Wesley Saunders acknowledged his timing couldn’t have been much better.
When he decided to come to Harvard in 2011, the pieces were starting to fall in place for the Crimson basketball program.
They had back-to-back 20-win seasons, after winning 20 games just once before in the history of the program. Coach Tommy Amaker had stocked the shelves with some of the Ivy League’s best talent. And the Crimson had set themselves up to be one of the top teams in the league for the foreseeable future.
In Saunders’s three years, the Crimson never won fewer than 20 games. The Crimson’s victories over Cornell and Columbia last weekend assured them a share of their fourth straight Ivy League title. A win Friday night at Yale would make the Crimson the outright champions and guarantee them a trip to their third straight NCAA Tournament.
“It’s great to be in a position where we kind of control our fate in a big way,” Saunders said.
It would continue a run of success that only a select few teams — like the Penn teams that won four straight crowns from 1993-96 — have seen in the Ivy League.
“I kind of came in at the right time,” Saunders said. “It’s been a great ride. Moments like this, you can just see all the hard work that we’ve put in.”
When Amaker took the job at Harvard, a relatively blank history book was his canvas. He filled it with milestones from Harvard’s first NCAA Tournament berth, in 2012, since 1946 to its first tournament win a year ago. Harvard cracked the national rankings for the first time in 2011 and even though they were not ranked this season, it received votes 15 out of the 19 weeks. If the Crimson (24-4, 11-1 Ivy) go on the road and beat both Yale on Friday and Brown on Saturday, they pass Amaker’s 2011 and 2012 teams for the most Ivy League victories in a season and tie the 2012 team for most overall wins.
The uniqueness of this season — with seniors Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry returning seamlessly after sitting out last season — is perhaps what Amaker appreciates the most. Younger players such as Saunders and Siyani Chambers have been the team’s catalysts, but seniors such as Casey, Curry, and Laurent Rivard have all had their star turns during the season.
There’s never been an issue with getting players to embrace their roles.
“They’ve believed and they’ve trusted and they love the system and the style that we have,” Amaker said. “They’ve bought into that whole-heartedly and I think you see that with how they play and how they share the ball. It’s been fun to coach them, to be around the and I’m very proud of them.’’
If the Crimson win their last two games, it would also be another subtle sign of Harvard’s progressive dominance over the Ivy in recent years. It would be the first time since 2008-09 that a team won the Ivy by at least three games.
“I’m very proud we’re on that path,” Amaker said. “We’ve had some success, we’ve been fortunate, and we’re very hopeful for some more. Obviously there’s still basketball to be played this year and we’re hopeful that we can continue it on the road.”Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.