SPOKANE, Wash. — The NCAA Tournament might have been a proving ground for a rising Harvard men’s basketball team, but from the start of the season, the Crimson’s goals reached beyond the Ivy League.
If they were going to prove they could play with anybody in the country, they would actually have to play anybody in the country. So they loaded their schedule with teams from 14 conferences besides their own. Twelve of their first 18 games were either on the road or at neutral sites. Their RPI ranking of 46th is 75 spots higher than the No. 2 Ivy League school, Princeton.
They wanted the challenge. They went 4-0 at neutral sites in the regular season. They won three games to take the Great Alaska Shootout. Ivy League teams notched four wins over schools from the six power conferences (American Athletic, ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12, and SEC) and three of them belonged to Harvard.
They were leaving their mark long before they clinched their fourth straight Ivy League title and earned their third straight NCAA Tournament berth.
“That’s one thing Coach [Tommy] Amaker talks about, that we’re not just built for the Ivy League, we’re built to go past that,” forward Jonah Travis said. “That’s one of our main goals, to match up with teams like that and beat teams like that.”
Harvard’s 80-73 loss to Michigan State in the third round Saturday night was simply validation.
As drained as the Crimson were, emotionally and physically, when they walked off the floor after pushing the Spartans to the brink, they came away confident that they had proven their point.
“We showed everybody that we can come all year and play with the best as long as we stick with our identity and stick to what we know how to do,” said point guard Siyani Chambers.
After throwing the Crimson into a 16-point ditch, the Spartans had every reason to believe they would casually stroll to their 12th Sweet 16 appearance in the last 16 years.
Then they found themselves in a fistfight.
“It still hurts now, but definitely looking forward it gives us more confidence,” Travis said. “It’s something that’s going to be in the back of our minds that we’re never out of the game with anyone.
“I think this game makes a statement, us continuing to make the tournament makes a statement. I’m looking forward to the upcoming year.”
It will, of course, be different.
The Crimson lose the deadliest 3-point shooter in program history in Laurent Rivard, who knocked down a pair of threes Saturday to match his own season record with 80. He was also, arguably, their most reliable player, never missing a game in his four-year career. His 123 games are tied for the most in Ivy League history.
They’ll lose the back line of their defense and the player who made it his job to infuse an Ivy program with his own cocktail of swagger and toughness, Kyle Casey, who returned this season after sitting out a year because of his involvement in a school-wide cheating scandal. Casey played with a concussion in his last game and struggled (3 points on 1 of 5 shooting, 4 turnovers, and just two minutes played in the second half), but Amaker said the Crimson wouldn’t have gotten to that point without him.
“Kyle has been an amazing player in our program for his four years,” Amaker said. “The numbers speak for themselves. He was one of the more important kids for us to try to recruit to come to Harvard, given the status in New England, and how terrific of a player and a kid he has been.
“He’s [been] rookie of the year, he was first team all-conference, he’s been a part of some great things here with our basketball program.”
They’ll lose a respected leader in the locker room and an offensive force off the bench in Brandyn Curry, who also sat out last season. He was on the ground floor, playing 29 games for the 2009-10 team that snapped Harvard’s 64-year postseason drought with a trip to the CollegeInsider.com Tournament. To see the Crimson win second-round games in back-to-back years was a sign of the steps the program has taken in his time there.
“It’s no surprise to see us come this far,” Curry said. “I’m happy to see it finally come true. Now that it’s coming to an end, I’m just very proud of all the work that went in and this is a testament to the great guys that we’ve got.”
Harvard will return Ivy League player of the year Wesley Saunders, whose 22 points against the Spartans were the most by a Crimson player in a tournament game since 1946, as well as all-Ivy performers Chambers and Steve Moundou-Missi.
The Crimson will also be much bigger with the return of 6-foot-8-inch center Kenyatta Smith, who sat out all but two minutes of the season with a broken foot, and the likely increased role of highly-touted recruit Zena Edosomwan, a 6-9 forward who played just 11 games as a freshman. In September, the Crimson landed 6-9, 200-pound center Chris Egi out of Montverde Academy in Florida.
“The good thing is that we’re going to continue to keep going along,” Curry said. “We’ve got great players coming in, we’ve got great young talent, and with what Coach Amaker’s created here, it’s just a wonderful thing.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Harvard played five power conferences. They played six.