ALBUQUERQUE - The locker room was filled with laughter as the Harvard basketball team prepared for Thursday’s NCAA Tournament game against Vanderbilt.
But there were no diagrams of plays or a breakdown of the Commodores on the blackboard. Instead, Wesley Saunders, a 6-foot-5-inch freshman guard, was playing the word game Hangman.
As the players guessed letters and still couldn’t come up with the word, Saunders heard the taunts and jeers. “Maybe,’’ he said with a smile as he filled in what he thought were the letters of pulchritudinous. “I spelled it wrong. But it means great physical beauty.’’
The numbers that Harvard and Vanderbilt have compiled - seedings, RPIs, AP rankings, wins and losses - are well-documented. They are part of the information flow that helps the NCAA Tournament selection committee not only determine who makes the 68-team field, but where they are placed.
It’s been dubbed the Brain Bowl by some, pitting two programs where academic achievement has some bite. Vanderbilt is regarded as the academic blue blood of the Southeastern Conference, but a school that has never been one of the SEC’s elite in football, and only recently in basketball.
And it is hard to get into Vanderbilt. Only 18 percent of students who apply are admitted. Harvard is even tougher, with only 6 percent of students who apply being admitted.
In terms of majors, the Harvard basketball team’s veteran core has a variety of interests. Junior guard Brandyn Curry and junior forward Kyle Casey are sociology majors, senior guard Oliver McNally is a government major, and senior forward Keith Wright is a psychology major.
Vanderbilt also has players with diverse interests. Senior forward Lance Goulbourne is majoring in human and organizational development, junior guard John Jenkins is majoring in interdisciplinary studies, senior forward Jeffery Taylor and senior guard Brad Tinsley are majoring in sociology, and senior center Festus Ezeli is majoring in biology.
Make no mistake, at this time of year the players’ competitive genes kick in, no matter what the school’s academic reputation.
“I think the NCAA Tournament is the best sporting event in the world,’’ said McNally. “I felt we were going to get here someday, but we’re not here to just show up.’’
Curry said the Crimson’s priorities are clear. “We’re having a lot of fun,’’ he said. “But we’re here for one reason, to win this game.’’
What is different is that the academic pressures of life at Harvard are not in place this week. The Crimson are on spring break.
“We’re 100 percent focused on basketball right now,’’ said Curry, who started as an economics major but switched to sociology. “I didn’t like it, so my professor says just take what you like, which is what I’m doing. My favorite course is sports in society, which is a new course, which I really enjoy.’’
Saunders, who grew up in Los Angeles, chose Harvard over Southern Cal, Penn, and Colorado.
“I thought you could do big things here, both athletically and academically,’’ he said. “Academically, it’s a great school. Athletically, we were on the rise. This is everything I thought it would be. Just the fact that we’re playing Vandy shows it can be done the right way.’’
Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings, who has built a team that may indeed be worthy of the Final Four, sees the similarities between what he has done in Nashville and what Crimson coach Tommy Amaker is doing at Harvard. He sees a program and a school that has priorities that make sense, and also work in athletics.
Stallings does not duck the “Harvard of the South’’ tag that some have given Vanderbilt.
“I’ve used it, but I don’t use it often,’’ he said. “The last time a guy played basketball at Vanderbilt and he played as a senior, and didn’t get his degree from Vanderbilt, was in the late 1970s. So I tell every recruit that.
“I’ve used the Harvard of the South a few times and I hope the Harvard people don’t take that as a slap in the face. We obviously feel like we’d be comparing ourselves to greatness. We obviously really admire Harvard as an institution.’’
Stallings appreciates what Amaker has done at Harvard. “Tommy’s got to do the same thing that I have to do, and he knows it,’’ said Stallings. “He has to get players that can do the academic work at Harvard Monday through Friday, and then he’s got to beat Boston College on Saturday. That’s what they say about us. They want us to be Harvard Monday through Friday, and beat Alabama on Saturday.
“And he’s obviously doing a great job. His record the last couple of years, he’s starting to maybe separate himself a little bit and separate his program a little bit from a lot of people in that [Ivy] league. That’s the sign of obviously a job well done. Very, very well done, actually.’’
For the players, the journey has been worth the uncertainty at the start.
Wright said he wasn’t sure if he was ready for Harvard. “The Ivy League as a whole wasn’t on my radar at all,’’ said the All-Ivy second-teamer. “I didn’t think I could get into an Ivy League school. I wasn’t raised growing up to dream of Harvard or Yale or going to an Ivy League school. So when I started getting calls, it was surreal. It took me back. I realized that I was actually smart enough to get into those schools.’’
Wright said that the Crimson’s role as underdogs is not new. “We were underdogs in the Bahamas [where they upset Florida State this season],’’ said Wright. “So we’re not unfamiliar with our role. It’s just that we hadn’t faced it a lot this year.
“I’ve cherished every moment of this year. Just to compete at this level is a dream come true. This is the icing on the cake as far as I’m concerned.’’
Amaker, who has built the program to NCAA Tournament level over five seasons, says it has been a rewarding experience.
“I love coaching at Harvard,’’ said the Duke graduate. “I love coaching and teaching. The Harvard community, the Harvard campus, knowing the kids we’re going to attract - like every program, like Duke, like Vanderbilt. There are a number of different terrific programs that do it in a way that you are attracting great kids. You love being around and teaching and coaching those kind of individuals. So we’re not alone in that regard. But we certainly recognize that we have one of those special places and we’re very proud to represent it.’’
So, Thursday’s game is part of a process that will pare the field from 68 to four, two, and finally one. It is - no matter who advances - very much pulchritudinous.