There shouldn’t have been any suspense, really, as the Harvard men’s basketball team gathered Sunday evening at the university’s Hall of Athletic History to watch the NCAA Tournament Selection Show.
The Crimson had claimed an automatic bid by winning the Ivy League regular-season title. Still, a palpable sense of anxiety filled the room when the brackets for the Midwest, South, and East regions were revealed and Harvard’s name had yet to be called.
Soon only four slots remained in the West Region.
“I asked [the players] if they were worried that [the committee] forgot about us,” said Harvard coach Tommy Amaker. “They seemed to be very confident that we were going to get our name called.’’
For the second year in a row, the Crimson (19-9) were included in the NCAA Tournament field. They were given the No. 14 seed in the West and a second-round matchup against third-seeded New Mexico (29-5) Thursday night in Salt Lake City at EnergySolutions Arena.
The Lobos, coached by Steve Alford, earned an automatic bid Saturday by defeating Nevada-Las Vegas, 63-56, in the championship game of the Mountain West tournament.
“It was nerve-racking to wait that long to hear our names called, but after it was called it was a great relief,’’ said sophomore Wesley Saunders, the team’s leading scorer (16.5). “It was just a culmination of all the hard work and overcoming all the obstacles that we had faced this year. So, it was a great feeling.’’
The Crimson earned their third NCAA appearance since 1946 after overcoming the preseason losses of senior cocaptains Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry, who withdrew from school after being implicated in a widespread cheating scandal.
Harvard, the preseason favorite in the Ivy, led the league until suffering back-to-back losses at Penn and Princeton in the penultimate weekend of the season. But the Crimson rebounded with home wins over Columbia and Cornell the following weekend while second-place Princeton was eliminated with two losses.
“I’ve said it before, I’ve been very, very lucky to be a part of a number of great teams and programs as a player and as a coach,’’ Amaker said. “This ranks there in terms of all the moments I’ve been a part of, just because of the circumstances, because of the nature of it.
“For these guys to be able to wrap this up the way they’ve been able to do it, and play the brand of basketball for this whole season . . . We weren’t perfect. We had moments when we were in the depths of despair, as all teams go through during the course of the season, but this has been as meaningful and as gratifying a year for me to see how this has played out for this group of guys.’’
When Duke drew the No. 2 seed in the Midwest Region, it appeared the Crimson would be a likely match, given Amaker’s ties to the school and coach Mike Krzyzewski. However, the Blue Devils drew America East champion Albany as the 15-seed.
Bracketologists had predicted Harvard would be a 14-seed against No. 3 Michigan State in the Midwest, but the Spartans drew Valparaiso. Then, when Marquette was installed as the No. 3 seed in the East, Harvard again seemed like a logical opponent. But the committee opted to pair the Golden Eagles with Davidson.
When the West Region began to fill up, and Ohio State was installed as the No. 2 seed, Harvard seemed to dodge a bullet when Iona was announced as the 15-seed.
“There weren’t that many other [automatic] teams that were left, so of course it was a possibility,’’ said junior Laurent Rivard of a possible matchup against the Buckeyes in Dayton. “Ohio State’s a great team, and they were playing in their home state, so it would’ve been a tough game. I mean, every game’s going to be a tough game, but that would’ve been pretty crazy in Ohio. We just didn’t know what to expect.’’
Then the Crimson learned their opponent and destination.
Senior Christian Webster seemed to sum up the feeling of relief in the room when he said, “We were just very happy to hear our name called at that point.’’
Michael Vega can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.