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Friday, March 22, 2013
Harvard's historic run happened slowly

By Jack McCluskey

Harvard
Siyani Chambers and Laurent Rivard celebrate Harvard's 68-62 win over New Mexico on Friday.
Though it might seem like it happens in an instant, history is made slowly.

So when the buzzer sounded in Salt Lake City and the Crimson flooded onto the court to celebrate the school's first NCAA tournament victory, they had indeed made history. But they didn't just magically appear on that stage at the Big Dance, didn't just magically turn into Ivy League contenders and then champions.

Harvard has traveled a long road to this point, a yearslong journey that isn't over yet.

The journey started six years ago, when the school decided to make a fresh commitment to the program, on and off the court, and chose Tommy Amaker as its next coach.

Building toward history

It's hard to overstate just what a historic achievement No. 14 seed Harvard's 68-62 win over No. 3 seed New Mexico really is.

Amaker is the 17th coach in Harvard's long basketball history, which stretches all the way back to 1900 (although Harvard didn't field teams from 1909 to 1920). Entering the 2012-13 season, the Crimson had played 2,268 games (winning 1,015 and losing 1,253) but had never won a postseason game of any kind (0-2 in the NCAA tournament, 0-1 in both the NIT and the CollegeInsider.com tournament).

Of course, before Amaker took the 2009-10 team to the CollegeInsider.com tourney following a buzzer-beating loss to Princeton for the Ivy League's automatic NCAA bid, only one Harvard team had even played in a postseason tournament.

And that was in 1945-46.

Wesley Saunders
Sophomore Wesley Saunders was a unanimous All-Ivy selection after leading the Ancient Eight in scoring at 16.5 points per game.
Amaker took over in Cambridge before the 2007-08 season, having been fired by Michigan following the 2006-07 season. Amaker's Wolverines finished that season at 22-13 overall, including an 8-8 record in the Big Ten, with a second-round loss in the NIT.

What Amaker found by the Charles was a program that needed major upgrades both on and off the court. The Crimson needed better locker rooms, they needed better facilities and they needed more on-court talent.

But asked Friday about his "vision" for the Harvard program, Amaker said he didn't have to do anything special to make it a reality.

"I love the word 'vision,' first of all, and we use that a lot because that was real and truthful from day one of what I felt in my heart about Harvard. It's an incredible brand. It's a magical name, and that's not a knock to any other wonderful place or institution or university," Amaker told reporters in Salt Lake City. "I just think that it speaks for itself in so many ways of being considered the very best.

"I didn't have to overcome, or we didn't have to try and feel like we were overcoming anything. What we tried to do is present a vision and present Harvard as an option, as an opportunity. I never used the word 'sell.'"

Amaker did inherit some talent, including a point guard named Jeremy Lin, but otherwise the cupboard was close to bare early. (Lin, of course, went on to star in the Ivy League and then bounced around the NBA before bursting onto the scene with the Knicks last season. He now plays for the Houston Rockets.)

With Lin and a first recruiting class that included players such as Oliver McNally and Keith Wright, who would become stalwarts and two-year co-captains as juniors and seniors, Amaker set about building a winning culture in Cambridge.

That was a big deal because while the Crimson have had success in other sports, before Amaker arrived the men's basketball program never had.

Christian Webster
Christian Webster is the lone graduating senior among Harvard's rotation players.
Keeping the momentum going

The success the Crimson have had this season is surprising for a number of reasons, the most obvious being all the talent they lost after last season. McNally and Wright graduated, and their would-be senior co-captain replacements also left before the 2012-13 season began.

Kyle Casey, the do-it-all forward and former Ivy League rookie of the year, and Brandyn Curry, the steady, speedy point guard, both chose to withdraw from school after being implicated in an academic cheating scandal that involved more than 100 students.

Their abrupt departure could have submarined the season. Where there should have been two experienced, knowledgeable and talented hands on the helm, suddenly there were none.

But that was true only briefly.

"The facts are what they are, and it wasn't anything that any of us would prefer to have happen at our school across the board with so many kids and families and folks involved in something like that which is somewhat from what I've seen," Amaker said Friday.

"But I think our guys have been able to adjust just like I would expect most young kids to be able to do. They've done it exceptionally well. I've been very impressed with how they have been able to do that."

After losing Casey and Curry, Amaker turned to senior Christian Webster and junior Laurent Rivard. The duo would have to lead, and hope youngsters such as Wesley Saunders, Steve Moundou-Missi and Kenyatta Smith (all sophomores) and Siyani Chambers (a freshman) would follow.

At first, the sudden added responsibility was jarring.

"Of course [the loss of Casey and Curry] was a big blow to our team," Rivard said on a conference call with reporters Monday, "but the coaching staff was quick to tell us that it was an incredible opportunity for the team and for each of us individually.

"We embraced that role and we did what we could to get the team to where it's at now."

Webster, who had 11 points against New Mexico to cross the 1,000-point mark for his career, said they've grown into their roles as the season has gone on.

"If you look at us from earlier in the season to now, it's like a change in worlds," Webster said in the call Monday. "It's gotten so much better."

Rivard, a native of Saint-Bruno, Quebec, played a big role in the upset of the Lobos. The sharpshooting guard was 5-for-9 from behind the arc, including three big 3s in the first half, to help the Crimson build a lead first and later come back after the Lobos had rallied to take the lead.

His 17 points were only one off the team lead (Saunders had 18), and without his consistent ability to slip free of his defender -- mostly New Mexico forward Cameron Bairstow -- and hit open shots, Harvard almost certainly would have lost.

And while Rivard was only a two-star recruit coming out of Northfield Mount Hermon -- the prep school in Gill, Mass., that he transferred to in order to increase his recruiting profile -- that doesn't mean the shooter wasn't coveted.

After Rivard helped Harvard beat Boston College during his freshman season, Steve Donahue was asked whether the marksman had taken the Eagles by surprise.

"I know Laurent very well," Donahue said that day in January 2011, after Rivard scored a game-high 23 points in a 78-69 Harvard win in Conte Forum. "We recruited him very hard at Cornell. Terrific basketball player."

But as is becoming more and more common, the recruit chose to go to Harvard instead. And that has made all the difference.

"I think the back-to-back games in the Ivy League is going to help us a lot," Rivard said Friday of Harvard's preparation for Arizona. "It's a little different here now. I guess we have a day off in between.

"But during the Ivy League season, we would win or lose on Friday night and we had to turn the page whether we felt good about how we played or not, but we had to turn the page and focus on the next opponent. That's what we're doing today. We have practice right now. We're going to start focusing on Arizona, and I think it's going to help us."

Since 2010, the Crimson have added more three-star recruits (five) than the rest of the Ivy League combined (three, two for Yale and one for Penn), according to ESPN Recruiting Nation. And that total doesn't include the 2012-13 Ivy League rookie of the year, the first freshman to be voted first-team All-Ivy, Siyani Chambers (a two-star recruit).

Next season, the Crimson lose only the senior Webster, and should not only add another solid recruiting class -- including coveted prospect Zena Edosomwan, who turned down the likes of California, USC, Wake Forest, Washington, UCLA and Texas to commit to Harvard -- but also welcome back Casey and Curry (assuming the cheating scandal is settled).

So after winning a third straight Ivy League title, making a second straight NCAA appearance and capturing the first postseason win in school history, all in a season in which it was supposed to be weakened, Harvard likely will be even better in 2013-14.

Just imagine the history that Crimson team could make.

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