournament. Harvard plans to earn its way there instead.
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