Boston Colleges: Tommy Amaker

Harvard picked to win Ivy League again

October, 23, 2014
Oct 23
9:27
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BOSTON -- The Harvard Crimson would never admit it, but they're getting used to dealing with raised expectations.

Around Tommy Amaker's team, that word -- "expectations" -- might as well be an expletive in a children's book. It doesn't belong there.

[+] EnlargeTommy Amaker and Siyani Chambers
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsPG Siyani Chambers and coach Tommy Amaker hope to build on Harvard's recent run of success.
So don't ask the coach or the new co-captains about how being a unanimous pick to win the Ivy League for the second straight season increases expectations for the reigning Ancient Eight champs. Don’t ask about how being picked to finish first for the third time in four seasons, after the Crimson were also picked first on 16 of 17 ballots in 2011-12, increases the size of the target the program will be wearing all season.

Just know that this is no surprise in Cambridge, where 14 letter winners (including seven seniors) return from last season's team. Where 20-win seasons have become commonplace (five straight), and they've started flirting with the idea of a 30-win campaign -- going 27-5 overall and 13-1 in Ivy play in 2013-14 to set new marks for wins yet again.

“There’s good and bad with a lot of those kinds of things,” Amaker said Wednesday morning at TD Garden for Coaches vs. Cancer tripleheader media day. “We’ve been a team that has really honed in on our internal mechanisms -- our goals, our identity and our standards. Those are the three areas that have mattered the most to us. There are times when we haven’t been picked to be whatever and there are times when we have, but we’ve tried to eliminate whatever is on the outside.

“Is it flattering? Yes, it is, given that we recognize and we know how tough and challenging our league has been and will be again this year. So to be thought of as in that position is incredibly flattering.”

The Crimson lost a lot to graduation, including Kyle Casey, Brandyn Curry and sharpshooter (and two-time co-captain) Laurent Rivard. But they still have Siyani Chambers, Steve Moundou-Missi, Kenyatta Smith and Wesley Saunders (the Ivy Player of the Year in 2013-14).

Chambers and Moundou-Missi were elected co-captains this season, which came as no surprise to Amaker. Chambers has been a leader since the day he set foot on campus, and Moundou-Missi is a strong presence even if he’s not the loudest voice around.

“It’s a great honor,” Chambers said. “The guys selected me to be a captain this year, and I give them a lot of credit for choosing me to be their leader. It shows that they put a lot of pressure on me but also [that] they feel I’m a good leader -- me and Steve both.

“I just hope to follow in the footsteps of the past captains that we’ve had.”

The point guard will follow those footsteps in the sand, for sure, but you can also bet he won’t stop just because they come to an end. He’ll keep going, keep pushing this team forward onto new ground.

“I think there’s always a little pressure to try to go out there and try to do just as much as last year’s team did,” Chambers said. “If we do what we’re supposed to do, and we all just keep working toward the common goal of winning and getting better every day, I think hopefully we can be proud of ourselves at the end of the road.”

Where that road ends no one knows, but if it ends in a fifth straight Ivy title and a fourth straight NCAA tournament appearance the expectations -- there’s that word again -- will go only higher and higher. If the Crimson make it to the Big Dance again, supporters won’t just want them to win a game -- they’ll want them to make a run.

The hardwood cognoscenti across the country clearly believe in Harvard, as the preseason polls prove (the Crimson got 47 votes in the USA Today coaches poll, tied for Stanford for 26th in the land).

“It’s meaningful for us,” Amaker said of the preseason recognition. “We work very hard every day to attain a certain level of relevance and respect and credibility.

“That comes with the work that goes in ,and we’re fortunate that we’ve had some amazing kids that have believed in our philosophy and our system and have performed incredibly well in key moments, in key times, to put us in the position that we’re in today. And we’ve had fun doing it.”

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

Amaker announces he's staying at Harvard

March, 29, 2014
Mar 29
8:23
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Though he hinted that it wasn't exactly a fait accompli, Tommy Amaker will be staying in Cambridge.

"After thoughtful deliberation, I continue to realize my heart is at Harvard," Amaker said in a statement released by the school Saturday. "To teach, lead and serve at this amazing institution, and in this special community, is truly meaningful to me."

Amaker's name had been floated in connection with other high-profile openings, including one across town at Boston College.

Because he has an ACC pedigree (playing for and coaching with Mike Krzyzewski at Duke), experience at high-major institutions (at Seton Hall and Michigan) and a record of success on the court and on the recruiting trail, and because he wouldn't even have to move in order to take the BC job, Amaker was a logical candidate for the Eagles.

But in the end, Amaker decided to stay with the Crimson -- the team he has led to six straight wins over BC.

Harvard athletic director Bob Scalise praised Amaker as "a great leader, a great coach and a great educator."

"He is an inspiration to many in the Harvard community," Scalise said in the statement. "We are excited he will continue to lead our men's basketball program."

In seven seasons as the Crimson coach, Amaker has overseen a transformation from perennial Ivy League also-ran to powerhouse. The Crimson have won four straight Ivy titles, including a share of the title in 2010-11 and outright titles the past three seasons, and played in the NCAA tournament in three straight seasons.

After they upset No. 5 seed Cincinnati in a second-round matchup this season, the Crimson have won NCAA tournament games in back-to-back seasons. Prior to those wins, Harvard had never won an NCAA tournament game.

Amaker is 139-71 overall at Harvard, including a 67-31 mark in Ivy play, and has led his team to 20-plus victories in five straight seasons -- the first Ivy team to do so since Penn had a run of six consecutive seasons with 20 or more wins from 1970 to 1975.

Though the Crimson lose key veterans Kyle Casey, Brandyn Curry and Laurent Rivard to graduation this season, Amaker returns a strong core for 2014-15.

Point guard Siyani Chambers, star guard Wesley Saunders (Ivy Player of the Year in 2013-14) and big man Steve Moundou-Missi will all be back, meaning three-fifths of the starting five will remain in place as Amaker & Co. chase a fifth straight Ivy League crown.

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

Harvard bests Yale, earns NCAA tourney bid

March, 8, 2014
Mar 8
1:37
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NEW HAVEN, Conn. -- A few minutes before tipoff, the floor of play still empty but the stands quickly filling up, Tommy Amaker stole a glance through a side door.

It was a familiar sight for the veteran coach. Cheerleaders warming up. The band playing. Fans settling into seats, clad in their team colors.

[+] EnlargeAmaker/Chambers
AP Photo/Jessica HillTommy Amaker talks with PG Siyani Chambers in the first half of Harvard's 70-58 Ivy-clinching win.
But this court was painted in blue, rather than the familiar crimson, and instead of an H at midcourt there was a cartoon bulldog. And if all went well in the next 120-odd minutes, Amaker's Crimson would make more history in a building and a rivalry already steeped in it.

This was Friday night in the Ivy League in March. This was Harvard-Yale at John J. Lee Amphitheater with an NCAA berth on the line.

For any team playing its oldest, bitterest rival in unkind country, some display of nerves is understandable.

The Crimson displayed none. With a raucous, mostly blue-clad crowd bearing down on them, the visitors scored the game's first nine points and sprinted out to leads of 16-2, 20-7 and 36-23 in the first half.

"We talked about how important it was gonna be to get off to a good start here on the road," Amaker said. "We knew how challenging it was gonna be."

Justin Sears led all scorers with 28, but Harvard had three players in double digits and led by as many as 18 in the second half on its way to postseason play for the third straight season. With the 70-58 win, the Crimson claimed the Ivy League title outright and earned the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

"For us to win the outright title, and I guess we've been told we're the first team that's officially in the NCAA tournament," Amaker said, "it means a great deal. And for the right reasons. For us to represent a great conference, for us to represent our institution and the way these guys have played and put their heart and souls on the line all season.

"I think we've shown that we've been the best team in our league. And that's saying something because we know how tough this league is night in and night out."

Harvard has indeed been the Ivy League's best all season long. Coming into Friday's game, the only blemish on the Crimson's Ancient Eight résumé was a home loss to these same Bulldogs.

So while Harvard-Yale typically doesn't require extra fuel for the competitive fire, the Crimson said that loss added some.

"We were very disappointed in what led to that weekend for us," Amaker said. "And we talked about it, our preparation and our work in practice. I thought we made a concerted effort to regroup and respond. And we've been on a mission since then to prepare the right way.

"We talk about a lot of people want to win, but how many people are gonna really prepare to win. I think we have embraced that, and ran with it."

[+] EnlargeHarvard
AP Photo/Jessica HillSiyani Chambers and Brandyn Curry celebrate after locking up the Crimson program's third straight NCAA tournament appearance.
After the loss to the Bulldogs on Feb. 8, the Crimson have ripped off seven straight wins and six straight by double digits. In four of those games, the Crimson held their opponent to 47 or fewer points.

"We had been talking about 'We have gotta seize the moment, because it's right there,'" Brandyn Curry said. "It was in our control and the only thing we had to do was just keep being us. Just don't be impostors or anything like that. Just play our game, and that starts with defense."

Both teams had forgettable nights in some facets, with Harvard going 14-for-32 (43.8 percent) on free throws and Yale going 0-for-14 on 3-pointers.

But from the floor, things were much more memorable for the Crimson. The visitors shot 56.8 percent for the night, while holding the hosts to just 36.0 percent.

"My message to the team before the game was 'Don't let the moment be too big, do your job and play within the lines,'" Yale coach James Jones said. "We did a poor job of that."

For Curry, the Ivy title and NCAA berth meant a little something extra this season. The senior co-captain sat out the 2012-13 season after being one of more than 100 Harvard students implicated in an academic cheating scandal. So he wasn't around for the historic upset of New Mexico in the Big Dance.

When asked what the win Friday night meant to him, Curry got a little choked up.

"It -- " he started, then stopped. "It means a lot. After going through everything last year, if you could ask us if this is how you wanted to win it, you couldn't ask for much better.

"Especially since three years ago we lost to Princeton here [in the Ivy League tiebreaker game] on the Doug Davis buzzer-beater with 2.8 seconds. So that was the toughest loss. That was the last time we were here playing for a championship. And we lost. So it definitely means a lot to come back and win here."

Watch out for Harvard in 2013-14

March, 29, 2013
3/29/13
1:33
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CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Tommy Amaker believes the possibilities are endless for his Harvard Crimson.

That shouldn't be surprising. What else do you expect him to say?

The Crimson won their third straight Ivy League title, played in their second straight NCAA tournament and won their first NCAA tourney game in 2012-13, even though they lost two key players before the season even started.

[+] EnlargeBrandyn Curry and Kyle Casey
Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY SportsBrandyn Curry and Kyle Casey missed this historic season, but their return should make the Crimson even better in 2013-14.
And now that the dust has settled for Harvard after a 74-51 loss to No. 6-seed Arizona in the third round of the NCAAs, it's time to look ahead to 2013-14.

The picture does look fairly rosy for the Crimson.

Amaker and his staff had to scramble in September when Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry withdrew from school after being implicated in an academic cheating scandal that involved more than 100 students.

Young players like Wesley Saunders, Steve Moundou-Missi and Kenyatta Smith had to take on larger roles than they would've, and freshman Siyani Chambers was thrust into the starting lineup at the point. Laurent Rivard and Christian Webster, the only senior on the roster and as such the only player the Crimson will lose this offseason, were named co-captains.

The coaches called it an opportunity and started a mantra that went like this: "We may not have what we had, but we have enough."

Did they ever.

In his postseason wrap-up session with the media Wednesday in the lounge at Lavietes Pavilion, Amaker said he wasn't surprised by the improvements players like Saunders and Chambers made.

"One of the things that you try not to do is have something as a cap, or what you think could be the ceiling of something," Amaker said. "I've learned that through the years: You learn to put your philosophy in and put your blueprint down and then who knows where this thing could go?

"We believe that being here at Harvard allows us that opportunity that anything is possible."

Without Casey and Curry, the Crimson offense actually improved. In 2011-12, the Crimson averaged 65.6 points per game, third in the Ivy League; in 2012-13, the Crimson averaged 68.3 points per game, first in the Ivy League.

Though the defense slipped a bit, falling from first in the Ivy (55.6 points allowed per game) to third (64.1 points allowed per game), the Crimson made up for it with better 3-point shooting (39.8 percent as a team, first in the Ivy, up from 35.7 percent, fifth).

Chambers won the Ivy Rookie of the Year award, and Saunders led the Ivy in scoring. And now the Crimson get to add Casey (former Ivy Rookie of the Year, Harvard's leading scorer in 2011-12) and Curry (Ivy leader in assist-to-turnover ratio and Harvard's assist leader in 2011-12) to the mix, along with top recruit Zena Edosomwan.

[+] EnlargeZena Edosomwan
Reggie RankinHarvard will welcome top recruit Zena Edosomwan to Cambridge next fall.
"They've been as good as anybody in our league when they were here," Amaker said of Casey and Curry. "So having those guys return -- we have open arms.

"And [we] can't be any more excited for their return, for them to come back and be a part of our program, our school, our community and to finish what they came here to do, which is to be a Harvard graduate. Those things are very exciting to think about."

As to how exactly the pair will fit in with the new dynamic (Curry and Chambers play the same position; Casey and Saunders both have proven they can be go-to scorers), Amaker wasn't sure. And at this point, he's not getting hung up on the details.

After all, the Crimson haven't even started their offseason workout program yet.

"I haven't given it as much thought, certainly as you can imagine, as to the pieces of the puzzle for our team, but we certainly know they're going to be good players," he said. "They've done that throughout their time here and I don't anticipate that changing in the least bit when we get those guys back."

How much of a difference might having those two players back make? It's hard to say for sure, but at the very least the addition lengthens the rotation and spreads the burden a little more broadly.

In 2011-12, Harvard didn't have a single player among the top 10 in the Ivy in minutes played; in 2012-13, Harvard had four players among the top 10, including three of the top 5 (Chambers, first, 37.8 minutes per game; Saunders, third, 37.3; Rivard, fifth, 35.4).

Though Amaker praised his players for being responsible and preserving their strength throughout the season -- hinting that often players get worn down as much for off-the-court activities as they do on the court -- and admitted the Crimson got lucky not to suffer any serious injuries, the shortened rotation had to affect the team's play at times.

"I think we've had moments this past season where we weren't as sharp, we weren't as good. And that's gonna happen," Amaker said. "But certainly we're hopeful that we can learn and grow from moments that we weren't as good, we weren't as ready. We certainly can do a lot better and be a lot better. We had a handful of games that we felt we controlled down the end and couldn't close."

Of the Crimson's 10 losses, six were by eight points or fewer.

"There are a lot of things there that I think we can certainly look toward as areas where we can get better," Amaker said. "The depth of our team, the roster, the different combination of things that we're hoping to be able to present next year, [all those are areas] that can be possibilities for us to be a better basketball team and program."

Perhaps, as Amaker said, the possibilities really are endless.

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

Amaker: Harvard's 'possibilities are endless'

March, 27, 2013
3/27/13
8:26
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Tommy AmakerHarry How/Getty Images"We may not have what we had, but we have enough," Tommy Amaker told his team from the start.
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Their season's final buzzer having sounded, the sweat from the last game long since washed away, it was finally OK to admit it: the losses hurt.

When Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry were implicated in an academic cheating scandal and chose to withdraw from school in September to protect their eligibility, the Crimson's chances to repeat as Ivy League champions and to return to the NCAA tournament seemed to take a body blow.

But when Tommy Amaker looks back now, he sees that moment differently.

"Really neat, terrific stories generally are created or come about because of something unusual," the Harvard coach said Wednesday at Lavietes Pavilion. "Adversity. Those are the moments that [make] special things happen. And that's what we kinda embraced."

The 2012-13 Crimson had a saying, one that stayed with them as the season unwound, day by day, game by game: "We may not have what we had, but we have enough."

"We emphasized that within our locker room, within our team, there was still enough in here to accomplish everything that we had set out to accomplish," Amaker said. "And boy, did they ever do that."

In 2012-13, Harvard:
  • won its third straight Ivy League title (second straight outright title, after a share in 2010-11)
  • played in its second straight NCAA tournament (after going 65 years between its first and second appearances)
  • won its first NCAA tournament game (beating No. 3 seed New Mexico 68-62)
[+] EnlargeMark Lyons
Harry How/Getty ImagesJunior Laurent Rivard, left, and freshman Siyani Chambers, right, played big roles for the Crimson this season.
"To win a game and advance in the tournament was pretty special," Amaker said. "Obviously, the circumstances surrounding our team at the start of the year ... to overcome adversity, to have young guys step into different roles ... I couldn't be prouder of our guys.

"There's no doubt that they made some special moments for our ballclub and our program and hopefully we can grow it and use it as we move forward to get better."

The special moments the Crimson produced in 2012-13 were made possible in large part by huge contributions from two underclassmen, Siyani Chambers (a freshman) and Wesley Saunders (a sophomore).

Chambers, a native of Golden Valley, Minn., was brilliant from the get-go. Forced into the starting lineup from the tip -- thanks to the withdrawals of would-be co-captains Curry and Casey -- Chambers proved mature beyond his 19 years, ending up leading the Ivy League in assists and minutes per game and winning the rookie of the year award.

Before the season began, Amaker called Saunders the Crimson's best player. The Los Angeles native lived up to that billing in his second season in Cambridge, leading the Ivy League in scoring and totaling double digits in points in all but the Crimson's last game (the 74-51 shellacking by No. 6 seed Arizona in the NCAA's round of 32, when he finished with eight).

And while technically Amaker named Laurent Rivard and Christian Webster co-captains, Webster admitted to reporters after the No. 14 seed Crimson upset the Lobos that Chambers led the team this season. Chambers' dazzling debut and the performances of Saunders and fellow sophomores Steve Moundou-Missi and Kenyatta Smith give Harvard high hopes going forward, especially considering that Casey and Curry are expected to be back for next season.

On Wednesday, Amaker said the coaching staff preached the losses of Casey and Curry as an opportunity for other players to step forward.

Then there was that phrase again, "We may not have what we had, but we have enough."

"We used that, we embraced that, we believed in that and we knew that it was an opportunity for us to possibly create something that could be very special," Amaker said.

After a whirlwind few days as Big Dance darlings because of their upset win, the Crimson came back down to earth courtesy of the 74-51 dispatching by the Wildcats. Looking back at the two games now, Amaker admitted that the Crimson needed everything to line up perfectly -- they had to play their best at the same time as their favored opponent faltered -- to win these kinds of games as currently constituted.

But the coach hinted that perhaps that won't always be the case. That perhaps there's room for these Crimson to get to a point where a win in mid-to-late March won't be quite so shocking to the general populace.

"We talk about possibilities are endless, and that's the beauty of being here at Harvard," Amaker said. "We have literally seen here at this place that anything is possible. And that includes basketball. We do play for Harvard, so that includes us.

"So we [try never] to feel like we're putting a cap or ceiling on what is possible. We want to do the best we can and maximize who we are and where we are, and I think live up to our standards and identity, and we can live with it after that. Whatever that is. And sometimes you find, as we found this year, that some of those growth opportunities are enormous."

So, yes, losses hurt. But upon reflection people sometimes find that it's the hardest blows that taught them the biggest lessons in sports, as in life.

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

Harvard's historic run happened slowly

March, 22, 2013
3/22/13
10:06
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HarvardHarry How/Getty ImagesSiyani 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.

[+] EnlargeWesley Saunders
AP Photo/Rick BowmerSophomore 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.

[+] EnlargeChristian Webster
Steve Dykes/USA TODAY SportsChristian 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.

Harvard point guard's time is now

March, 22, 2013
3/22/13
9:45
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SALT LAKE CITY -- When Siyani Chambers chose Harvard, he hoped to be the Crimson’s starting point guard ... someday.

He dreamed of leading his team on an NCAA tournament run ... someday.

The fact that someday is today?

“Amazing," the 6-foot Ivy League rookie of the year said Friday, less than 24 hours after 14th-seeded Harvard knocked off No. 3 New Mexico for the program’s first NCAA tournament victory.

That word could describe his development, too.

[+] EnlargeSiyani Chambers, Tommy Amaker
Steve Dykes/USA TODAY SportsThrown into Harvard coach Tommy Amaker's starting lineup as a freshman, Siyani Chambers has thrived.
“He’s the leader on our team," said senior guard Christian Webster, whose team will face sixth-seeded Arizona on Saturday for the right to advance to the Sweet 16. “Laurent [Rivard] and I are the captains, but he’s the leader. He drove this team."

It’s a role the 19-year-old ball handler never expected, at least not this soon, when he arrived on Harvard’s campus less than a year ago. First recruited by Crimson coach Tommy Amaker when he was in the eighth grade, Chambers decided pretty quickly that he wanted to play for the former Duke guard because of what he could learn.

But Chambers also thought he would have some time to be a pupil, while playing behind Brandyn Curry, a Cousy award candidate last season. That is, until September, when Curry and fellow senior Kyle Casey withdrew from Harvard following an academic scandal.

When the freshman heard the news, his head spun. “I was definitely nervous -- very, very nervous," Chambers said. “All of a sudden, it’s your first year, you’re coming in trying to learn the whole process about everything: playing, dealing with school and basketball.”

To persevere, he said, he leaned on his teammates -- and they leaned back, looking for the vocal freshman to glue together a team whose chances of winning the Ivy League all of a sudden seemed precarious, at best.

But Minnesota’s Mr. Basketball exceeded expectations probably because he had no other choice, gaining confidence (and his team’s confidence in him) by becoming a steady assist man and scorer early; he even hit the game-winning basket with four seconds left against Boston University on Dec. 11.

“He’s a special kid, and certainly he plays basketball in a special way, and I think you get excited when you watch him play," Amaker said. “I know when we recruited him, we wanted him to play in that manner; sometimes I thought he held himself back a little bit, and I told him if you ever come to play for us ... we want you to be dazzling because you’re capable of it.”

His season stats -- 12.6 points and 5.8 assists per game -- were dazzling enough to make him the first freshman named first-team All-Ivy League.

But the way he melded his team dazzled, too. Sophomore Wesley Saunders emerged as a go-to scorer (16.5 PPG). Rivard became a scary outside threat (five 3s against the Lobos on Thursday). Kenyatta Smith and Steve Moundou-Missi improved in the post. Harvard finished the regular season 19-9, winning the Ivy League.

So maybe it was fitting that as the seconds ticked down on Harvard's historic upset Thursday, Chambers was the one with the ball in his hands, grinning and carefully watching the clock. That moment is a feat the Crimson hope to repeat against another bigger, more heralded team Saturday.

And one Chambers never imagined when he thought about his goals a year ago.

“I just wanted to come in and learn as much as possible, so when it was my time I could step in and be able to contribute to the game," he said, remembering. “... When I first decided to come here, I did not think this is what I would be stepping into.

“But I’m glad I came here, and I’m glad this happened.”

Now.

SALT LAKE CITY NEWS AND NOTES

SAFETY FIRST: One teammate compared Wichita State sophomore Tekele Cotton to a strong safety. Shockers coach Gregg Marshall? He thinks the guard is more like a free safety.

Whatever the football analogy, you get the picture: The 6-2, 202-pound athlete is hard-nosed, hard-bodied and hard-focused on making stops. And if he can stymie a certain Gonzaga player like he did Pittsburgh guard Tray Woodall on Thursday (the senior was brought to tears after his 1-for-12, two-point performance), Cotton knows his team has a better chance to upset the No. 1 team in the country.

“I look forward to being that guy, to chase around their player like I did yesterday," said Cotton, who is also averaging 6.3 points and 3.9 rebounds per game this season. “So I look forward to chasing around Kevin Pangos. I have no problem with it; I enjoy it.”

Pangos, the Zags’ standout sophomore guard, is averaging 11.6 points per game this season and scored the final five points in top-seeded Gonzaga’s six-point survival against 16th-seeded Southern on Thursday. He said the key to competing with a physical team such as the ninth-seeded Shockers is to be physical right back.

“We don’t shy away from that; our team is tough," Pangos said. “We don’t back down from that at all.”

This should be an interesting matchup. The Shockers held Pitt to 35.2 percent shooting from the field -- and just 5.9 percent on 3-pointers. The Zags are third in the nation in field-goal percentage, making 50.4 percent of their shots.

NO ALARM HERE: Zags coach Mark Few wasn’t particularly rattled that the game against Southern went down to the wire; a win is a win is a win right now.

“At this point of the year, I don’t think we need to worry about aesthetics or, you know, differences," he said. “I know it’s cliché, ‘survive and advance,’ but there really is no other alternative. We’re not getting style points and we’re not getting graded -- you know, you either win or your season is over.”

QUOTE-WORTHY: “We know we’re in for a fight, especially the confidence that they have. When you win a game like that, it doesn’t just all of a sudden leave you; many times it carries through for the rest of the weekend. For us, it’s not about being consumed with Harvard, as much as it is about being consumed with ourselves, making sure we’re ready to go.” -- Arizona coach Sean Miller

Harvard lives the upset dream

March, 22, 2013
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SALT LAKE CITY -- A year ago, Harvard guard Laurent Rivard was in awe just seeing the midcourt NCAA logo; after all, the Crimson hadn’t made the tournament in six decades.

So helping the program to its first tournament victory -- a 68-62 win over No. 3 New Mexico that marked the biggest seed upset by an Ivy League team?

That, he said, was indescribable. Although he tried: “You imagine it … it’s something everyone dreams about,” Rivard said after scoring 17 points and going 5-for-9 from 3-point range, “but it’s a different feeling when it actually becomes real.”

The win seemed improbable for a plethora of reasons: The Lobos (29-6) were bigger (7-footer Alex Kirk finished with 22 points and 12 rebounds), and more seasoned by playing in a conference many considered one of the nation’s toughest. Heck, some even thought UNM was robbed by the tournament committee when it didn’t earn higher than a No. 3 seed.

But Harvard countered with a four-guard lineup that was sharpshooting (52.4 percent overall, including 8-for-18 from 3-point land) and that frustrated Lobos leading scorer Kendall Williams into a forgettable, 1-for-6 night. Led by their tallest starter, 6-foot-8 Kenyatta Smith, the Crimson also aggressively banged with Kirk and 6-9 Cameron Bairstow (15 points, nine rebounds).

[+] EnlargeWesley Saunders
AP Photo/Rick BowmerHarvard's Wesley Saunders drives past New Mexico's Tony Snell on his way to 18 points.
“We knew they were going to be tough,” Smith said. “We just had to be confident.”

And they were, particularly down the stretch.

New Mexico, trailing for most of the game, took a 53-52 lead with 6:26 left on yet another Kirk inside move. But Harvard, even with its three bigger guys in foul trouble, countered with a 7-0 run -- beginning with another 3 from Rivard and including a jumper from guard Wesley Saunders (18 points) -- to rebuild its cushion. The Lobos never got closer than four after that.

“For me to see the composure that we had is meaningful to me as a coach,” Harvard’s Tommy Amaker said. “We had the lead. We lost the lead. We had to make plays and to have an answer each time when things got really tight there. We had to make pressure free throws. … But we didn’t wilt or cave in.”

Somehow, the Crimson (20-9) didn’t seem to feel the pressure of being a No. 14 seed on the brink of making history.

“I was just playing in the moment, enjoying the moment,” freshman point guard Siyani Chambers said. “… It felt like, just getting here, was our night.”

Indeed, not long ago it seemed like a long shot that the Crimson would make the tournament at all -- much less advance to the round of 32.

First there were the offseason academic problems that led the team’s co-captains -- Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry -- to withdraw from school.

And although those departures gave Chambers (5 points, 7 assists in 40 minutes Thursday) the opportunity to develop more quickly, the team wasn’t quite the runaway favorite it might have been to dominate the Ivy League -- as evidenced by back-to-back road losses at Princeton and Penn in early March.

Yet the Crimson endured. And prevailed.

And forget about last year’s awe-inspiring NCAA logo. Now, there’s a new daydream: the Sweet Sixteen.

“Before this, we wanted to be the Cinderella story,” Smith said. “And I guess now, we kind of are.”

Crimson cram for Thursday's big test

March, 19, 2013
3/19/13
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An odd thing happens once the Selection Sunday-fueled adrenalin rush wears off and teams get down to the business of preparing to play tournament basketball: Many teams realize they know next to nothing about their opponent.

That’s what happened to the Harvard Crimson on Sunday night, when they found out they would be facing the New Mexico Lobos on Thursday in Salt Lake City (9:50 p.m. ET, TNT).

Not only have the two schools never met on the hardwood, but hardly any of the Crimson have even seen the Lobos play (Tommy Amaker joked Sunday night that he hoped his players were studying late at night, when their upcoming opponent would’ve been playing in Mountain West action, rather than watching TV).

And so while the athletic department staff scrambled to book flights and lodging for the tournament, the coaching staff began the mad dash to tipoff by searching for game film and scouring scouting reports.

On Monday morning, Amaker participated in a conference call with reporters. He’d seen a few game films on Steve Alford’s team in the hours since the announcement, and had a little better idea exactly what the Crimson will be up against.

“[The Lobos are] a big, strong team. A talented team,” he said. “A team that may not be in one of the bigger, higher-profile name conferences, has kind of gone under the radar nationally in some circles. But I think basketball people recognize a team that has won 29 games and has won their league, and has had a sensational season.”

He didn’t stop there.

“The thing that comes through loud and clear right away is that (1) they’re talented, (2) that they have great balance and (3) that they’re big,” Amaker said. “They’re a team that has a lot of size up front. And when I say balance, they have a number of guys that can score, they can score in and they can score out. … They have a lot of confidence in what they do.”

According to ESPN Insider’s Charlie Creme, Alford’s team relies on a lot of motion and getting to the free-throw line on offense, and on defending well without fouling on defense. Led by the 2012-13 Mountain West Player of the Year, Kendall Williams (14.0 PPG, 5.0 ASG), the Lobos finished the season ranked No. 15 in the country and reached as high as No. 11.

Every member of their starting five is 6-foot-3 or taller: Alex Kirk, 7-feet; Cameron Bairstow, 6-9; Tony Snell, 6-7; Williams, 6-4; Hugh Greenwood, 6-3.

Harvard’s tallest player, meanwhile, is Michael Hall, a 6-foot-10 freshman who has played 17 minutes in his college career. And Siyani Chambers and Wesley Saunders, arguably the Crimson’s best players, stand just 6 feet and 6-foot-5.

The Crimson will have their work cut out for them defending the paint and trying to hold their own on the glass (where the Lobos thrive). But there are areas in which they may be able to do damage.

Specifically, the areas behind the 3-point arc.

While Alford’s team defends very well inside the arc, it struggles to defend outside of it -- where the Lobos rank 240th in the country in 3-point percentage defense, according to KenPom.com.

Harvard, meanwhile, ranks seventh in the country in 3-point shooting, finishing at 40.1 percent as a team. The Crimson are led from behind the line by Laurent Rivard, who hit 74 three-pointers in 2012-13, tying a school record, and led the charge in the tourney last season with a 6-for-7 showing on 3s in the 79-70 loss to Vanderbilt.

And though there’s still a lot to learn and a game plan to construct, the Crimson know a great deal more now about the challenge awaiting them than they did Sunday night.

“They’re not 29-5, a 3-seed and the champions of their conference for nothing,” Amaker said. “This is one of the better teams in the country.”

One the Crimson and their fans will be much better acquainted with come Thursday night.

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

Harvard out of the driver's seat

March, 7, 2013
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All that stood between Harvard and a third straight Ivy League title was two weekends of games. With four Ancient Eight matchups left, two on the road and two at home, the Crimson were 9-1 in the conference and if they kept winning they would control their postseason destiny.

Then came Friday night at Princeton. The Crimson struggled mightily from the floor, shooting 0-for-8 from behind the arc and just 40 percent for the game in a 58-53 loss to the Tigers.

[+] EnlargeKenyatta Smith
Joe Murphy/Getty ImagesKenyatta Smith of the Harvard Crimson shoots over Joe Jackson of the Memphis Tigers in January.

Asked Wednesday if he attributed the stumble to his young team (led by sophomore Wesley Saunders and freshman Siyani Chambers) pressing, Harvard coach Tommy Amaker demurred.

The Crimson just didn’t play well enough to win, while Ian Hummer and the Tigers did, he said.

“I thought the kid Hummer was on a mission and played like it,” Amaker said. “I thought he really inspired their team. He made every big, winning play.”

Hummer finished with 23 points and 14 rebounds, both game highs.

When Princeton needed a big shot, rebound or hustle play, Amaker said, Hummer was there.

The next night, needing to rebound from the setback at Princeton, the Crimson got blitzed by the Quakers.

“I thought Penn just played very aggressively against us, pressured us,” Amaker said. “We got down early in that game, battled all the way back and couldn’t get over the hump there late.”

After the 75-72 loss to Penn, all of a sudden Harvard found itself in second place in the Ivy standings (behind Princeton). And with just two games remaining, Amaker’s charges no longer control their own destiny.

Princeton, 16-9 overall and 9-2 in the conference, has three games left and if it wins out will win the Ivy. Harvard, 17-9 and 9-3 in the conference, has two games left and needs to win out and get help from Princeton’s opponents (the Tigers play at Yale, at Brown and at Penn) to win the Ivy.

Amaker is hoping one of the oddities of the Ivy schedule helps his team this week. His players will have had five days to lick their wounds, physically and mentally, and prepare for the next challenge by the time they tip off against Columbia at Lavietes Pavilion at 7 on Friday night.

Though the Lions are just 4-8 in the Ivy and 12-14 overall, the Crimson can’t afford to take them lightly. Amaker said Columbia probably played one of its best games of the season against Harvard the first time the teams met (a 78-63 Columbia win).

“Certainly they’re a team that’s confident against us, that feels they match up well with us,” he said. “They do a heck of a job breaking their opponents down off the bounce. We’re gonna have our hands full.”

Because of this past weekend’s missteps, there’s only so much the Crimson still hold in their hands.

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

Lopsided matchup won't deter BC

December, 5, 2012
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NEWTON, Mass. -- When Boston College has played Harvard recently, the results have been lopsided, with one team winning five straight meetings between the teams.

But that team is the Crimson, not the Eagles.

Siyani Chambers, Tommy Amaker’s freshman point guard, led the visitors with 21 points in a 79-63 win on Tuesday night.

Afterward, BC coach Steve Donahue was asked if this is a series he’d like to continue.

“I think it’s a game we should play,” he said. “They’re a very good basketball team, a very good program and they’re going to be very good this year and they’re going to be very good next year. I think it’s the right thing for college basketball in the city of Boston. We’ve got to get better no matter who we play.

“I think people in this area are confused,” Donahue continued. “They think it’s the Harvard of your father’s Harvard -- it’s not. They’re an established program and they could beat a lot of basketball teams in this country.”

Don’t expect Donahue to duck Amaker next season.

“So for us to not play them because they might beat us, I would never do that,” he said.

Meanwhile, for Harvard the series has meant a lot.

“It’s been very meaningful for us,” Amaker said when asked if he would also like to continue the matchup. “We’re thankful for the opportunity to play Boston College.

“We’ve been fortunate. But the outcome is not indicative of us wanting to maintain this game. It’s about us having an opportunity to play an ACC team -- it’s always gonna be a road game, they’re not gonna, I’m sure, come over to play us, which certainly I understand that.”

Since the Crimson’s five-game win streak started, back in 2007 when they knocked off the then-No. 17 Eagles, Harvard has been ranked more often than BC has. The Crimson, having never cracked the AP Top 25 prior to 2011-12, were ranked as high as No. 21 last season.

And while the bloom may be temporarily off the rose because the BC program is clearly in a down period, it’s still a worthwhile game -- for both sides.

“I think it’s great for our city, it’s great for our community and we’re hopeful we’ll be able to continue to maintain it,” Amaker said.

The young leading the young

On Monday, Amaker said he was wary of the young Eagles’ experience. Players like Ryan Anderson, Dennis Clifford and Lonnie Jackson had gotten a full season of minutes under their belts in 2011-12, he said, unlike his young players who mostly sat on the bench during a veteran-led run to the NCAA tournament.

Amaker said he thought that experience might pay off for BC.

That’s not exactly how it turned out on the court Tuesday, with the Eagles playing little or no defense and then struggling against the Crimson D.

BC shot 58.1 percent from the floor for the game, but allowed Harvard to shoot 54.9 percent and lost by 16. After the game, Donahue sounded bewildered looking at the numbers.

Part of the problem, he said, isn’t experience per se but the lack of an example.

“Ryan Anderson, Cliff, they don’t understand exactly what my vision is because there’s no one that did it in front of them,” Donahue said. “That’s apparent tonight, [Harvard] did a great job.”

Donahue said guys like Steve Moundou-Missi and Wesley Saunders benefited greatly from watching the veterans in front of them last season.

“I love these guys, as I say all the time,” Donahue said. “I have great confidence that they’ll get it. And we’re gonna work extremely hard to do it. Unfortunately, and I know I sound like a broken record, but we’re gonna have some failures here.”

So far for the Eagles (3-5), those failures have included losses to Bryant and now Harvard.

Bumps and bruises?

Clifford missed the game against Harvard, sitting on the bench in a gray BC track suit with his right leg in a walking boot after spraining his ankle in the win over Penn State.

“The ankle’s pretty swollen and black and blue, I think he’s still a couple weeks away,” Donahue said of Clifford.

When asked if missing the big man from Milton Academy hurt the Eagles on Tuesday, Donahue demurred.

“I don’t know that he would’ve made a difference, I can’t say that,” he said.

Harvard was also without a big man, with Kenyatta Smith sitting out the game after getting banged up in practice this week. Amaker went small as a result, starting Jonah Travis and relying on a frontcourt rotation of Travis, Moundou-Missi, Michael Hall and Agunwa Okolie.

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




Harvard counting on fast learners

November, 8, 2012
11/08/12
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Any time a team makes a title run, its depth will be tested. You’re only as good as the players at the end of your bench, at the far reach of your rotation.

Harvard’s depth will be tested early and often this season. First, the Crimson lost Keith Wright and Oliver McNally to graduation. Then they lost Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry to a cheating scandal that has embroiled the historic Cambridge campus.

That means Tommy Amaker will have to rely more heavily on his youngsters than he would’ve liked.

Wesley Saunders, Steve Moundou-Missi and Jonah Travis will have to grow up in a hurry. Laurent Rivard and Christian Webster, selected as co-captains to replace Casey and Curry, will have to lead.

And the freshmen can’t afford to be freshmen for long.

In particular, that may mean a quickened initiation for point guard prospect Siyani Chambers.

“We have always been very excited about who he can become at Harvard,” Amaker said of Chambers last month at the Massachusetts basketball media day at Boston College. “We were thrilled to get him to come here with us. He’s a winner. He’s a kid that won three state high school championships and lost at the buzzer in the semifinals in his senior year to possibly play for a fourth.”

The 6-foot, 170-pound Chambers was named Minnesota’s Mr. Basketball in 2012, even though his Hopkins High team fell short of the state title. ESPN rated him as a two-star recruit, and summed up the scouting report on him this way: “Siyani may be the best pure point guard, in terms of running a team, in the entire Class of 2012. He is smart and crafty and understands the position.”

“He expects to do well,” Amaker said. “There’s no doubt about it. We’re very confident in his ability to help us throughout his time at Harvard.

“Now, does it seem like things could be sped up a bit? Maybe so,” Amaker continued with a chuckle. “But we were thinking that he was going to contribute for us as a freshman.”

The Crimson took a trip to Italy this summer, playing four games against Italian teams. Because of Ivy League rules, they weren’t allowed to bring their freshmen on the trip, but the remainder of the roster made progress. Amaker praised the play of sophomore Saunders, in particular.

“I was very pleased with the growth of a kid like Wes Saunders, he was exceptional,” the coach said. “Actually he was our best player. I was very, very pleased, not surprised, but again very pleased at how he played.”

The Crimson need Saunders and the other sophomores, including Travis, Moundou-Missi and Kenyatta Smith, to play a significant role this season.

“We’re excited to see where these guys can take us,” Amaker said. “I think we have some depth there that can be very valuable to us.”

Last season was historic for Harvard. Amaker led the Crimson to their first outright Ivy League title (and second title in a row) and the first NCAA berth in 65 years.

Before the fallout from the academic scandal, the Crimson were expected to repeat. Now they’re picked to finish second in the league, behind Princeton.

The Tigers received 16 first-place votes in the preseason media poll, while the Crimson received just one.

But Amaker believes every year is a new one, regardless of who’s returning, and said he has never believed in paying attention to outside expectations. He prefers to focus on Harvard’s internal standards.

To live up to those standards this season, Harvard will have to prove the guys at the end of its bench are good enough to slide over a few spots.

“I think you find out the strength of a program as kids within your program develop and grow and start evolving into different, bigger, better roles and produce for you,” Amaker said. “I think you see that around the country, whether it’s a Syracuse, whether it’s a Duke, whether it’s a number of different places you can pull out that have guys that maybe didn’t play for one or two years but then all of a sudden become very prominent figures.

“[When that happens] you feel like you have a program that is starting to take traction and become established a little bit. I’m anxious to see if that’s something that can develop for us this year. Because I think it’s right there for us to do and I’m very confident and hopeful for the guys that are in those positions to make that transition.”

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

Harvard basketball regroups after scandal

October, 9, 2012
10/09/12
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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.

[+] EnlargeKyle Casey
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesThe Crimson will miss the production of Kyle Casey, who was Harvard's leading scorer last season, averaging 11.4 points a game.
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.”

[+] EnlargeTommy Amaker
Nelson Chenault/US PresswireCiting privacy laws and due process, Amaker wouldn't comment directly on the cheating scandal. Instead, he focused on his team. "We're excited about this season," he said.
With Casey and Curry off the roster for 2012-13, Laurent Rivard and Christian Webster have been tabbed as co-captains.

“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.

Amaker hopes to be at Harvard for long time

March, 27, 2012
3/27/12
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CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- People notice success, especially when it occurs in places that don’t traditionally experience it.

So when Tommy Amaker led Harvard to the first outright Ivy League championship in the school’s more than 100-year basketball history, landing the Crimson in the NCAA tournament for just the second time and the first time since 1946, people paid attention.

The coach’s name has been bandied about by some in relation to coaching vacancies at other schools, and the coaching carousel hasn’t even hit the high RPMs yet.

But asked about his future on Monday during a season wrap-up media session in the lounge at Lavietes Pavilion, Amaker was unequivocal.

“As I’ve said before: We’re very happy here,” Amaker said. “I’m hopeful that we’ll be at Harvard for many, many years to come.”

Having just completed his fifth year in Cambridge, Amaker already has accomplished what many coaches before him had tried and failed to do: He’s built a winner in men’s hoops at Harvard.

For three seasons running, the Crimson have set a school record for wins. They finished 2011-12 with a 26-5 record and went 12-2 in the Ivy League for the second straight season.

They can call themselves back-to-back Ivy champs, after capturing a share of the title last season, as well.

Amaker admitted he can’t control the rumors. All he can say is that he’s happy where he is, ensconced at a school he likes to call the No. 1 school in the world.

“I’m not pursuing anything,” he said. “We’re getting ready for our next year, we’re getting ready for recruiting.

“As I’ve said before, my heart’s at Harvard and I hope to be here for a long time.”

Vanderbilt sheds its NCAA albatross

March, 15, 2012
3/15/12
10:14
PM ET


ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Vanderbilt finally solved its Kentucky problem by winning the SEC tournament on Sunday in New Orleans.

But that did nothing to answer its larger issue: winning in the NCAA tournament.

Double-digit seeds had flummoxed the Commodores in three of the past four NCAA tournaments with losses to Siena, Murray State and Richmond.

Harvard was a sentimental favorite in making its first NCAA tournament since 1946. Oh, and the Crimson were seeded No. 12, making this one of those dreaded 5-12 games.

“It’s well publicized that Vandy’s lost in the first round the last three out of four years,’’ said Harvard senior guard Oliver McNally. “So we knew if we were hanging around, we’d put that thought in their head and see what happened. And I thought we were going to do that.’’

Vandy had an 18-point lead on Harvard on Thursday afternoon at the Pit. And then suddenly it was five.

“Credit to them for coming out really strong after that and being strong with the ball and making free throws,’’ McNally said. “But we made a great run.’’

The Commodores held on to win 79-70 and looked every bit the part of a team that could beat No. 4 Wisconsin on Saturday in a third-round game for the right to possibly take on East top seed Syracuse (if the Orange can knock off Kansas State in Pittsburgh on Saturday).

John Jenkins was sensational with 27 points. The Dores got plenty of pop from Brad Tinsley, Jeffery Taylor and 11 boards from Festus Ezeli. Vanderbilt’s big four came through when it mattered most.

Vandy can exhale -- for now.

“I didn’t want to be in that tight of a situation with the way we had the game going in our favor,’’ said Vandy coach Kevin Stallings. “But since we won, I’m glad it unfolded that way.’’

Stallings knew the toughness question was relevant with this squad during the SEC tournament. The Dores simply didn’t have the track record to back up their belief that they were over their late-game issues.

And comments like Taylor’s that the big lead led to a bit of relaxation and too much standing on offense just contributed to the narrative. But there was something the Dores had that had been missing even in last-second losses in previous NCAAs to Siena and Murray State: composure.

Jenkins used a different word -- poised. “I think leadership is definitely a factor in that guys huddled up and decided we need to lock down and get rebounds down the stretch,” he said. “We did what we had to do. We hit big free throws.’’

The Dores had one possession that took the lead from 11 to 14 with a four-shot sequence that ended up in a traditional 3-point play for Jenkins. That lead ballooned to 18. Harvard made its run, but the hole was too deep.

“I think our maturity showed up a little bit there,’’ Tinsley said. “We were playing not to lose instead of playing to win. You can never do that, especially in the NCAA tournament.’’

[+] EnlargeBrad Tinsley
AP Photo/Matt YorkBrad Tinsley, right, and Jeffrey Taylor cheer as Vanderbilt puts away Harvard during their second-round meeting.
Vanderbilt could finally talk about its albatross after the win.

“It really means a lot for the seniors to be our last time in the NCAA tournament,’’ Tinsley said. “We just kind of got that monkey off our back and win a close game in the first round. It just means a lot to us old guys, the coaching staff and the program.’’

Getting into the NCAA tournament did that as well for Harvard. The Crimson didn’t just show up for the first time in 66 years. They got off to a rocky start and scrapped their way back.

Harvard senior Keith Wright said that getting into the NCAA tournament and representing the Ivy League, especially after losing the playoff to Princeton at the buzzer last season, was a celebration of all the hard work put forth.

“It’s just really special and I’m really glad to be a part of it,’’ said McNally. “They sell you on all kinds of dreams but Coach (Tommy) Amaker had a plan and this plan was followed through. Not only were there good players but really good people. We made the tournament. We wanted to advance. That was obviously the ultimate goal.’’

But this meant more to the Ivy League and to Harvard to have its flagship name finally make the dance.

Alumni from the White House to an 86-year-old surviving member of the 1946 team — the Crimson's previous NCAA entry — could all feel good about this run. The latter was Don Swegan, who was at the Pit in his old Harvard sweater. He was in his glory, talking to other alumni. The Friends of Harvard hoops read about Swegan on ESPN.com and wanted to make sure he made it to Albuquerque from near Youngstown, Ohio, so they paid for his expenses. NCAA president Mark Emmert and Harvard alumnus and Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott wanted to have their picture taken with Swegan.

These were good memories for him, the Harvard program and a clear signal that the Crimson aren’t going into NCAA tournament hibernation.

“For us to represent our school and conference for the first time in so many years and to have so many folks come and cheer us on means so much to us,’’ Amaker said. “This has been and is a big deal.’’

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