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Monday, March 10, 2014
Planning for Success: Harvard on target

By Eamonn Brennan


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.

Tommy Amaker
Tommy 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.