NEWTON, Mass. -- While practice doesn’t officially begin for another few days, it’s clear that Harvard basketball is trying to move on after what should have been a triumphant offseason turned trying.
Coming off their first NCAA tournament appearance in 65 years, the program’s first outright Ivy League title and a trip to Italy in August, the Crimson figured to be riding high into the start of practice on Friday. But then came the news that a cheating scandal on the Harvard campus potentially involved members of the men’s basketball team, including co-captains Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry.
To protect their eligibility, Casey and Curry reportedly decided to withdraw from school while attempting to fight the charges that they were involved in a plagiarism scandal in a class called “Introduction to Congress.”
When the six Division I men’s basketball coaches gathered at Boston College for the second annual Massachusetts basketball media day on Tuesday, Crimson coach Tommy Amaker didn’t have to wait long for the questions.
But he wasn’t talking.
“I know you guys have a job to do when it comes to these kind of things, and I hope you respect that I have one as well,” he said, after the first question about the scandal. “Because of the privacy laws and out of respect for the process and the many, many students that are involved in this, I’m not allowed to comment, to speak. Only the highest officials at our university will have any direct statements or comments regarding the situation on our campus.”
That’s been the party line all along, and for Amaker it makes sense. Casey, Curry and little-used reserves Dee Giger and Matt Brown aren’t on the roster for the 2012-13 season, so the coach isn’t going to talk about them specifically.
Instead, the Crimson coach will focus on who he does have on the roster.
“We’re excited about this season,” Amaker said. “We’re looking forward to the challenges that every new year can bring, with different combinations, different lineups and the loss of seniors and incorporating younger players.”
Amaker, in his sixth season in Cambridge, said the roster turnover isn’t necessarily different than it ever is.
“Every season is a new season, regardless of who you have returning from one year to the next. Every year is a new year,” he said. “Kids change, roles can be redefined. So we’re excited for that process to continue.
“That’s how we’ve always approached every season.”
Of course, Harvard has never had a season like last year's. With senior co-captains Keith Wright and Oliver McNally providing leadership and juniors Casey (leading scorer at 11.4 points per game) and Curry (leading assist man with 4.9 per game) providing much of the production on the court, the Crimson went 26-5 and earned the program’s first AP Top 25 ranking.
Though they lost to Vanderbilt in their first game in the NCAAs, the Crimson seemed poised to be at or near the top of the Ivy League for seasons to come. Now, though, there are serious questions facing them before practice has even started.
With the two multiyear captains graduated and the two would-be captains off the team, where will the leadership come from?
“I think every year you’re wondering about leadership, especially if you’ve had terrific leadership in the past and we did,” Amaker said. “So regardless of who we have or don’t have or how it shapes up for us, you’re always, until it actually occurs … as a coach you’re wondering.”
Amaker said more responsibility may fall to him this season.
“I may have to do more of leading our team,” he said. “I always remember Coach K talking about as a head coach you have to learn to give the team what it needs. That’s something I’ve always thought of going into each year.”
“Those two guys are our captains for this season. And we’re excited to have them, obviously, in those roles,” Amaker said. “We think that whether they have the C next to their names [or not], we feel that they were gonna be leaders on our team and in our program, it’s something that I’m sure they’ll probably try to do a little bit more of in terms of a leadership role.”
And while the Crimson may not be picked to repeat as Ivy champions this season, as they almost assuredly would have been before the scandal, Amaker has never been one to worry about expectations. Expectations are an external thing, he likes to say, and the Crimson worry about something else.
“We have standards that we try to live by regardless of what outside thoughts or expectations may be,” he said. “And we really focus on that. … For us to maintain our standards would be the most important thing we could do.”
Not everything is going to go the way the Crimson want it to. Amaker knows that, and didn’t need this incident to teach him.
“There’ll be a cloudy day, maybe a rainy day and maybe a storm,” he said. “That’s the real world we live in. As long as we continue to teach, to lead and to serve we’re gonna feel good about who we are.”
Amaker said he doesn’t think the drama that began to unfold in late August, and no doubt will continue to unfold until there is some resolution, will be a distraction. The Crimson are focused on what they need to do now, he said, and will try to tune out the noise as best they can.
“We have what we have, we are who we are, and we’re excited about what’s in front of us and the opportunity for this team this year,” he said. “We’re proud of who we’ve been and what we’ve done. But we’re looking forward to this season for these kids and we’re gonna do the darnedest, the best we can to make it as successful as we can.
“As we’ve done every year since we’ve been at Harvard.”
Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter @jack_mccluskey.