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Men’s COLLEGE BASKETBALL PREVIEW

Harvard basketball appears to be loaded

Crimson are not afraid to think big

Coach Tommy Amaker doesn’t want to hear any talk of his Crimson going undefeated.

JONATHAN WIGGS/GLOBE STAFF

Coach Tommy Amaker doesn’t want to hear any talk of his Crimson going undefeated.

The thought of perfection crossed Kyle Casey’s mind when he scanned Harvard’s basketball schedule.

He saw the tough early-season matchup against Colorado on the road, the opening-round battle with Denver in the Great Alaska Shootout, the trips across town to Northeastern and Boston University, the home game the Crimson finally got with Boston College.

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He still felt comfortable.

Even with a date against Connecticut sitting at the end of the Crimson’s nonconference slate, Casey still thought it was doable.

Even looking at the always-tough Ivy League, Casey liked the Crimson’s chances.

“I think coming into every game, I take us,” he said.

Since the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers when 32-0 on their way to an NCAA championship, no team has gone unbeaten.

The perfect season has been a cruel mirage of sorts in college basketball. Including Indiana in ’76, 24 teams have gone through the regular season without a blemish. Seven have won NCAA titles, the others all stumbled.

But for a Harvard team coming off its third straight Ivy League crown, its second straight NCAA Tournament appearance, and a stunning upset over New Mexico in the first round of the tournament that was icing on an already historic cake, a bar that’s seemingly risen annually will only get higher.

Harvard was the unanimous favorite in the Ivy League preseason poll, the first team to take every first-place vote since Cornell in 2009-10.

Only 13 teams have run through the Ivy schedule without a blemish, and the thought of joining them made Crimson coach Tommy Amaker do a double-take.

“What table is that?” he asked.

It all starts Sunday against Holy Cross, in the final game of the Coaches vs. Cancer Boston Tip-Off tripleheader at TD Garden.

“In all honesty, you can tell I’ve never thought of that,” Amaker said. “What we’re trying to do — honestly, it’s coach-speak but it’s real — we’re trying to really get better today and get prepared for Holy Cross.

“We’ve got a ways to go, but I do like the way these kids have worked and I like our chances as much as anybody else to have a darn good special year.”

The Crimson will go into their opener — and perhaps all of their games this season — wearing a bull’s-eye.

“We know how hard teams are going to come after us every game that we’re going to play,” Amaker said. “We’re no longer the story of Cinderella. We’re thought of as being good. Whether we are or not, we’ll find out.

“But we know that whether it’s Holy Cross or anybody else that we’re going to play after that, we really feel like we’re going to be a marked team. And that’s an incredible compliment for who we are and how far we’ve come and for our program.”

Some close calls

Still, the perfection is fun to imagine.

In 2003-04, St. Joseph’s went through the regular season without a blemish. The Hawks blew teams out of the gym by 51 (St. Bonaventure), and edged teams by 2 (Rhode Island).

Along the way, coach Phil Martelli told the New York Times, “We’re well aware of what is out there.’’

They won 27 straight games before stumbling in the Atlantic 10 conference tournament, absorbing a 20-point loss to Xavier.

The next year, when Illinois coach Bruce Weber went to a speaking engagement before the season, fans asked him about his team’s chances of going undefeated.

With Deron Williams, Luther Head, and Dee Brown, the Illini were loaded, but the question still seemed outlandish, at least to Weber.

No team had made it out of the Big Ten without a loss since those 1976 Hoosiers.

“I was like, wait a minute,” Weber told the Chicago Tribune in 2005. “It’s not like football where you have to win to stay No. 1 to get to the national championship.”

Then one win turned into 10, 10 turned into 29, and going into its last game of the regular season — against a hungry Ohio State team — Illinois had a true shot of pulling it off.

“I would have never in my wildest dreams thought about it at that point,” Weber said at the time. “And yet, it’s right there, right in front of us.”

The Buckeyes won, 65-64, but the Illini advanced to the national championship game, where it lost to North Carolina.

In that sense, the possibility of going undefeated spoke to a team’s abundant potential.

In Harvard’s case, it’s no different.

They have the Ivy League’s returning top scorer (Wesley Saunders) and rookie of the year (Siyani Chambers), along with All-Ivy honorable mentions Steve Moundou-Missi and Laurent Rivard. They also landed 6-foot-9-inch freshman Zena Edosomwan, the 76th-ranked recruit this offseason by Scouts Inc.

The biggest impact, however, will likely come from the return of Casey and guard Brandyn Curry, both leaders of the 2011-12 that won the program’s first outright Ivy League title, but sat out last season because of their involvement in a school-wide cheating scandal.

They had to watch the Crimson’s NCAA Tournament run from a distance, and in a weird way, Amaker said, that might have been a good thing.

“For us, at where we are, we’ve been able to check off a few things in our box there of what we have never done before,” Amaker said. “So, can we maintain that hunger? I’m very confident that we will.

“Kyle and Brandyn, having not been a part of last year, I think they bring another level of hunger because of being out, which I think is great. I think that their sense of urgency is there.”

Casey can already see how it will play out.

“We’ve got guys coming back, we’ve got guys fighting for minutes, we’ve got guys that are just dying to play,” he said. “So we’ve definitely got that spark and that edge about us.”

Knowing complacency is success’s troubled cousin, that injection of urgency couldn’t have been more timely.

“Those are the things, I think, those two kids are bringing back to us that I don’t know where we would’ve been without that,” said Amaker. “I don’t know how that would’ve unfolded if we would’ve had that internally without that sense of urgency from those two kids.”

Filled with experience

Expectations, of course, are fickle.

When Casey and Curry left campus last season, the Crimson went from being the favorite in the Ivy to getting just one first-place vote.

“They counted us out,” Casey said.

After starting the season 9-6, with a young team trying to figure itself out, Harvard won 10 of its next 13.

“I think the year gave us a lot of experience,” Chambers said.

“Just a year being together built our chemistry up and also our confidence on the court to go out there, believe in ourselves, believe in the system, and just do what we know how to do.”

The result is a team of battle-tested players.

“We’ve been in a lot of different situations,” Casey said. “I think everyone has grown up and gone through the experiences and ups and downs — as a program, we’ve gone through a lot — and we’re still a unit. I think the strength of this team is in that. So, I think the sky’s the limit.

“We’ve been through it. So as a mature team, I think in any situation, whether we’re down 5 with 30 seconds left or up 10 with 30 minutes left, I think we should be able to take care of business.”

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.
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