20 Questions: Will Harvard Finally Break Through to the NCAA Tournament?Posted by rtmsf on October 19th, 2011
Question: Will Harvard Finally Break Through to the NCAA Tournament?
One word says it all: yes. Barring serious injury, there is no reason Harvard shouldn’t attend the Big Dance this season. But before we break down why the Crimson will get there, let’s look at where they come from.
Unlike most would have you believe, Harvard has in fact played in the NCAA Tournament before. It was the 1945-46 season, and conference schedules were a thing of the future. Ivy League opponents were few and far between, as head coach Floyd Stahl’s squad only faced Brown (twice) and Yale. In the end Harvard finished with a 19-3 overall record, but I would be remiss not to mention that three Crimson victories came against the not-so-mighty Chelsea Naval Hospital team. Harvard’s lone regular season loss came at the hands of Massachusetts rival Holy Cross. Unfortunately, the Crimson’s regular season success held no good omens for the postseason, as the Crimson fell quickly to Ohio State in the first round of the Tournament and followed that up with a regional consolation loss to NYU. Oklahoma A&M (now known as Oklahoma State) went on to win the 1946 championship, beating North Carolina 43-40 in the finals.
The Crimson never made it back. Head coach Tommy Amaker inherited a program with one postseason appearance and no winning coaches since Edward Wachter left Cambridge in 1933. He inherited a team that hadn’t had a winning season since 2001-02 nor a winning conference season since 1996-97. To this point the athletic department was content with .500 Ivy League seasons every few years, mostly trying only to avoid embarrassment instead of actually compete. But in 2007 after he was fired by Michigan, Harvard called up Amaker: “The Ivy League was appealing to him. He was drawn to Harvard’s tradition of excellence, to the New England area, to the opportunity to flourish in such a strong academic environment.” But the drawbacks I mentioned above–along with tough Ivy League restrictions–pushed the other side of the scale.
Since he touched down in Cambridge that summer, Amaker has dominated Ivy League recruiting. He’s coached Harvard to its first 20-win season ever, its first modern postseason appearance, its first NIT appearance and its first Ivy League Championship (which was shared with Princeton last year before a heartbreaking buzzer-beater by Douglas Davis sank Harvard’s NCAA Tournament chances).
This season is the year to overthrow all of the historical baggage. Amaker is looking at a team he recruited, one of the two teams in the country that knows exactly what it’s getting this season (Detroit is the other). As you may know, the Crimson return all of their minutes from last season. They also brought in the top recruiting class in the Ivy League, headlined by Kenyatta Smith and Wesley Saunders.
Picking a most important player for Harvard is virtually impossible. Big man Keith Wright was last year’s superstar, even earning a spot on the Preseason Wooden Watch list. Wright won Ivy League Player of the Year after averaging 15 points and eight rebounds a game last season. Two years prior in his freshman season, Wright either travelled or lost the ball out of bounds. Whether an issue of strength, skill or confidence he struggled to impact games. But last season Wright showed a solid post game and was one of the few college players in the country more comfortable with his back to the basket.
But the most gifted player on the team probably never reached his stride. Kyle Casey (Ivy Rookie of the Year two seasons ago) played all of last year with a broken foot. The wiry, athletic power forward should be one of the premier players in the conference (and has a chance to have impact at the national level). The list goes on and on. Maybe the star will be Oliver McNally, a co-captain who averaged the coveted 50% from the field, 40% from deep and 90% from the free throw line last season. Maybe it will be point guard Brandyn Curry, the team’s dynamic floor leader that should be an assist machine this season. Or maybe sharpshooters Christian Webster or Laurent Rivard will bring the rain. The bottom line is this team has no shortage of offensive weapons.
The Ivy League will probably be fairly strong this season, with second place fought over by Yale and Penn. Princeton will undoubtedly take a step back after losing dynamic duo Dan Mavraides and Kareem Maddox to graduation. But for the first time ever, the Crimson should be alone at the top ushering what may be a new (and welcome) era of Ivy dominance.