Harvard Hoops: A Tradition of Futility

Posted by rtmsf on February 3rd, 2011

Matt Patton, a junior at Harvard University, is an RTC contributor.

Loving sports comes with ups and downs.  College sports especially come with the knowledge that no matter how good a player is, eligibility only lasts so long.  Some programs feel like they’re on perpetual highs, rarely enduring a bad season.  We plot winning streaks, consecutive NCAA bids, and even dynasties for these programs.  Then there are those less fortunate streaks: Northwestern’s historical absence from the NCAA tournament, Clemson’s perfect record of defeats in Chapel Hill, and Harvard’s empty space where years should represent Ivy League championships.

Harvard Hoops is On the Rise

For some fans these streaks produce incredible pain (Northwestern); for some they produce apathy (Clemson); and for others they scare them off altogether (Harvard).  Two years ago there was no such thing as a bandwagon Harvard fan.  The hiring of former Duke All-American Tommy Amaker infused a little life in the program.  But even in the winter of 2008-09, the games still felt like high school games.  There was little local interest and even less student interest.  I went to a game my freshman year with most of the student section to myself.  My interest had been piqued when the Crimson beat Boston College, who was just coming off a huge upset over #1 North Carolina (the eventual national champions).  The games were enjoyable, but most students were content to talk about the win over Boston College rather than make the short voyage to Lavietes Pavilion.  Harvard finished 6-8 in Ancient Eight play.

2009-10 introduced the first “bandwagon” fans with the Jeremy Lin show.  After a torrid start, Lin started getting attention from the national media, and students took note.  Harvard beat Boston College for the second year in a row, and suddenly the basketball team was one of the hottest on campus.  The student newspaper was abuzz with articles hinting at the possibility of winning the Ivy League for the first time in school history.  Lavietes was packed night in and night out.  Coach Amaker praised the student section’s tenacity, and the Princeton and Cornell home games had to lottery student tickets.  Unfortunately, Jeremy Lin couldn’t do it alone.  The team was stacked with young talent, but as most fans know, youth breeds inconsistency.  The Crimson finished 10-4 in Ivy League play (good for third in the conference) en route to the team’s first 20-win season ever.

The current campaign started as a year with high expectations.  The media picked the Crimson to finish second in the Ivy League (behind Princeton), but people questioned how Harvard could make up for losing its best scorer, rebounder and overall facilitator from last season.  So far the Crimson have answered the call: they have started the season 15-3, including a 10-0 home record.  The only losses on the resume came at Michigan by three, at George Mason and at Connecticut.  The Crimson showcase a dominant win over Colorado and their third straight victory over Boston College (which was even more satisfying since the Eagles’ new coach, Steve Donahue, coached Cornell to back-to-back Ivy titles the last two years). 

Amaker Takes a Lot of Heat, But He's Doing Well at HU

The team is off to a perfect start in league play, with arguably the two most important games of the season coming up this weekend at Princeton (Friday) and at Penn (Saturday).  Both teams will probably be undefeated in conference play, and a couple of road wins would go a long way towards that first Ivy title.  In case you don’t follow the Ivy League, teams play two games a week on Friday and Saturday (to avoid interfering with academics) either at home or away.  The regular season championship also has added weight because the Ivy League doesn’t have a conference tournament, so the regular season champion earns the league’s auto-bid to the Big Dance. 

While the Princeton game will be more anticipated, the Penn game could easily end up being more important.  Because the Crimson don’t have practice between the games, I wouldn’t be surprised if they struggled (regardless of the outcome with Princeton) Saturday night just because there isn’t an opportunity in between to run through the game plan.  The Crimson need to come out of the weekend with at least one win, or they’ll need a lot of help from the teams at the top to climb back into the race.

An Old Familiar Foe Comes to Cambridge This Weekend

Here’s a quick profile of the stars behind Harvard’s success.

Juniors Keith Wright and Oliver McNally are the two oldest members of this year’s team.  The two combine for 25 points, over 12 boards and just over five assists a game.  As a freshman Wright struggled to score in the post, turning the ball over nearly every time he touched it.  Over the past two years, he’s evolved into one of the best centers in the Ivy League.  McNally is an incredibly consistent player.  He doesn’t score all that much, but his efficiency numbers are off the chart.  On the season, he’s shooting a blistering 50.5% from the field, 44.6% from beyond the arc and 89.5% from the free throw line.

While the juniors are the cornerstone of Harvard’s team, the sophomores probably possess the most talent.  Christian Webster, Brandyn Curry and Kyle Casey are three of the more explosive players you’ll find in the Ivy League.  Curry and Webster are strong guards who aren’t scared of taking the ball to the basket or putting up a three from 25 feet.  Casey is the reigning Ivy League Rookie of the Year.  He also holds the key to most of this team’s upside, as he’s still recovering from a broken foot earlier in the season and improves with every game. 

Finally the most important piece of the puzzle is head coach Tommy Amaker.  Amaker came to Harvard after jobs with Seton Hall and Michigan.  His hiring represented a transition in Harvard’s attitude about basketball.  The shift has been met with some resistance from other schools (namely Yale) and hasn’t evaded the press’ watchful eye.  From my point of view, these violations are a necessary “evil” that’s a sign of Harvard’s progress.  They show that Harvard is willing to push the envelope like a major or mid-major power (and if you don’t think every school has these violations, you’re naive).  They come with going after the best prospects.

Regardless, if you’re looking to jump on the Harvard bandwagon toward history, there’s no better time than this weekend.  The game at Princeton on Friday night is the lone televised game left on the Harvard schedule.  So make sure and tune in to ESPNU at 7:00 PM Eastern.

rtmsf (3954 Posts)

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