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Harvard eager to dance again

3/16/2015

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- While waiting for the assembled reporters to settle in for the post-Selection Sunday show press conference, Harvard coach Tommy Amaker polled the Crimson players at the podium.

“Were you guys surprised to see the 13-seed?” he asked.

None of the five players ventured much of a response. Maybe they weren't surprised that Harvard was awarded a 13-seed in the West Region and a matchup with 4-seed North Carolina on Thursday in Jacksonville, or maybe the surprise hadn't fully set in yet.

Either way, the Crimson will be dancing again for the fourth straight season. And you get the sense talking to them that they would have taken any seed, any matchup.

“We’re excited to keep going,” Amaker said. “I have some history going against North Carolina, so I have a great appreciation for how awesome they've been throughout the history of college basketball.”

Of course, as a former Duke player and assistant coach, Amaker has played the Tar Heels many, many times before. But he’s faced them only once as a head coach, back at Seton Hall in his first stop as a head coach.

Now he’ll have to get Harvard ready to play a North Carolina team that spent most of the season in the AP Top 25, finished 24-11 and made a run all the way to the ACC tournament final before losing to Notre Dame.

Meanwhile, the Crimson (22-7) have had an up-and-down season.

Ranked in the preseason AP Top 25, they promptly lost their second game. Leading the Ivy League race entering the last weekend of the season, they promptly lost at home to Yale and needed a win over Brown and a Dartmouth upset of Yale to even force a playoff.

“I think we've lacked consistency through the season,” senior co-captain Steve Moundou-Missi said. “[But] I think we did what we should've done.”

Including winning the taut playoff game with Yale, a victory that means Harvard’s seniors leave school as the first recruiting class to play in the Big Dance in every year in Cambridge. Wesley Saunders said the senior class felt a special sense of responsibility to make that happen, to continue what previous classes had started.

“This was the dream we all had when we came to Harvard, to have this level of success,” Saunders said. “And just to be able to see it all happen is great. We worked so hard for all of this.”

Now there’s new work to do. Moundou-Missi admitted Sunday night that he knows almost nothing about North Carolina, including who the Tar Heels’ starters are.

All he knows is that they’re big, strong on the boards and fast in transition.

The Crimson hope that their experience in the past three seasons, playing and beating teams like New Mexico and Cincinnati, will help Thursday.

“We learned from it definitely, and we’ll keep that in mind for the game against UNC,” Moundou-Missi said. “[We have to] give more effort, play smarter, not pick up silly fouls, because your time on the floor is precious.”

Time is quickly running out for Harvard’s senior class, and they know it.

“Luckily, the journey’s not over,” Moundou-Missi said. “One of our goals was to advance to the NCAA tournament, and that doesn't mean only mean qualify for the NCAA tournament. It also means progress into the tournament.”

Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter @jack_mccluskey.