The NCAA Tournament had been a given for Harvard for nearly two weeks, but the suspense was drifting through the room.
The Hall of History at Harvard’s Murr Center already was a scene. Cameras were everywhere — floating through the crowd, mounted on the walls. Fans filled the room by the dozens, all staring at the four flat screens waiting to see what Selection Sunday had in the cards for the Crimson.
The team sat four rows deep in the middle of it all. Coach Tommy Amaker stood behind his players with his wife at his side.
They waited through every regional, hanging on all the possibilities.
“It’s definitely a little nerve-racking,” senior guard Brandyn Curry said.
When New Mexico came up as the No. 7 seed in the South Regional, the room lit up. The memory of Crimson’s upset over the Lobos a year ago was still fresh.
Then Stanford popped up as New Mexico’s opponent, and out went the thoughts of a rematch.
When Louisville came up as the fourth seed in the Midwest Regional, there was a collective feeling of dread. It made sense. The Cardinals were a buzzsaw that had just run through the American Athletic Conference tournament.
Then Manhattan flashed across the screen as Louisville’s opponent and the crowd breathed a sigh of relief, knowing the Crimson had possibly dodged a bullet.
When the University of Massachusetts came up as a No. 6 seed, it got everyone’s attention. It was a matchup Harvard seemed to want with a local rival.
Curry had his own reasons. The game would be in Raleigh, N.C., his hometown. Then he saw that the Minutemen would be matched up against Iowa or Tennessee (first-round opponents) and Curry’s hopes for a tournament homecoming were gone.
“I’m from down south, so Raleigh, N.C., it would’ve been great to go there,” he said. “So when that came up I was like, ‘Ah! I hope we get it.’ Then we don’t.”
The Crimson waited through every commercial during the CBS broadcast, and listened to all the instant analysis until finally they saw their name flash on the screen.
They were the 12th seed in the East Regional and were heading to Spokane, Wash., to face fifth-seeded Cincinnati.
And with that, the Crimson could celebrate.
“It’s fun seeing all the teams up there, seeing us celebrate up there on TV after they call our name,” Curry said. “Just hearing the name finally, we knew we were going to be here but it really doesn’t hit you until you see your name on that screen.”
This will be Harvard’s third straight trip to the NCAA Tournament. They’ve won the Ivy League four straight seasons, but the pins and needles of Selection Sunday haven’t changed.
“You don’t take these things for granted,” said sophomore guard Siyani Chambers. “Every time you see your name up on the screen on Selection Sunday it’s a surprise and an honor to be a part of it. You never get used to it. It’s always a surprise.”
The Crimson had a week off after clinching the Ivy, and while Amaker used the opportunity to give his players some rest, he tried to keep their schedule as normal as possible, knowing the week ahead will be hectic.
“We’ve got a long travel destination to get to, but we’ve done it before and we’re excited to have this moment again,” Amaker said. “These kids have worked very hard, have been guys all year that have sacrificed and looking toward opportunities like this, and I think they’ve been amazing about staying in the moment and taking advantage of opportunities right in front of us.”
Curry and senior forward Kyle Casey had been looking ahead to this moment since last season, when they both sat out after their involvement in a school-wide cheating scandal.
A year ago, Curry said, “I was in my living room with my family watching it. It was great, it was cool, but it’s way better being here with the team.”
This season, they were part of a team that set a program with 13 league wins. Harvard became the first Ivy team to post five straight 20-win seasons since Penn (1970-75). Between Curry, Casey, Chambers, Wesley Saunders, Laurent Rivard, and Steve Moundou-Missi, the Crimson had six all-Ivy League selections.
Saunders, who finished in the top 10 in seven categories, was named Ivy League player of the year.
That balance, Amaker said, is what his team will rely on.
“It’s a huge weapon for good teams,” he said. “Teams that are playing at this time of year are playing for a reason. For us, we talk about our bench and our balance. Good teams have really good balance and I think we’ve had sensational balance all season and I think that’s been a big strength of our team.”
After stunning New Mexico last season, the Crimson don’t expect to sneak up on a physical Cincinnati team that hangs its hat on playing rabid defense.
“I think definitely as a result of what happened last year in the tournament, I don’t think we’re going to be surprising anybody anymore,” Saunders said. “I think we’ve got to go out and expect everybody’s best shot and expect to give our best shot. We’re going out there expecting a game, and I don’t think anyone’s looking past us this year.”
They’d rather have it that way.
“We don’t want people looking past us,” Casey said. “We want people’s best shot.”Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.