SPOKANE, Wash. — Sparty over Smarty. Men vs. Boys. The Michigan State Spartans — selected by the leader of the free world as the team most likely to win the NCAA Tournament — appeared to be toying with Harvard. There were a lot of power moves and breakaway dunks as the Spartans built a 16-point lead early in the second half Saturday night.
And then Harvard scared the you-know-what out of the Big Ten Bullies. There were times when it looked like all 10,000 Men Of Harvard were on the court at the same time as the Crimson made a furious 26-8 run. With 7:12 left, Harvard took a 62-60 lead on a 3-pointer by senior Laurent Rivard. The crowd at the Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena cheered wildly for the Ivy Leaguers.
It looked like we were in for March Madness on the Charles. The Crimson and their Harry Potter Band were on their way to the Sweet 16 and a date at the East Regional in Madison Square Garden.
But the size-16 Nike slipper wouldn’t fit. Michigan State regained its composure, Harvard kicked away some golden opportunities, and the Spartans prevailed, 80-73, ending the Crimson’s season.
So there. Order is hereby restored to the college hoop world. Harvard doesn’t have to worry about being known as just another Jock Factory. You won’t see guys named Buddy Garrity and Jersey Red prowling around Dillon Field House.
Coach Tommy Amaker has put Harvard on the hoop map, winning four straight Ivy titles and at least 20 games in five consecutive seasons. But this was no friendly trip to Hanover, N.H., or Ithaca, N.Y. This was the big stage against the big fellas from the Big Ten. A lot of the Spartans look NBA-ready. They are big and fast. Guard Brendan Dawson scored 20 of his 26 points in the first half and Harvard had no one who could match up with 6-foot-10-inch Adreian Payne. Michigan State committed only one turnover in the first half.
But in the second half Amaker went with a smaller, high-pressure lineup and got results. Ivy League player of the year Wesley Saunders (22 points) beat State down the floor, point guard Siyani Chambers bothered the Spartans at both ends, and senior Steve Moundou-Missi (11 points, 10 rebounds) went toe-to-toe with the Michigan behemoths.
“You’ve got to give Harvard a lot of credit,’’ said legendary State coach Tom Izzo. “I kept telling our guys, it seemed like we were up by 18, but it was only 12 and they kept hanging around. They’ve got a great coach and they did a good job . . . That’s not a 12 seed.’’
“I can’t say enough about our team and the effort and guts that they showed in the second half to make a run,’’ said Amaker. “They played that way all year in this amazing season. I’m proud of our program, I’m proud of our team . . . It was a wonderful effort by our team, but you’ve got to play perfect basketball to be able to pull out a game like that.’’
The next few weeks will be interesting for Amaker. He has been at Harvard for seven seasons and he’s probably going to be getting a call from Boston College athletic director Brad Bates. BC fired coach Steve Donahue last week and Amaker is believed to be a front-runner for the job.
Why leave Harvard? Because there’s a limit to what any basketball coach can do in the Ivy League and it looks like Amaker has reached that limit. He has made Harvard basketball relevant, but he’s probably hit the ceiling. Last year Harvard was a 14th seed, upset New Mexico in the second round, then lost to Arizona. This year was pretty much the same deal. The 12th-seeded Crimson outplayed No. 5 seed Cincinnati in the first game, then ran into a Big Ten powerhouse in the round of 32.
Obviously there’s a lot of work to be done at Boston College and Donahue was unable to bring the Ivy Magic that got him to the Sweet 16 at Cornell . . . but BC is still in the Atlantic Coast Conference and can get NBA players (remember Sean Williams?) Harvard would not touch. A 48-year-old coach with ACC roots (Amaker went to Duke) who can take over at BC without having to move his family is going to be tempted.
Harvard won 27 games this year. Seniors Laurent Rivard, Brandyn Curry, and Kyle Casey have seen the program rise to unparallelled heights in their time in Cambridge. Point guard Chambers is only a sophomore and Harvard’s best player, Saunders, a junior, is back next season. None of them are likely headed to the NBA and for sure nobody will leave school early. They all speak glowingly about “the brand of Harvard.” Especially Amaker.
They can continue to dominate Brown and Dartmouth, but they will never do the soul-selling that must be done to consistently compete with the “big programs.’’ This is a good thing.
Amaker was asked the awkward question in his postgame press conference.
“My future’s always been . . . I’m happy at Harvard and I don’t speak about other situations,’’ he said. “And I don’t know what else I can say about that, especially at a moment like this.’’Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @dan_shaughnessy.