When success is the standard, it can be easy to distort how hard it is to achieve.
Christian Juzang came to Harvard at the apex of the program’s run under coach Tommy Amaker, when it basked in Ivy League titles and NCAA Tournament appearances.
There wasn’t much reason for Juzang to believe the run would stop.
What he didn’t see coming was a three-year NCAA drought and the addition of a postseason Ivy League tournament that’s been a roadblock for the Crimson the past two years.
When the Crimson lost in the first round of the inaugural Ivy League tournament in 2017, Juzang began to realize how hard it might be to get back to the Big Dance.
“Man, that first year,” Juzang said. “We got knocked out by Yale. We were overlooking the first round, we were trying to get Princeton back. We lost to them on two buzzer-beaters. We thought the third time we were going to get them. So we were looking at Sunday and didn’t get past Saturday.”
After clinching their second straight Ivy League regular-season championship this season, the Crimson have now won seven conference titles overall. But they haven’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2015. It’s been four years since the Crimson made their fourth straight appearance in the Big Dance. Getting back has been the challenge. The Ivy League tournament has added a new wrinkle.
“It’s harder,” said Juzang, a junior guard. “There’s pros and cons, winning the regular season vs. the tournament. But whatever the format is, it is, and we’ve got to do our best. This year is Year 3, so we have all the experience we need to go out and take care of our business.
“I think the approach as far as us having veteran leadership that’s been through this process now — this is going to be our third time — to help the young guys out. When it comes to the game and how we have to play it, I think we’ve got it down pat at this point.”
It’s been three years since the Ivy League broke from decades of tradition — its champion decided by a sometimes quirky, always grueling, always exciting regular-season gauntlet — and shifted to a two-round tournament. The conference championship would still be awarded to the best team in the regular season, but the prize of getting to the NCAA Tournament hinges on getting out of the Ivy League bracket.
For a conference with its eye on expanding its brand and hopes of setting itself up for multiple NCAA bids per year, the benefits of adopting a postseason tournament were undeniable. The value of the regular season hasn’t diminished, but the tournament is another obstacle.
“Our model here at Harvard and the Ivy League was different until we created our tournament,” said Amaker. “There’s nothing wrong with the model that we had.
“There was also a thought that maybe going forward it would be a good idea, the right thing, and maybe helpful to more opportunities for postseason play for teams, opportunities for student-athletes to have a better experience of being in postseason play with the actual conference tournament.
“Being fairly new for Ivy League basketball, obviously going into our third year of this now, we’ve been really still focused, as you could imagine, on trying to win the regular season. That’s been such a standard in our conference forever.
“I don’t think that’s going to change either, even though we have the tournament. The regular-season champion in the Ivy League is still a coveted achievement as there can be.”
Adding a postseason tournament still hasn’t solved the Ivy’s issue of never having more than one team earn an NCAA bid. But what it has done is given teams some breathing room in the regular season.
This year, the Crimson navigated a minefield of injuries — Seth Towns and Justin Bassey are out for the season, and Bryce Aiken missed the first 13 games — and slumped to a 6-7 start.
But they had room to rebound, knowing they could get into the Ivy tournament if they clawed their way into one of top four spots.
Every Ivy League tournament thus far has featured Harvard, Penn, and Yale. Princeton has been to two of the three.
This will be the second time Harvard goes into the tournament, which begins Saturday and commences Sunday, as the top seed.
“I hope there is a comfort level being in the tournament,” Amaker said. “I do think that being in postseason [as many times] that we’ve been in it will help us and then we’ll hopefully settle in playing down in New Haven this weekend.”
In the first two years of the tournament, the Crimson experienced the pluses and minuses. In 2017, after going 10-4 and finishing second to Princeton, they still had the chance to earn the conference’s automatic bid, thanks to the tournament. They drew archival Yale in the first round and swallowed a bitter 73-71 loss.
The next season, Harvard split the regular-season crown with Penn. In the past, the NCAA berth would’ve been decided by a one-game playoff at a neutral site.
The Crimson ended up facing Penn in the tournament final. But it was ostensibly a home game for Penn at the Palestra, and Harvard lost, 68-65.
When the conference was still weighing options for how best to launch its tournament, Amaker was adamant about three things: brand it, anchor it, and grow it.
As the last college conference to adopt a postseason tournament, the Ivy already had something to brand.
Having it in Philadelphia at the Palestra, one of the most historic venues in college basketball in a basketball-hungry city, made sense in terms of anchoring.
But after two years there, the league opted to rotate host sites. That gives each school an opportunity to host but also takes away from consistency.
“That’s been my feeling about it throughout,” Amaker said. “Everyone’s known my stance and public statements about it. But that’s all gone. That’s not the way we’re going to go about it, and I’m a team player, supportive of what the final decision has been.
“My thought behind some of that was to have it situated in a historic place and in a place that people would always recognize where it is. You know where it is; you’re not asking what year is it here, what year is it there, or where is it now?
“But it’s OK. We’re moving in this direction, and I’m very hopeful that the tournament we’ve created will always be a very exciting one as it has been so far.”
Now, Juzang said, there’s no pressure. If anything, there’s familiarity.
“I can speak for myself, I can’t speak for everybody,” he said. “I don’t feel that type of pressure. Pressure, that’s from the outside. It’s based on the expectation of others, so you can block that out. That’s the first thing.
“Whatever happened last year, happened last year. And whatever happened freshman year, happened freshman year. So that’s something you can’t control anymore.
“What you can control is this weekend. So that’s all that’s really on my mind. I’m moreso excited than feeling pressure. We’ve got an opportunity to stay alive in this thing, an opportunity to keep our postseason going.”
Ivy League tournament
at New Haven
■ Harvard vs. Penn, 12:30 p.m.
■ Yale vs. Princeton, 3 p.m.
■ Championship game, noon
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.