College Basketball Nation: Harvard Crimson

Editor's note: Over the next five weeks, we will reveal the top 50 coaches in college basketball as decided by our ESPN Forecast panel. Today we unveil No. 22: Harvard's Tommy Amaker. On Friday, we release No. 21.

I still remember how dreary the whole thing felt.

It was late February 2007, and I was covering the basketball beat for my student newspaper. My first trip to Ann Arbor, Michigan -- my first time in the Crisler Center, ground zero for my requisite early-'90s Fab Five idols -- was as gray as the weather outside. The building had as much personality, and as much concrete, as a Soviet-era housing block. Michigan's players looked mostly disengaged. The fans were good, particularly the student section, but the game was pretty ugly. And all afternoon, from the sideline to the postgame news conference, Michigan coach Tommy Amaker looked like he was miserable.

About a month later, Michigan would fire Amaker, and Amaker would accept the job at Harvard. I didn't think much of it. Who did? (I was a senior in college, so hoops-coach realpolitik was not exactly foremost among my thoughts back then, but still.) Amaker was receding from the Big Ten and taking a job at a historically bereft Ivy League school, never to be heard from again.

So much for that. In 2008, Amaker inherited a program whose only NCAA tournament berth came in 1946, which had never won an Ivy League title. In the seven seasons since, Amaker has taken the Crimson to three NCAA tournaments, won two games while there, earned the school's first top 25 ranking, competed for some of the nation's best recruits, riled up all kinds of "Harvard: Just like any other college basketball program?!?" anger and completely redeemed himself.

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Editor’s note: During the next five weeks, we will reveal the top 50 coaches in college basketball, as decided by our ESPN Forecast panel. Today we unveil No. 22: Harvard’s Tommy Amaker. On Friday, we release No. 21.

Tommy Amaker’s résumé is all wrong, inverted more like a toy top resting on its point than a pyramid of success built upon a solid foundation. You are supposed to layer your coaching career upward, one triumphant stop begetting the next until you join the rarefied air of the big-name schools, where wins trumpet your arrival as one of the nation’s best.

Yet here’s Amaker, 22nd out of 351 Division I coaches, according to our forecast panel, in the top 6 percent of his profession as the coach . . . at Harvard?

[+] EnlargeTommy Amaker
A. Richardson/USA TODAY SportsBased on his career mark of 315-210 (.600 winning percentage), Tommy Amaker has proven he's an elite coach. It's just surprising he's at Harvard.
He should have been That Guy a decade ago, when he was the boss at Michigan, not now, after being fired from Ann Arbor and sent doubling back down to the Ivy League. You go up to get better, not down.

There are plenty of low- to mid-major guys who are well-respected and will make this top 50 list, but most have earned their stripes with staying power -- Bob McKillop (Davidson) and Rick Byrd (Belmont) -- or by succeeding wildly where they are, a la Gregg Marshall (Wichita State) and Shaka Smart (VCU).

Amaker doesn’t fit either description. He has been with the Crimson for only seven years and won exactly two NCAA tournament games. Yet the man once cast aside by the Wolverines is now considered a savant, his name appearing on every coaching vacancy wish list.

So how did he do it? How did he reinvent the wheel?

"I don’t think it’s anything, really," Amaker said. "You know how it is. If the ball goes in, you’re a great coach. If it doesn’t, you’re a bad coach. To get wrapped up in it either way is not very wise."

Amaker was never a failure. He was 109-83 at Michigan with three 20-win seasons, a pretty good run considering the whale of a mess he inherited after the Ed Martin scandal. Before that, he was 68-55 at Seton Hall.

But he was fired, which in the real world equates to a major malfunction. In coaching, of course, it depends on your definition. Amaker won plenty; he just didn’t win enough.

Fair or not, there is just one measuring stick in college basketball, and it is not the final score or even an overall record. It is the alignment of your postseason letters.

NCAA makes you a success; NIT earns you a pink slip. In Amaker’s six years, Michigan made the NIT three times, winning it in 2004. He never made the NCAA tournament, and that was that.

"I think it’s so fragile, what we do and how it’s looked upon," Amaker said. "We all know some really good people who are doing a great job and for whatever reason, they don’t win enough games. That happens all the time. I don’t think there’s a formula or a science to it."

All of that, then, as a backstory makes his emergence as a top 25 coach in the country pretty unusual.

That he was able to put himself on the map at Harvard makes it extraordinary.

Before Amaker, the Crimson’s basketball history wasn’t even enough to be a footnote. Harvard had never won an Ivy League title in more than a century’s worth of competition, and hadn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 1946.

"This was not one of those destination jobs," Amaker said. "If I was trying to rectify something, this wouldn’t be a job I would have gotten engaged in."

Yet Amaker has turned Harvard into -- if not a destination -- a legitimate basketball presence. The Crimson have won three consecutive Ivy League titles, and an NCAA tournament game in each of the past two years.

The loaded question, of course, is which is easier: succeeding at Harvard or at Michigan? The expectations are certainly higher in Ann Arbor, but then so are the budget numbers. Getting to the NCAA tournament through the Big Ten is not an easy route, but there are multiple bids to be had. In the Ivy League, there are 16 chances, one bid and no tournament do-overs.

The real answer is all of the above. There is no such thing as an easy job in college coaching, but as Amaker is perhaps proving, there is more than one to get to the top.

3-point shot: Tommy Amaker's future

April, 23, 2014
Apr 23

Andy Katz looks at Tommy Amaker's future at Harvard and SEC-Big 12 challenge field.

Look back, look ahead: Ivy League

April, 23, 2014
Apr 23
Harvard is no longer a one-year wonder, a trendy upset pick or a unique story in college basketball.

The Crimson have arrived as a regular.

[+] EnlargeTommy Amaker
Andrew Richardson/USA TODAY SportsTommy Amaker turned down jobs from power conferences to stay at Harvard.
Nothing can be taken for granted in the sport, but the Crimson are suddenly expected to produce winning teams that compete for the Ivy League title, get to the NCAA tournament and, yes, actually win a game once they get there.

The Crimson have won the automatic berth three years in a row, winning a tournament game the past two seasons as a 14-seed and a 12-seed, beating New Mexico and Cincinnati, respectively.

Harvard coach Tommy Amaker is in the renaissance of his career. He has transformed the sport on campus. He has made it cool to come to the games, to follow the team and alumni are relishing being able to travel to NCAA tournament games.

Amaker could have left for Boston College. Cal too, if he wanted the job. But the Crimson are working on a new contract and trying to take care of him. Harvard works at a glacial pace at this sort of thing, because it’s not used to competing for coaches the way in which it does for faculty. The commitment, however, is there. There are even plans to upgrade facilities.

And being the coach who put Harvard into the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1946 and kept it there has enchanted Amaker enough to stay in Cambridge for the foreseeable future.

The normalcy of being a double-digit seed that wins has even been overshadowed.

"People forget we were a 14- and a 12-seed," Amaker said. “And it was the first time in 30 years that a team had won games in the NCAA tournament from the Ivy in back-to-back years. I was stunned when I saw that."

But breaking down barriers for Harvard is nothing new on campus and now in the Ivy.

This is the new normal. And Harvard will be the favorite again.

What we saw this season: The Ivy League had its best postseason run in its 58-year history. Five teams went to the postseason with Harvard (NCAA), Princeton (CBI) and Brown, Columbia and Yale (CIT), and the league had eight postseason wins.

Putting multiple teams in the postseason occurred for the fourth time in five years.

The last team to win consecutive NCAA tournament games was Princeton in 1983 and ’84.

Harvard won a school-record 27 games and a school-high 13 games in the Ivy League as well as the first undefeated road record in the Ivy in the school’s history.

Yale made it to the CIT title game before losing to Murray State. It was the first time an Ivy League team played for a postseason title since 1975, when Princeton played for the NIT title.

These tournaments might not resonate nationally, especially the CIT, but the results matter. The Ivy League is showing dramatic improvement, and the stronger it gets, the more its champ gets challenged, giving it a legitimate shot to advance in the NCAAs.

"We're trying to be a top-10 league next year," Columbia coach Kyle Smith said. "Watch out WCC, Missouri Valley and Horizon.

"We had five postseason teams, an 8-5 postseason record, Kenpom had us as the 13th-best league, Columbia had a buzzer-beater at Valpo, Harvard and Columbia played a double-overtime game at Columbia which was the best game in 2014 and only 3,200 people witnessed."

[+] EnlargeArmani Cotton
AP Photo/Jessica HillWith Armani Cotton, left, returning, Yale could challenge Harvard for the Ivy League crown.
What to expect next season: Yale coach James Jones said next season could be the best the entire league has ever been. He said five teams could reach 20 wins.

Harvard will be picked as the favorite, even with the departure of Brandyn Curry, Kyle Casey and Laurent Rivard.

The Crimson return a strong core of Wesley Saunders, Siyani Chambers and Steve Moundou-Missi, with the likely emergence of Zena Edosomwan, Corbin Miller, Agunwa Okolie, Jonah Travis and a healthy Kenyatta Smith.

"Their inside game will be very formidable," Smith said of the Crimson. Chambers should be the top guard in the league, too.

Yale will likely be the No. 2 pick behind Harvard with the return of Justin Sears, Javier Duren, Armani Cotton, Brandon Sherrod, Nick Victor, Matt Townsend and Jack Montague.

Dismissing Princeton would be a mistake. Tigers coach Mitch Henderson said this team has something to prove, and seven returners, a strong finish to the season and a commitment to defense mean this team has a real shot to be a contender.

Smith said he envisions a bunched-up group in the middle of the pack with any number of teams emerging. Columbia and Brown are the most likely teams to pop out of this group with Alex Rosenberg, Maodo Lo, Cory Osetkowski, Steve Frankoski and Grant Mullins leading the Lions, while Cedric Kuakumensah and Rafael Maia should be the focus for Brown.

Dartmouth, Penn and Cornell are unknowns at this point, but the Quakers rarely stay down for long. The Ivy doesn’t have a postseason tournament, but Amaker has said it's a 14-game tournament with every game counting as much as the next. The chances of getting multiple bids in the NCAA tournament -- which has never happened -- rests solely on whether a second team can win quality nonconference games and push the Crimson to a playoff. It's not crazy to consider.

"Our league will be incredibly balanced and strong next year," Amaker said. "Our league will be very underrated."

Another NCAA tournament is in the books, and before we get too sad over saying goodbye to college basketball for six months, let's review what we just witnessed:

One player can carry a team: It's particularly true if that player happens to be a guard. UConn's Shabazz Napier proved that point -- like Kemba Walker before him -- by leading the Huskies to the national championship.

One player can't carry a team: Particularly if his team relies on outscoring its opponents. For all the scoring records Creighton's Doug McDermott broke, the Blue Jays defense was ultimately picked apart by Baylor, and one of the great college basketball careers of the past decade ended in the first weekend of the tournament.

Freshmen can carry a team: Kentucky was only the second team to start five freshmen in the title game. After many stumbles during the regular season, the youthful Wildcats put it together at the right time.

[+] EnlargeShabazz Napier
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesShabazz Napier took over the tournament and was a dominant force in UConn's run to the title.
Freshmen can’t carry a team: Kansas played without its talented freshman center Joel Embiid in the tournament. Its other highly touted freshmen starters, Andrew Wiggins and Wayne Selden Jr., combined to shoot 2-for-11 and score six points as the Jayhawks were eliminated by Stanford. Wiggins might still prove to have Carmelo Anthony-type talent in the NBA, but he didn’t come close to matching Anthony's NCAA tournament legacy.

Seeding is an inexact science: Louisville as a 4? Kentucky as an 8? The selection committee’s favorite phrase is "whole body of work," which is understandable, but it doesn’t take into account a team that's playing its best late, such as the Cardinals; or a team clearly better than its record, such as the Wildcats.

Brackets aren't fair, but such is life: The biggest example was having No. 1 seed Wichita State pitted against No. 8 Kentucky in the round of 32. The game had an Elite Eight feel for a reason -- it probably should have been played in the later rounds.

A 12-seed beating a 5-seed is no longer an upset: The 12-seeds nearly -- and probably should have -- completed a full sweep of the 5-seeds. No. 12 seeds Harvard, Steven F. Austin and North Dakota State all advanced and North Carolina State was positioned to join them but missed 9 of 17 free throws before blowing a late eight-point lead to Saint Louis. It was the second game in three days for the Wolfpack, who had to play their way in by beating Xavier.

The 16-seeds are getting closer (incrementally, maybe, but closer): For those counting, the No. 1 seed is 120-0 against No. 16 seeds, but the gap is closing. Coastal Carolina led Virginia by 10 in the first half and by five at halftime before losing. Albany and Weber State also gave Florida and Arizona tougher than expected games.

Four-point plays do exist: And for Stephen F. Austin it happened at the best possible moment. Desmond Haymon drew a foul on VCU's JeQuan Lewis and his four-point play tied the score with three seconds left in regulation before the Lumberjacks won in overtime.

Big shots: Whether true buzzer-beaters such as Cameron Ridley's putback in Texas' win over Arizona State or simply big shots in closing seconds such as North Dakota State's Lawrence Alexander forcing overtime against Oklahoma with a 3-pointer, we love seeing a game-changer. Kentucky's Aaron Harrison made the most of his big shots, taking down Louisville, Michigan and Wisconsin in the process.

Shots not fired: With 2.3 seconds left, Arizona's Nick Johnson took one dribble too many and failed to get a shot off before time expired. The Wildcats' loss to Wisconsin in the Elite Eight proved the shot that's not taken hurts most.

Check the monitor (Shots not fired Part II): Then again, it might hurt more to lose the game after an officials' conference. Officials didn't see North Carolina coach Roy Williams signaling for a timeout with 1.6 seconds left immediately after Iowa State's DeAndre Kane scored the go-ahead basket. The ball was inbounded but the clock operator started it late, allowing Carolina a timeout after the ball was advanced to half court. The officials checked the monitor, huddled and determined that time had expired before the timeout was granted.

We still never figured out the block/charge call: It didn’t outright decide the outcome of any game, but it came close. Tennessee's Jarnell Stokes was called for a charge with six seconds left in a one-point game. Michigan's Jordan Morgan sold the call and the Wolverines advanced.

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Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsAn upset of Duke sent Mercer's Kevin Canevari into his version of the Nae Nae.
Location. Location! Location? Wisconsin doesn’t rally to beat Oregon had the partisan crowd in Milwaukee not helped turn the momentum of that game. UConn might not get past Michigan State had it not been in the familiar confines of Madison Square Garden. Then again, Syracuse lost to Dayton in Buffalo, N.Y., and Duke lost to Mercer in Raleigh, N.C. Maybe location doesn’t matter as much as we think.

Conferences might want to rethink who earns the automatic bid: Milwaukee had a losing record in the Horizon, yet beat regular-season champ Green Bay in the league tournament en route to earning their NCAA bid. Cal Poly had a losing record overall and finished tied for sixth in the Big West, yet earned the bid and beat Texas Southern before getting pummeled by Wichita State. Mount St. Mary's also had a losing record overall before winning the Northeast tournament title. All those upsets, of course, led to NCAA tournament seeds.

Seniors matter: Obviously the shining example was Napier carrying UConn to the title and Florida reaching the Final Four by starting four seniors. But the common thread in nearly every early-round upset was that schools such as North Dakota State, which had five seniors in its rotation, and Mercer, which had seven seniors, played a lot of experienced players.

Conference affiliation doesn't: The Big 12 had the most teams in the tournament with seven, but they flamed early. Kansas State, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma lost their first games, only Baylor and Iowa State made it to the Sweet 16.

Michigan State starting over: One of the best streaks came to an end this season when the Spartans lost to UConn. Keith Appling and Adreian Payne are the first players who stayed four years under coach Tom Izzo but did not play in a Final Four.

Pay more attention to the Atlantic Sun: From the conference that gave us Florida Gulf Coast last season, Mercer came out of the league this year. The Bears beat Duke in a game they were positively poised and confident they would win.

THE University of Dayton made a statement: A headline in the Dayton Daily News poked a little fun at Ohio State, but the way the Flyers were embraced after beating the Buckeyes, Syracuse and Stanford showed just how much March can unite a community.

Kevin Canevari can dance: Moments after Mercer topped Duke in the tournament’s biggest upset, Canevari provided arguably the tournament’s best celebration dance by doing the Nae Nae in front of the Bears' fan section.

Grudges last: Napier blasted the NCAA for keeping the Huskies out of the tournament last season because of their APR. That means SMU, which beat UConn twice, is on the clock for next season with some hard feelings of its own. The Mustangs missed the NCAA tournament and finished runners-up in the NIT. With most of their starters back, and adding arguably the best point guard from the 2014 recruiting class, Larry Brown's crew will be a force next season.

SPOKANE, Wash. -- Most teams that will be playing in the NCAA tournament next weekend know what and who they are. If they’ve been playing together long enough and they’re playing together in March, there’s a general trajectory for their play, and, though there might be outliers throughout a game, their identity is pretty much settled.

Then there’s Michigan State.

Certainly, there’s individual talent there -- Adreian Payne dropped 41 in the second-round win over Delaware, and Branden Dawson scored a season-high 26 in their 80-73 win over Harvard on Saturday to help advance the Spartans to the Sweet 16. Keith Appling and Gary Harris have taken over games and been leaders. Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine keep elevating their games.

But with injuries galore and players constantly being shuffled in and out of the rotation, this team remains one that’s still learning how to play together. It might be coach Tom Izzo’s 12th Sweet 16 team in 17 seasons, but he might know this one’s identity the least.

"We played good enough that you’d say 'That team’s capable of getting to the Final Four,' and we played bad enough that you could say 'That team should’ve been out of the tournament,'" Izzo said. "Maybe it’ll be a little learning lesson for a couple of those guys who got complacent."

It’s the only use this game is to Michigan State at this point. The Spartans can’t take back the near embarrassment or the way that a team without a single athletic scholarship flustered them.

So what can they learn?

[+] EnlargeBranden Dawson
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesMichigan State players were in a mood to celebrate in a win over Harvard.
Izzo said his team needs to learn how to stay out of foul trouble. Harris said he thinks the Spartans need to be better with time and score. Dawson said they need to learn how to not get comfortable with a lead -- and this Harvard game took the Spartans one step closer to that.

Michigan State blew a 12-point halftime lead against a smaller, less physical team. They got out-executed at times and out-hustled at others. Combined, that created an interesting stretch in which it appeared that the Ivy League might be making a Sweet 16 appearance instead of the team that the president chose to win it all.

After the Spartans accounted for 11 assists and just one turnover in the first 20 minutes, the wheels fell off the train. The Spartans gave the ball away 10 times in the second half, with quite a few of those resulting in dunks and breakaway layups for the Crimson.

And yet, even with all that and the entire arena turning its support to the underdog, this team that’s still figuring out what it is knew what it needed to do.

"The greatest thing that happened for me is we did enough bad things … but we found a way to bounce back and win," Izzo said. "It’s always a better learning experience when you win and do some things that will maybe get their attention now in the film session tomorrow night."

Michigan State will take on the winner of Virginia-Memphis in the Sweet 16, but it’ll still be a few days before the Spartans even think about that.

With how little this group has practiced together because of injuries, it’ll spend a lot of Sweet 16 prep in Spartan focus mode -- building chemistry with each other, working on their timing. It’s the stuff every other team has mainly figured out at this point in the season, but it has been a season of catching up for Izzo.

He has been saying the whole season that this team had the potential to make it this far (and further) if it can figure out the pieces and where they fit. This Harvard game will act as that next piece for the Spartans. They’ve gained a ton of exposure in the past few weeks as they’ve won the Big Ten tournament and put up huge performances, but they can’t get complacent.

If Izzo’s team picks up as quickly as he thinks it can, the Spartans won’t make this same mistake against Memphis, Virginia or anyone else down the road.

"I hope [this experience] makes you smarter," Izzo said. "I don’t think we need to be stronger. We need to be smarter. We didn’t do some things that were very smart in that stretch. Hopefully, this will be a learning experience. Whenever you can learn with a win, that’s a valuable lesson."

The true value of this win won’t be decided until next weekend, when the Spartans travel to New York. If it’s a learning experience the Spartans can put into practice, it’ll be pretty valuable. If they don’t put it to use, they’ll have to wait until next season.

But Izzo knows that those lessons taste sweeter when they come with a win, specifically one that would come on April 7.

"When you can learn and win, that’s a hell of a day," Izzo said. "That’s a hell of a day."
SPOKANE, Wash. -- Basketball teams look at the season one step at a time, and when it comes to the postseason, those steps become more of a crawl. Forty minutes at a time, each team tries to extend its season another day or two.

The recruits, the previous season, the conference tournament, that one win or one loss don’t matter. It’s 40 minutes to decide not necessarily the better of the two teams, but the one that advances, the one that lives another day.

So Harvard coach Tommy Amaker and North Dakota State coach Saul Phillips aren’t putting together game plans that completely change their respective system or team. They don’t need to find the answer for how to compete in a different conference or league. They both just need to answer one question: Could their teams be better for 40 minutes on Saturday in Spokane? Could their team be better than a team that most believe is better?

Maybe nine times out of 10 Michigan State would dominate Harvard or San Diego State would destroy North Dakota State, but could Saturday be that one time when they don’t?

Cinderellas need only to be better on one singular night. Sixty or 70 possessions determine fates and end careers. All that matters is who shows up.

[+] EnlargeTommy Amaker
Steve Dykes/Getty ImagesTommy Amaker hopes his Harvard team has the edge again on Saturday against Michigan State.
"The excitement about this tournament is that you just have to be better that day," Amaker said. "That’s the interesting part about it."

Generally, every season there’s at least one 12-seed that finds a way to upset a 5-seed in the round of 64 of the NCAA tournament. But on Thursday in Spokane, 12th-seeded Harvard took care of business against fifth-seeded Cincinnati, then fellow No. 12 seed North Dakota State took down fifth-seed Oklahoma in overtime later that day.

On Saturday, NDSU faces San Diego State at 6:10 p.m. ET, then Harvard plays Michigan State at 8:40 p.m.

"There are so many good teams in the tournament," Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said after NDSU’s upset. "The depth and the quality of depth is, I think, as good as it has ever been. Cincinnati-Harvard, it looked like a close ballgame. Ours was a close ballgame. Not much difference in those ballclubs."

The difference is seven seeds, which, when there are only 16 total seeds in each region, seems like a whole lot. But with Mercer beating Duke, Dayton beating Ohio State and the story of Florida Gulf Coast last season, the gap between blue-chip recruits and the players with chips on their shoulders is getting smaller and smaller.

"I think the quote-unquote mid-majors, that gap is slowly closing," Harvard guard Brandyn Curry said. "As you can see, these upsets are happening more and more often. I think it’s because the talent around America is just getting better, and these players are going to decide to be different and go to different institutions."

That’s certainly part of it. With more AAU teams and development leagues, there’s a greater pool for college coaches to choose from. There are more and more players with plenty of potential who might not be seen by John Calipari or Mike Krzyzewski but can still become productive college players.

But another benefit of the mid-majors is that players plan to stay for four years. Amaker doesn’t have to worry about one of his guys leaving early. Phillips doesn’t have to rebuild his chemistry every season.

Experience and team chemistry can trump singular talent, and during March Madness, like Amaker said, it just has to happen once. Michigan State could possibly beat Harvard nine times out of 10, or maybe 99 times out of 100, but it wants that one time to be when the teams take the floor on Saturday.

Meanwhile, Michigan State and San Diego State will work for Saturday to be the 90 percent instead of the 10. There’s more than enough motivation -- the Spartans’ senior group has never been to a Final Four, the first senior class under Tom Izzo to not accomplish that feat, while San Diego State was one of Florida Gulf Coast’s victims last season.

They understand the survive-and-advance, lose-and-go-home operation and know how dangerous a team on the rise is. An underdog is one thing. The stadium or nation gets behind them and the Crimson and Bison can feel the support they’re getting from basketball fans.

"It’s March Madness at its best," San Diego State coach Steve Fisher said. "NCAA basketball, expect the unexpected, and everyone who’s not a fan of that top seed is praying that it will be a close game and that the low seed will hit a basket at the buzzer to win the game."

Fisher knows the fans might be stacked against him and Izzo. He’s just hoping the cards aren’t as well.

SPOKANE, Wash. -- Even after a 61-57 win in the second round of the 2014 NCAA tournament -- and wins in consecutive tournaments -- Harvard is still one of the easier teams to poke fun at in the Big Dance. They’re the smart kids playing a rough game, the school from the Ivy League that is allowed into the tournament.

[+] EnlargeBrandyn Curry, Siyani Chambers
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesWith its win over Cincinnati, Harvard now has NCAA tournament wins in back-to-back seasons.
But in his seven seasons with the Crimson, coach Tommy Amaker has put to rest a few of those jabs. And, for the third consecutive season, Harvard has made an appearance in the Big Dance. Before Amaker arrived, the Crimson's last NCAA tournament appearance was in 1946.

In 2012, the Crimson lost in the first round. Last season as a No. 14 seed, Harvard upset No. 3 seed New Mexico -- its first-ever NCAA tournament win.

And on Thursday in Spokane, the 12th-seeded Crimson took care of business against fifth-seeded Cincinnati. Though the 5-12 matchup is one of the most common upsets in the NCAA tournament, Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin was reluctant to call it an upset.

"In my mind, today’s game was anything but an upset," Cronin said. "They’ve got a great team. Tough draw for us. In my opinion, they’re one of the best teams we played all year. … They did not catch us by surprise by any stretch of the imagination."

The Crimson took advantage of a slow start by the Bearcats, who opened the game by missing 14 of their first 17 shots, jumping out to a 36-29 halftime lead, which Harvard wouldn’t relinquish in the second half. Cincinnati broke out a full-court press, helping to cut the lead to one with just three minutes remaining, but solid play from sophomore guard Siyani Chambers kept the Crimson on top.

Harvard’s win adds to the argument that this is one of the deeper tournaments in recent history. With Louisville and Michigan State both playing as 4-seeds, several teams having a solid shot at the title and star players starring on some under-the-radar team, this season’s March Madness is sure to hold more games like Harvard-Cincinnati, upset or not.

[+] EnlargeSteve Moundou-Missi
AP Photo/Young KwakHarvard's Steve Moundou-Missi scored nine points in the victory over the Bearcats.
"In college basketball, you look around, and I’ve heard this before where there really aren’t upsets anymore," Amaker said. "There may be some surprises, but I just think when you’re looking at seeds and if you’re playing this time of year, you’re probably a pretty good basketball team. And I think you have to be lucky and fortunate to advance in this great tournament. And we were good, and we also were somewhat fortunate and lucky, as well."

There might have been some luck in the Crimson’s win, but it was mostly sticking to a solid game plan and playing fundamental basketball. The game as a whole was sloppy -- 23 total turnovers and more than 60 missed shots between the two teams -- but the Crimson looked like the team that better executed its game plan.

Despite Cincinnati being more athletic, Harvard kept the Bearcats out of the paint and stuck with them on the boards, losing the rebounding battle by just one, 34-33.

Defensively, the Crimson held the Bearcats to 37 percent shooting (six percent less than their average) and just five assists (eight less than their average) while keeping star guard Sean Kilpatrick in check most of the game.

"I think that we have become a program that has become relevant in the world of college basketball," Amaker said. "I just think our kids have worked hard, have represented our school in an incredible fashion, and we’re proud to be able to say that we’ve become a program representing our conference that can go on a national stage in a national tournament and be competitive and be a contender, and certainly to win a game or two."

Region preview: East

March, 16, 2014
Mar 16

Before any team from this region makes the Final Four, it will have to first prove itself on Broadway. Madison Square Garden welcomes the NCAA tournament for the first time in more than five decades, serving as the host site for the East Regional finals. Virginia, on the strength of winning the ACC regular season and tournament, earned the No. 1 seed. But the team that already seems to have generated the most buzz is No. 4 seed Michigan State.

The Spartans navigated much of the season the way a No. 1 seed would until injuries decimated their roster. Starters Adreian Payne, Branden Dawson, Keith Appling and Gary Harris all missed time due to injury, but Michigan State coach Tom Izzo appears to have everyone again healthy at the right time, and the Spartans responded by winning the Big Ten tournament. Among the lovable underdogs in the region is a team from Durham, N.C., but not the team most identify with Durham. No. 14 seed North Carolina Central earned its first-ever bid to the tournament by winning the Mideastern Athletic Conference. The Eagles have a win over NC State on their résumé and one of the nation’s top bucket getters in Jeremy Ingram, who averages 20.5 points per game and put up 37 against Wichita State.

Five players to watch:

[+] EnlargeGary Harris
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsGary Harris' game has risen in recent weeks, giving a newly healthy Michigan State team a great chance to advance out of the East region.
A potential NBA lottery pick, Michigan State sophomore guard Gary Harris is as polished as they come. He can catch and shoot over defenders, drive past them and, after adding a few pounds since last season, he can finish through contact. Harris led the Spartans with 17.1 points per game.

UConn’s Shabazz Napier has a reputation for delivering the clutch shots for the Huskies. He was the American Athletic Conference Player of the Year after leading his team in scoring (17.4), rebounding (5.9) and assists (4.9).

Speaking of players of the year, Iowa State’s Melvin Ejim took that award among stiff competition in the Big 12. Ejim can score from anywhere on the court -- shooting 34.5 percent from 3-point range -- and averaged 18.1 points and 8.5 rebounds per game.

If you’re not impressed watching North Carolina’s Marcus Paige, make sure to check out what he does after halftime. Paige earned the moniker “Second Half Marcus” because of his knack for erupting for double-digit points after halftime, including 31 points in the second half and overtime in a win over NC State.

Get used to seeing Providence guard Bryce Cotton; he’ll never leave the court. Seriously. Aside from leading the Friars with 21.4 points per game, he actually averaged 41.9 minutes played in Big East games due to several overtime games.

Dark horse: Iowa State won the Big 12 tournament, beating Kansas and a very talented Baylor team to do so. The Cyclones own nonconference wins over Michigan, BYU and Iowa, which are all in the tournament field. They generally don’t beat themselves. Guard Monte Morris led the nation with a 5.71 assist-turnover ratio. DeAndre Kane (17.0 PPG) and Georges Niang (16.5 PPG) are as capable as Ejim of erupting and scoring a lot of points. The Cyclones also shoot the ball well from 3-point range, led by Naz Long’s 40.8 3-point shooting percentage.

Upset alert: No. 12 seed Harvard has a team suited to knock off No. 5 Cincinnati. The Crimson don’t have a lot of flash but boast five players who average double-figure scoring per game, led by Wesley Saunders' 14.0 points. More importantly, coach Tommy Amaker’s bunch has experience. The Crimson return all but one rotation player from the team that knocked off No. 3 seed New Mexico in last year’s tournament.

Conference with most to prove: Three teams from the American are in the region, led by Cincinnati, which finished tied for first with Louisville. The league's reputation wasn’t strong enough to get SMU a bid despite the fact the Mustangs finished tied for third with UConn and Memphis. The Bearcats, Tigers and Huskies can prove SMU belonged after the fact with a strong showing. The tournament could also be a proving ground for Memphis coach Josh Pastner, who has a 1-4 record in the NCAA. It will be the first appearance for UConn coach Kevin Ollie, whose team was banned from the postseason last year due to a low APR.

Matchup we’d most like to see: Virginia and Michigan State in the Sweet 16. Remember the 2000 Final Four semifinal clash between Wisconsin and the Spartans? This could be the long-awaited sequel where the son (Tony Bennett) tries to avenge the loss of his father (Dick Bennett). The Cavaliers play with toughness that Izzo would approve of. The Spartans would present one of the toughest challenges that Virginia’s defense has faced all season. If it materialized, the winner of this matchup would also be the most likely team to advance to the Final Four.

Most likely to reach New York: Virginia, Michigan State, Iowa State, UConn.

Who advances to Arlington? Michigan State.

Here's a random question: Before Friday, when Harvard cinched its third straight Ivy League title, when was the last time you heard about the Crimson?

Unless you're a die-hard Ivy League hoops fan, it's safe to guess the last time was Jan. 21. That's when Harvard lost at Florida Atlantic, 68-53, and officially ended any and all hope it had of earning an at-large NCAA tournament bid. More than that, the loss at FAU -- a genuinely bad loss to a genuinely bad team -- had the effect of cooling almost all of the hype that accompanied Harvard before the 2013-14 season began. Back then, the Crimson were coming off a first-round No.3/No.14 upset over New Mexico, and re-adding previously suspended seniors Brandyn Curry and Kyle Casey to a young team that had already shown glimpses of its bright future. When Harvard went to UConn on Jan. 8, the Crimson were a reasonable upset pick. When they lost by five in Gampel Pavilion, suspicions of quality seemed confirmed. And then the FAU thing happened, and the record scratched to a sudden halt. Harvard kind of just … went away.

[+] EnlargeTommy Amaker
Andrew Richardson/USA TODAY SportsTommy Amaker has guided Harvard back to the NCAA tournament.
That were are even able to say such things in the first place is funny and insane, given Harvard's history. Before Tommy Amaker arrived in Cambridge, Mass. in 2007, Harvard had never won 20 games in a season, nor won an Ivy League title, nor earned a spot in any modern version of the NCAA tournament. Seven seasons later, the Crimson are the Ivy League's dominant team.

This might be Amaker's best team yet. The Crimson went 13-1 in Ivy League play, with a loss coming to Yale and couple of overtime games (the second, against Brown, came Saturday after the league title was already sewn up) providing sporadic tests. But by and large, Harvard dominated the Ivy, finishing first in points per trip (1.14) and points allowed (.896). Statistically, the defense stacks up nationally, too: Harvard finished the season ranked 30th in adjusted defensive efficiency and 34th overall in the KenPom ratings -- one spot ahead of Saint Louis, four spots behind UConn. Statistically, this Amaker's best team -- deeper and more balanced than any he has had.

So why has no one noticed? For the same reasons Harvard had to win the Ivy League to get a tournament bid: When the Crimson played good teams this season, they lost. They lost at Colorado on Nov. 24. They lost at aforementioned UConn. They beat Green Bay and Vermont -- two of the better mid-majors in the country -- but in their two big showcase chances, they simply didn't get it done.

This is not a fair way to evaluate a team, of course. Harvard can't get good teams to come to its own gym, so it has to travel, and the benefits of homecourt advantage make it difficult to write a team off after a loss. (This is among the most frustrating aspects of NCAA tournament selection, but let's not go down that road.) But we write teams off anyway, because it is simply easier to look at a schedule and see no notable wins and filter out the extenuating circumstances.

Which is why things got so quiet after Jan. 21. In a way, the Crimson have made a full perceptual circle: From unknown doormat to beloved underdog to upset specialist to early season mid-major sleeper to unknown all over again. For the next week, they'll sit and watch as the conference tournaments and bubble dramas sort themselves out, and they won't command many headlines now, either. But the Crimson have the look of one of the best true mid-major teams in the country, and it would be a mistake to let the sudden quietness obscure this fact.

Harvard bests Yale, earns NCAA tourney bid

March, 8, 2014
Mar 8
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.

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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."

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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."

3-point shot: Wooden Award omissions

January, 23, 2014
Jan 23

College basketball reporter Andy Katz discusses a developing rivalry in the Big East, some key names left off the Wooden Award Midseason Top 25 and a bad loss for Harvard.

3-point shot: NC State's big win at ND

January, 9, 2014
Jan 9

Andy Katz discusses a big win for NC State, the solid play of Pitt and the health of some key players for Harvard.

UConn toughs out win over Harvard

January, 8, 2014
Jan 8
STORRS, Conn. -- Like a boxer who’s taken a few good shots to the chin, the University of Connecticut Huskies were reeling.

After road losses to Houston and SMU dropped the Huskies to 11-3 and knocked them from the Top 25, Harvard had them on the ropes after the first 20 minutes Wednesday night.

Without their best all-around player in Wesley Saunders, who’s out indefinitely with a knee injury, the Crimson capitalized on 11 UConn miscues to the tune of 14 points off turnovers in the first half and led 31-26 at the break.

[+] EnlargeRyan Boatright
John Woike/Hartford Courant/Getty ImagesRyan Boatright said being able to regroup at halftime allowed UConn to push back against Harvard.
“We were thinking too much,” UConn junior Ryan Boatright said. “We really weren’t playing the way that we’re accustomed to playing. We came out a little sluggish once again. And they came out and they were ready to play, they wanted to beat us.

“Once we went back in the locker room, we knew we had took their best punch and we had to come out with a better demeanor.”

Though UConn shot 57.9 percent in the half, coach Kevin Ollie needed to remind his players that they didn’t have to press and try to do too much.

“There was a lot of extra weight on our shoulders,” Ollie said. “I just told the guys to relax at halftime and play the game. Win or lose, you just play together and play relaxed. When you play relaxed you have a better opportunity to play to your strengths.”

The Huskies did that after halftime and came away with a hard-fought 61-56 win.

Boatright opened the second-half scoring with a short jumper in the lane, the Huskies cut down on their turnovers and big men DeAndre Daniels and Amida Brimah started altering or blocking the Crimson’s shots in the paint.

And after a back-and-forth first few minutes, UConn used an 11-2 run to open up a nine-point lead.

“I’m going to keep saying that word, we were connected,” Ollie said. “When it was a bad play, we recovered. And that’s what you do, you go on to the next play and you respond as a team.”

So when Siyani Chambers drilled a 3-pointer to cut that lead down to just two with 3:08 remaining, the Huskies needed to find another counterpunch.

Shabazz Napier, just 2-for-8 up to that point, provided one. The senior got open in the left corner for a 3, and though the shot looked true, it kicked out. Luckily for UConn, Harvard’s Steve Moundou-Missi couldn’t corral the rebound, with the 7-foot Brimah on him, and the Huskies got another chance to recover.

Napier didn’t miss this time, drilling a 3 from in front of the Huskies’ bench.

“Our recovery is getting better,” Ollie said. “It’s getting better. Down in Houston, we couldn’t recover off a couple instances. But we recovered tonight and every run they had, every 3-pointer they had, we challenged them and we played our type of basketball.”

Kyle Casey tried to get the three points back on the next possession, missing a 3 from the corner, and the ball wound up back in Napier’s hands.

This time, he was isolated on Brandyn Curry out past the line. Because the Harvard co-captain had been going for the ball-fake on drives all game, Napier had a plan.

[+] EnlargeChambers
David Butler II/USA TODAY SportsWith Wesley Saunders out with a knee injury, Siyani Chambers and Harvard didn't have enough.
“If I gave him a hard-step, stepback I was going to be open,” he said. “I was fortunate to be given a lot of space and I just tried to knock it down. And I made it.”

With the lead back to eight with 1:30 to play, it seemed UConn could exhale. But Harvard wasn’t ready to throw in the towel, and its other co-captain, Laurent Rivard, delivered a four-point play (when Napier got a little too aggressive closing out and fouled him on a 3) and a three-point play.

And with nine seconds left, a travel call on Niels Giffey gave the Crimson a chance to tie with a 3.

“It’s exactly what we needed,” Ollie said of the challenge the Ivy Leaguers brought to Storrs. “This team is going to test if you’re going to be disciplined. And we wanted to be competitive but we also wanted to stay in our principles.

“If you want to play a team that’s going to challenge you in those areas, this is the team. Because they’ll run the shot clock down and then they’ve got Chambers and they’ve got Casey, they’ve got some big-time basketball players over there.”

If the Huskies were going to escape with a much-needed win, they would need to make one last defensive stop.

And when a UConn player just got a hand on the ball and forced Curry to juggle and then try to throw it back to Chambers, only to be intercepted by Daniels, they had it.

Daniels hit two free throws and UConn had escaped.

“Nothing in life is going to be easy,” Napier said. “You’re going to have a lot of bumps in the road. But you’ve just got to learn from it. I think if we continue to learn from it, we’re going to be a better team for it.”

Though it’s still relatively early in the season, it was clear Wednesday’s game meant a lot to UConn. The Huskies didn’t want to enter American Athletic Conference play in earnest on a three-game losing streak.

“That was definitely a must-win,” Boatright said afterward. “If we lost three straight, it would’ve been terrible for us. And those three games we were favored to win. So for us to get that win gives us our confidence back, gives us our swagger back and just gets us back on the positive end of things.”

Though he stopped short of calling it a must-win, Ollie clearly was thrilled with the fight his team displayed.

“We recovered. That’s the biggest thing, I’m going to keep saying it over and over again,” he said. “You’ve got to recover, you’ve got to respond the right way and you’ve got to stay together. A lot of guys could have split apart because we had two tough losses, but these guys, they’ve got something special.

“And this season is going to be something special for us if we stick together and we keep playing for one another and understand that we’re going to face adversity. But adversity is just temporary. Character lasts forever. I think this team has the character to win a lot of games.”

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

Harvard bests BC for sixth season in a row

January, 1, 2014
Jan 1
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- In basketball, as in life, there might be nothing as important as confidence.

When you have it, anything is possible. When you don't have it, it seems like everything is impossible.

The difference was on stark display Wednesday afternoon, when Boston College bused across town to play Harvard in Cambridge for the first time since 1991.

An issue with the shot clock just after the tip led to a disjointed beginning, and while the Crimson found the range rather quickly, the Eagles struggled for most of the first half. Harvard's defense, a hallmark of Tommy Amaker's program, certainly had something to do with that.

[+] EnlargeOlivier Hanlan
Cal Sport Media/AP ImagesWesley Saunders and Harvard's defense made things difficult for BC's Olivier Hanlan.
Rare was the wide-open look for the Eagles, with a Crimson defender contesting most, if not all, of the visitors' early attempts.

But while BC shot just 4-for-12 on 3-pointers in the first half, coach Steve Donahue said he didn't have a problem with the outside shot selection. He had a problem with what he thought was a tentative start by his Eagles.

"That's kind of our issue right now," Donahue said. "With 10 losses, our confidence is what it is. And when you get in situations like that, you're not confident."

The low point for the Eagles came with about three minutes left in the first half, after Olivier Hanlan missed a 3. Siyani Chambers pushed the ball upcourt, used a pick from Steve Moundou-Missi and then delivered a pass to the diving big man from Yaounde, Cameroon. Moundou-Missi converted the layup, got a whistle and drained the free throw after a timeout to put the Crimson up 20.

The play brought a scream and a fist pump from Chambers and a roar from the capacity crowd at Lavietes Pavilion, with the hosts in complete control against their ACC foes.

But BC finished the half with a 12-6 run -- capped by a Joe Rahon buzzer-beater over Chambers -- showing signs of waking for the first time in the first game of the new year.

"We had a sensational start to the game and they ended the half very well, and then from the second half on they were clawing their way back in it," Amaker said. "Give a lot of credit to Steve and his program to battle the way they did. I thought we had to come up with some big-time defensive plays to maintain that cushion."

Playing with more energy and shooting a much better percentage after the half, the Eagles steadily chipped away at the Crimson lead. When Ryan Anderson made a layup with about 7:30 to go, BC was down just five -- the closest it had been since trailing 6-1 early in the first half.

After Wesley Saunders answered with a layup for two of his game-high 21 points and Jonah Travis hit two free throws to push the lead back to nine, BC went back to Anderson on the block.

The 6-foot-9, 216-pounder backed down Travis and then tried to spin back to the middle for a layup. But Kyle Casey came over from the weak side and swatted the shot attempt away, the ball ending up at the other end in the hands of Chambers, who drilled a wide-open transition 3.

BC never got back to within single digits, and Harvard won 73-58, its sixth straight win in the series and eighth straight win this season.

"It was pretty important," Travis said of Casey's block. "We always feed off our defense, that's where we look to draw energy. We always say that some people, their plays mean more than just the stat itself. So a block from him means a lot of momentum and a lot of energy for all of us. So we kind of look to feed off plays like that to get us going."

Again, it comes back to confidence.

"A lot of the [problems], I think, is just not feeling good about themselves and indecision in critical times in the game," said Donahue, whose Eagles fell to 4-10 with the loss. "Today, I thought we did a good job in the second half of persevering and getting some shots to fall and then getting some stops."

Maybe if Anderson was feeling a little more confident, he tries to dunk that attempt, not lay it up. Maybe Casey still blocks it -- he already had one spectacular block on an Anderson dunk attempt in the first half -- but maybe he doesn't, maybe he fouls Anderson and gives the Eagles big man an and-1 attempt.

And who knows what could've happened after that?

But it didn't happen that way Wednesday, because one team is supremely confident right now and the other is not.

"When the game has gotten tight, whether we've been on the road or at home, we've had confidence," said Amaker, who got career win No. 300 as his team improved to 12-1. "That's a big part of this whole process, is to really believe -- believe in our system, believe in our philosophy, and for them to believe in themselves, believe in their teammates.

"They've shown that, and they've come through for us many, many times."

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