Success was expected for the Harvard basketball program this season, and that’s a paramount statement considering the history of the program. The 50 years without an NCAA Tournament berth. The times when the Crimson were nothing more than scrimmages for Penn and Princeton.
As Harvard begins a third consecutive tournament run Thursday against Cincinnati in Spokane, Wash., there is a lack of appreciation for a program that has dominated a conference that hardly emphasizes athletics by fearlessly challenging opponents with better facilities, higher budgets, and more pure talent.
Ten years ago, Harvard was that convenient late-December nonconference opponent, an easy victory before conference season began. Now certain Division 1 schools are wary of playing Harvard, and those who do — such as Boston College, Connecticut, Colorado, and California — come away with a newfound respect for the program and the Ivy League.
Yet as the victories have mounted, the NCAA Tournament no longer a once-in-a-lifetime experience and the seeds rising every year, the Crimson, especially coach Tommy Amaker, have been peppered with criticism about recruiting practices, the two players who withdrew last season because of accusations of academic improprieties, and the perception that this success at such a prestigious institution with such athletic constraints can’t be organic or legitimate.
“What we’ve always talked about in our program and used this extensively and really believe in this is we are never concerned with whatever the expectation may be,” Amaker said. “Whether it’s good or bad.
“We weren’t concerned about it a year ago when we weren’t considered very good because of the guys that we lost. We’ll feel good about whatever happens for our program, our team, and our season.”
Amaker was fired at Michigan in 2007 because he was unable to uplift the program from the doldrums of probation, but he was hired at Harvard 25 days later, won an Ivy League co-championship in his fourth season, and has made three consecutive tournament appearances.
“To have our basketball program grow and to become relevant, we’ve been thought of and talked about now as creating somewhat of a dynasty in the Ivy League,” the coach said. “Those are wonderful things that have been bantered about. Having a chance to do some neat things on this campus is very meaningful to me.”
Amaker is fully aware of the criticism. He noticed that the identities of two basketball players who were part of the 2012 academic scandal — Brandyn Curry and Kyle Casey — were quickly publicized; they were considered the faces of a testing fraud that involved 125 students. And he has also heard murmurs of recruiting abnormalities because he was able to field a team competitive with bigger and more prestigious programs with a roster that’s primarily African-American.
He digests the criticism and realizes it’s part of thriving at a school that considers athletics merely recreation and a league that denigrates the sports success of rival schools, accusing them of losing focus on the bigger picture of academic supremacy.
“We’re not the first Ivy program or Ivy team to have success,” Amaker said. “And I wonder, was there scrutiny, question, or jealousies when Cornell made their incredible run a few years ago? They went to the Sweet 16 and won the Ivy League three years in a row.
“I wonder what the scrutiny of Penn and Princeton, their dominance of the Ivy League in basketball through the years. Was there some kind of scrutiny that Princeton was under?
“I think it’s worth people asking that question, if you are going to ask that of us. It’s not like this has never happened before.
“Yale just won the national championship in men’s hockey. It just begs the question of that. Why is that? Maybe there was scrutiny of that and I’m just not aware of it.”
From 1988-89 to 2006-07, Penn and Princeton won all 19 of the Ivy League basketball titles between them. The highest Harvard finished in that span was third, twice.
“We’ve been fortunate to put together a program that has become relevant and has become a contender,” Amaker said. “We’re really thrilled to see how it has impacted our campus and connected our school in ways that it’s never been connected before.”
It’s been a trying season. Curry and Casey, who held jobs during their year off as part of the condition to be reinstated into school, have heard their share of insults on the road. And the smarter the kid, the more creative the insult.
“They have been targets, and that was expected,” Amaker said. “They’ve known that. It happened even last year when those kids weren’t even here. I think the way they’ve handled things has been amazing.”
It’s been perhaps Amaker’s most rewarding season at Harvard considering the adverse circumstances, and his re-emergence raises the question of what the 48-year-old coach could do at a bigger school with more resources that emphasizes basketball success. Jobs such as Virginia Tech and Auburn are open, or Amaker could wait for the BC job to become available if Steve Donahue doesn’t get the Eagles to the NCAA Tournament next season.
He has options. But for now, Harvard is the most gratifying option and the only one he’s considering.
“One of the stories that’s been missed is how we’ve been able to connect Harvard,” he said. “That’s meaningful to me. You have all different walks of life now that are coming to our games. I don’t know if our school has been connected like this before.
“We’ve had greatness in a lot of different pockets and islands, but to think basketball has connected Harvard, going to the NCAA Tournament last season, the entire Harvard community was going bonkers over this.
“To think we can be a community gathering, that’s a powerful story that has gone undervalued.”
The only way for the community to respond to this success is to cherish it. Because history tells us it, or Amaker, won’t be around forever.Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.