The newness of the 2012 NCAA Tournament was ever-present for the Harvard men’s basketball team last season, with the Crimson facing reminders at seemingly every turn that they were making their first appearance since 1946.
That long, well-publicized drought is over, replaced with another opportunity for Harvard to make program history two years running. The Crimson didn’t win a game during their modest 2012 NCAA trip, giving this team plenty of motivation in cementing a legacy that sprouted last season and has grown only larger.
As 14th-seeded Harvard prepares to face No. 3 New Mexico on Thursday night in a West Regional game in Salt Lake City, Crimson coaches and players are hoping last year’s 79-70 NCAA Tournament loss to Vanderbilt will provide some delayed benefits that might allow them to win this time around.
“We were there last year, [and] it was a little nerve-racking playing in a game that ever since we were kids we had dreamed of being part of,” said junior guard Laurent Rivard, who scored a team-high 20 points against Vanderbilt. “Going back this year I think will be a little easier on our nerves. We have the experience of playing in a game like that, so hopefully it helps us this year.”
Gone, Rivard and his teammates hope, will be the “Look-where-we-are!” kind of reaction that newcomers to the tournament experience. They’d like to replace that with a mind-set of “We’ve been there, so let’s do this.”
“I think we’ll just be a little bit more confident, a little bit more relaxed,” said senior Christian Webster, like Rivard a team captain. “When you go to this tournament, you come to the stadium and you see the big, blue [NCAA] logo, you see everything, the TV cameras, and you know this is what everybody in America is watching.
“It’s a big deal, and last year I think we were a little nervous. This year, the feeling of calm and relaxation I think will help us focus on the game and just play ball.”
Last year’s NCAA Tournament game took place at The Pit, the home floor of New Mexico, this year’s opponent. As a member of the under-the-radar Mountain West Conference, and without the perk of playing in too many national TV games, the Lobos might be a team that not many basketball fans east of Albuquerque know much about.
Here are some quick facts: Coached by former Indiana star Steve Alford, New Mexico is 29-5, won both Mountain West titles (regular season and tournament), and is ranked No. 10 in the latest Associated Press poll.
Harvard coach Tommy Amaker, speaking on a conference call Monday morning some 17 hours after the selection show, was finding out plenty about Alford’s Lobos in the short time he had.
“I think basketball people recognize a team that’s won 29 games, that’s won their league, and has had a sensational season. I think people recognize the talent and the ability of this team,” Amaker said. “We know we have an incredible challenge in front of us, with a long trip and a short turnaround in terms of playing on Thursday against an opponent that a lot of people are picking as maybe a dark horse that could possibly get all the way to the Final Four.”
With more snow a possibility on Tuesday, Amaker and the Crimson chose to fly to Salt Lake City on Monday in an attempt to beat the storm. If they want to have similar success on the court, they’ll need to figure out a way to neutralize the Lobos’ size advantage.
New Mexico is expected to field a starting lineup with three tall guards in Kendall Williams (6 feet 4 inches), Tony Snell (6-7), and Hugh Greenwood (6-3), a tall forward in Cameron Bairstow (6-9), and a 7-footer at center in Alex Kirk. The Lobos have a plus-2.1 rebounding edge, and have made more free throws than their opponents have attempted.
Harvard, by contrast, has no player in its rotation taller than 6-8.
“They’re a big, strong, powerful team, even their guards have really good size. You’re looking at 6-7 on the perimeter, guys that can score out there,” Amaker said. “Teams that are playing this time of year, I think they recognize what their identity is, and this team is realizing that they’re balanced and unselfish. They’ve won a lot against some tough opponents.”
Harvard and New Mexico share one common opponent this season. The Lobos beat Connecticut, 66-60, Nov. 19 at the Paradise Jam tournament in Jamaica; three weeks later, the Crimson lost at UConn, 57-49. Four of New Mexico’s five losses are to NCAA Tournament teams (they also have 10 wins over teams that made the tournament), and the Lobos appear to be comfortable playing any style: They scored 34 points in a slow-down loss a San Diego State, and scored 91 points less than a month later in a win at Colorado State.
“They’ve played a lot of different people and had success with a lot of different types of people they’ve gone against,” Amaker said. “They’re not 29-5 and a 3-seed and champions of their conference for nothing. This is one of the better teams in the country.”
With 10 fewer wins, a much lower seed, and a height disadvantage at every position, Harvard won’t be expected by many outsiders to beat New Mexico. But the Crimson will be ready, hoping that their long-awaited trip to the NCAA Tournament last year will eliminate some of the pressure this year, and produce a different game result.
“I thought we did a terrific job last year, with it being the first time, as it was well documented, in so many years,” Amaker said. “But when you have a point of reference, you just have a different vibe about it. That doesn’t mean you’re going to make every shot or not make any mistakes, but I think when you have a point of reference, there is a different comfort level that I think players adjust to.
“New Mexico is an outstanding team, just like Vanderbilt was an outstanding team last year. Knowing what to expect and having been through it once before, will certainly allow them to be a little bit more relaxed about the environment and the situation. Does that mean we’ll play perfectly? I doubt that, but we hope [it] will serve us well.”Michael Whitmer can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.