College Basketball Nation: Tommy Amaker

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.

To continue reading this story, click here.
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.
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.

Harvard bests Yale, earns NCAA tourney bid

March, 8, 2014
3/08/14
1:37
AM ET
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."

You Gotta See This: Ivy League

October, 15, 2013
10/15/13
11:30
AM ET
Tommy AmakerHarry How/Getty ImagesHarvard coach Tommy Amaker has a team that's built on depth, experience and talent.
It's college basketball preview season, and you know what that means: tons of preseason info to get you primed for 2013-14. But what do you really need to know? Each day for the next month, we'll highlight the most important, interesting or just plain amusing thing each conference has to offer this season -- from great teams to thrilling players to wild fans and anything in between. Up next: Harvard's back. That's more intimidating than it used to be.

Let's take a moment to consider the past two seasons of Harvard Crimson men's basketball. In 2011-12, after a couple of seasons spent knocking on the door and a few more than that spent getting the Crimson to ever-so-slightly nudge their still-brutal academic restrictions in the direction of player accessibility, Tommy Amaker's work in Boston paid off. Harvard won the Ivy League and visited its first NCAA tournament since 1946.

Not a bad starting point, but arguably not even as crazy as what came next: In late August 2012, Harvard revealed one of the largest academic scandals in school history, which, considering Harvard was founded in 1636, is saying something. Over 100 students were accused of academic dishonesty, and dozens of them were forced to endure a year's suspension before they could return to their degrees.

Unfortunately for Amaker, not only did two of his players end up involved, it was his two senior captains for 2012-13: guard Brandyn Curry and forward Kyle Casey. They, too, were forced to serve a one-year academic suspension. It is a testament to the depth Amaker has built that most people accurately assumed Harvard would win the Ivy League last season (despite a 20-10 overall record). No one expected what happened in March, when the Crimson toppled No. 3 seed New Mexico, their first modern-format NCAA tournament win. "Bonus" doesn't really begin to describe it.

Now Curry and Casey are back. They'll join a team that worked hard in their absence last season: Rising junior Wesley Saunders and sophomore guard Siyani Chambers both played more than 92 percent of their team's available minutes last season and were in the top 10 in that category nationally. Senior wingman Laurent Rivard shot 40.2 percent from 3 in 2012-13 (and played 87.4 percent of his available minutes). Steve Moundou-Missi was a beast on the glass. And while it's still in a different galaxy from the Kentuckys and North Carolinas of the world, Amaker is nonetheless a lock to add to his team every summer in a way Harvard never has before.

The end result is a team that is deep, young, talented and now, strangely enough, experienced -- a team that has every reason to be just as good as the Crimson were in 2012, when they broke that 60-year-old Ivy League streak for the first time. Frankly, they should be better. Now Harvard has a different sort of streak going. Not bad for a couple years work, eh?

Harvard's historic run happened slowly

March, 23, 2013
3/23/13
9:00
AM ET
HarvardHarry How/Getty ImagesSiyani Chambers and Laurent Rivard celebrate Harvard's 68-62 win over New Mexico on Friday.


Though it may seem like it happens in an instant, history is made slowly.

So when the buzzer sounded in Salt Lake City and the Harvard 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 years-long 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 victory 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 (though 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. It needed better locker rooms, it needed better facilities and it 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. Lin now plays for the Houston Rockets.)

With Lin and a first recruiting class that included players like 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 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 at the helm, suddenly there were none.

But that was only true 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 like 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 during 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's gone on.

"If you look at us from earlier in the season to now, it's like a change in worlds," Webster said. "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 was 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 if 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's 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 even include the 2012-13 Ivy Rookie of the Year, the first freshman to be voted first team All-Ivy, 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 victory in school history, all in a season in which it was supposed to be weakened, Harvard will likely 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.
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

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 of all time 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.”

1. UNLV received good news late Sunday night after X-rays showed that forward Mike Moser didn't fracture his dislocated shoulder. But there is no timetable for Moser's return. The injury occurred a few minutes into the late-possession win at Cal Sunday night. UNLV coach Dave Rice said they will know more of a timetable in the coming days. Meanwhile, the Rebels will go with Anthony Bennett (who has become a star early for the Rebels) and Quintrell Thomas as well as Carlos Lopez-Sosa in Moser's absence. But the Rebels due get an infusion of a big-time talent when Pitt transfer Khem Birch is eligible for next Monday's game at UTEP.

2. The Xavier staff that took the team to the Elite Eight and lost to Duke in 2004 has had quite a rise in the coaching profession this season. The head coach was Thad Matta. The top three assistants are all undefeated as head coaches so far: Sean Miller at Arizona, John Groce at Illinois and Alan Major at Charlotte. The latter two are by far the most surprising. Groce has been dubbed a rising star after the way in which he took Ohio to the Sweet 16. He pulled off one of the most impressive wins in the non-conference with a road win at Gonzaga Saturday night. Major is off to a surprising undefeated start in the 49ers last season in the A-10. Charlotte still has tough games to come but did win the Great Alaska Shootout and knocked off rival Davidson. Miller has the best team in the Pac-12. It won't be a reach at all to see at least three of the four coaches on that staff -- Matta, Miller and Groce -- in the NCAA tournament. Major probably has the most work to do but it's not out of the question.

3. Harvard's staff firmly believes the Crimson will be back to being a potential top 25 team in 2014. The Crimson return their team essentially intact with a rising star in Siyani Chambers. And, if as expected, Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry return from their forced year off (two of 175 students involved in an academic scandal) then this team will be a tough out for everyone on the schedule. The Crimson still have a chance to squeeze into the NCAAs during this bridge season with rest of the Ivy muted at best. Columbia, Princeton and Cornell are all viable contenders but Harvard still may be the team to beat. Casey is working for a non-profit counseling kids during his year off while Curry is working in insurance in Charlotte. They remain in contact with the staff but can't be in school during the forced suspension. Crimson coach Tommy Amaker said he wouldn't have scheduled so tough this season (still to come at Cal, at Saint Mary's and at Memphis after playing at UMass, at UConn) with such a limited roster, but he had no clue the suspensions would occur. Harvard is in the Great Alaska Shootout next season. Amaker is looking for more quality games and said he wants to renew the series with BC and UConn.
That seems to be the thesis of a story in Wednesday's New York Times, headlined "Cheating Scandal Dulls Pride in Athletics at Harvard." It begins with the story of the Harvard hoops team's recent success -- in March, Harvard won its the first Ivy League title and earned its first NCAA tournament bid in 66 years -- and the rush of real, actual athletic joy experienced by a campus that rarely feels it.

Fast-forward to last week, when Harvard co-captains Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry were among nearly 125 students implicated in a massive academic scandal at the school, and suddenly the Crimson pride appears to be fading. From the Times's story:
“I have foreign roommates who come from university systems where there is no role for athletics,” Patrick Lane, a Harvard senior from Beverly, Mass., said as he stood in Harvard Yard. “So when they see athletes cutting corners like this, their response is to say, ‘Good riddance.’

“And they are not the only students troubled. Some athletes are here working hard, but others avoid academic challenges. You know you won’t find them in a deductive logic course, but you will find them in a much less taxing sociology course. They sometimes exist apart, and collectively gravitate to the same majors, like sociology or government. It’s known.”

Apparently, this Patrick Lane fellow is positively abraded -- abraded, I say! -- at the idea that not everybody at Harvard enrolls in deductive logic courses. Sociology? Government? Pshh! How dare these men of sport enroll in such pedestrian concerns! How unfamiliar they must be with the joys of Hume's skepticism, of the fallacies of the closed world assumption? My dear, can you imagine? And when they leave this fair university, they will carry with them but a worthless piece of parchment -- a Harvard degree in government studies -- upon which their shame will be written! Heed my words, thou scoundrels! For shame!

I mean, come on. Are we serious? These guys are still going to Harvard. It's not like they're majoring in recreational studies. Even the easiest Harvard major carries with it a high degree of difficulty. Otherwise, what's the point of Harvard?

Of course, there have been concerns raised in the past -- both inside and outside the school -- that Harvard and the Ivy League is slowly but surely drawing distinctions of ease for talented athletes, allowing their sports teams to be more competitive. Depending on where you stand on the matter, that is a fair concern:
“I had this notion that Harvard and the Ivies were different, but I guess they’re not,” said Gerald Gurney, a professor at the University of Oklahoma and until last year the president of the National Association of Academic Advisors for Athletics. “I know they have high standards, but we also know coaches and advisers find creative ways to place athletes in certain courses and majors that protect them.”

Sure, OK, fine. If Harvard and the Ivies are different -- or if they profess to be different -- then the trend of providing non-athletic scholarships, and making entry to the school less rigorous for athletes, is probably slightly disconcerting. Finding easier academic paths? I don't know. Maybe I'm cynical. Maybe I'm used to the big-state school way of doing things. That just doesn't seem like a major issue to me.

Anyway, that fair concern is also an old one. It's been raised before, time and again, as Tommy Amaker has recruited the most talent to the school's basketball program in its not-so-illustrious history. These are things Harvard and its Ivy League counterparts will have to confront eventually.

What happened in the now-infamous Introduction to Congress class that got 125 students in scalding academic water is something else entirely. It is an entire student body issue -- or a major issue within this one class -- that applies to all range of students, athlete or non-athlete. A handful of students in a group of 125 alleged cheaters were also athletes. That's a small but representative sample.

Why that incident would suddenly cause an indictment of the school's athletics programs is beyond my understanding. If you want to make that argument at Harvard, you could have done so already. If you didn't, there's nothing to see here.

And we don't need to call in the deductive logic prof to help us with that one. It seems pretty straightforward, actually.
PHILADELPHIA -- Sitting on the bleachers at Philadelphia University this July, Roy Williams spun a good yarn about another visit he took to the recruiting camp there a few years earlier.

“I remember saying to my assistant, ‘Who is number such and such?'" the North Carolina coach recalled. “I told him, ‘I may not know much but I know that kid can play.’ The kid was John Wall.’’

That story, told by many a coach who was sitting in the stands that day, is part of the lore of Wall and the allure of recruiting -- you never know when another John Wall might blossom into an overnight sensation with long-lasting NBA staying power.

[+] EnlargeTommy Amaker
AP Photo/Jake SchoellkopfHarvard coach Tommy Amaker knows there are challenges he faces while recruiting.
At that moment, that transcendent second in time, everyone has a chance -- from the plucky mid-major that started recruiting him early to the national powerhouse suddenly salivating over the newfound talent.

Well, almost everyone. If you’re Tommy Amaker or any of his seven Ivy League coaching brethren, you have to hope that the next John Wall brings his transcript with him when he "blows up" on the recruiting scene.

“You can’t help but notice a kid who has talent,’’ the Harvard coach said. “But honestly, we don’t waste a lot of time on those sorts of situations because usually it’s not going to work for us. There’s no point in falling in love with a kid unless you know he has a chance to be admitted.’’

The nuances of July recruiting are unique to every school but the nuances are even more nuanced at a handful of places. In lieu of athletic scholarships, the Ivy League offers a hefty price tag (usually offset by financial aid) and rigorous admission standards, not exactly the exchange every kid is looking for.

Consequently, the July period for guys like Amaker is a little different. Everyone targets its wish list of players, logging hours watching games and hoping it pays off in a letter of intent. In that regard, the Ancient Eight is no different than the SEC.

But along with a sweet jumper and soft hands, the Harvard coaching staff has to be assured its targets have one thing -- good grades.

“We can’t just come out cold and hope a kid can measure up academically,’’ Amaker said. “For the most part, we have to be certain they would be a candidate for admission. We have to know they have a chance academically, no matter how good they might be athletically.’’

There was a time, of course, when Amaker might not be in a tussle with high-major programs for the same talent. That’s changed, though, with the evolution of mid-majors, the recent postseason successes and, of course, Linsanity.

Talented -- and smart -- players know they can go to Harvard and still go to the NBA, which ironically enough only makes Amaker’s summer job even harder.

“Our challenge is the kids we're attracted to, so is everyone else,’’ he said. “Who wouldn’t want a kid who is a good student and a great player? So we’re competing with everyone.’’

So how does Amaker combat such stiff odds? He follows sage advice any Harvard alum would appreciate: keep it simple, stupid.

“Our pitch -- it’s Harvard and winning,’’ Amaker shrugged.
1. Colonial Athletic Association commissioner Tom Yeager said he was well aware that signing a new agreement with NBC Sports would likely mean the end of the CAA’s involvement in the ESPN-sponsored BracketBusters, beginning in 2013. “We are disappointed but we understand the business,’’ Yeager said. He said that the benefits of signing with NBC outweighed the risks of losing a spot in BracketBusters. VCU coach Shaka Smart agreed that no longer participating in BracketBusters wasn’t good. The CAA has had some of the best wins in the event, notably by George Mason, VCU and Drexel.

2. Third parties representing TCU and SMU showed interest in Memphis coach Josh Pastner, according to sources, but there was no interest on his part. And there shouldn’t be at this point. Pastner is at the best job in Conference USA. When Memphis goes to the Big East in 2013, he’ll be at one of the best in that league, too. Pastner should only leave if he has to or for a comparable job, not a lesser one.

3. SMU also made overtures toward Harvard coach Tommy Amaker. Amaker wasn’t interested, either. A year ago, Miami made a strong push to get him. But Amaker knows he is in a special place at Harvard and will coach another Ivy League title contender. His NCAA tournament berth last month was historic for the Crimson. And now the most recognized school in higher education cares about hoops. That in itself is quite an accomplishment.

Vanderbilt sheds its NCAA albatross

March, 15, 2012
3/15/12
10:10
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.’’
Click here to read our afternoon recap. Now back to the lecture at hand, which comes in three parts:

The Rivalry

No. 2 Syracuse 71, Connecticut 69: One of the many things to love about this Syracuse team -- besides its great zone defense and incredible depth and talent and length and pretty much everything besides defensive rebounding -- is how well it handles close games. Since the Jan. 21 loss at Notre Dame, Syracuse has taken respective best shots from Cincinnati, West Virginia, Georgetown, Louisville, South Florida and now at UConn, and each time the Orange have either pulled away late or made the key stop down the stretch to preserve the narrow win. It's a real skill, and it isn't entirely intangible; when you have a defense this good, you tend to get a lot of stops, and there's no reason why that wouldn't be true in the final minutes of any given game, too. But however you quantify it, the Orange win close games. Such traits tend to come in handy in March.

As for Connecticut? While the Huskies didn't get the win, they appear to be rounding into form, or at least starting to figure a few things out. UConn had its fair share of issues with Syracuse's zone, and there were plenty of bad shots to be had, but the Huskies were much more balanced (four players finished in double figures, while Ryan Boatright and Shabazz Napier combined for 13 assists) and competent on both ends of the floor in the second half. Unless it suddenly begins shooting the ball from outside at a much higher clip, this team probably has a ceiling. But there are plenty of realistic improvements to be made. Even better, many of them appear to be in progress. Let's not bury this team just yet.

The Upsets

Purdue 75, No. 13 Michigan 61: When Purdue guard Ryne Smith was asked what he thought about guard Kelsey Barlow's dismissal from the team last week, he was direct, even curt: "Addition by subtraction," Smith said. Apparently he was right. Whatever the reason, Purdue played its best game of the season Saturday at the most important time, containing Michigan's outside shooters and slowly stretching a second-half lead thanks to the heady play of point guard Lewis Jackson, forward Robbie Hummel and, most importantly, guard Terone Johnson, who scored a career-high 22 points and made a handful of key plays down the stretch, including two big and-1 finishes around the rim. Purdue is an unconventional team with no true post presence; the Boilermakers rely on Hummel's outside-in versatility and an extended, guard-oriented style. This makes them a great matchup for Michigan, and, in their own way, a dangerous team.

In any case, Purdue can now feel entirely safe about its at-large NCAA tournament chances. Beating Michigan at home -- the Wolverines' first home loss of the season -- is most definitely a signature victory. And it couldn't have come at a better time.

TCU 83, No. 21 New Mexico 64: Let's hear it for TCU! A round of applause is most definitely in order. At this time in 2011, the Horned Frogs were in the midst of a season-ending 13-game losing streak, en route to an 11-22 finish. This season is an entirely different story: TCU is playing its best basketball down the stretch, having won four of its past five (and eight in a row at home) and toppling ranked UNLV and New Mexico and a good Colorado State squad in the process. The key: great 3-point shooting. The Horned Frogs lead the league in long-range makes in conference play, and they're undefeated at home as a result. What a difference a year makes.

In the meantime ... um, what happened to New Mexico? Last Saturday, we watched in near-awe as the Lobos thoroughly dominated UNLV, which came just a few days after a 10-point win at San Diego State. Steve Alford's team, once a relatively unheralded efficiency darling with few good wins to show for it, looked set to run away with the Mountain West and make a deep run into March. Since then, the Lobos are 0-2 and are now in a three-way tie. A loss at Colorado State makes some sense; we know the Rams are tough, particularly at home. And this is not to take away from TCU, which (as you just read above) is giving everyone more than they bargained for in February, particularly in their own building. But a 19-point blowout loss? Isn't this the team that just rolled UNLV in the Pit and moved to 8-2 in the league? It's kind of weird, right?

Georgia 76, No. 11 Florida 62: This is an upset, of course, but I'm not sure we should be all that surprised. Frankly, I'm not sure if a Florida loss should ever truly catch us off guard. Don't get me wrong: The Gators are good. But they're a specific kind of good. When their steady diet of 3s are falling, they can shoot opponents off the floor before said opponents even have a chance to catch their breath. But if the shots aren't going down, Florida has no Plan B. Patric Young is the only true post presence, and his offensive game is still a work in progress (and he's still underutilized as a scoring threat to boot). The Gators' defense -- which ranks fifth in opponents' points per possession in SEC play, No. 10 in opponents' 3-point field goal percentage and No. 10 in block rate -- still isn't good enough to hold opponents in check when the shots clanging off the iron and the opponents start turning long rebounds into secondary breaks and easy buckets. Florida might yet get there on the defensive end, but it isn't yet. If this UF team has a lower ceiling than it should, well, that's why.

The Bubble Specials

Alabama 67, Mississippi State 50: It was instinctively easy to write off the Crimson Tide when coach Anthony Grant suspended Tony Mitchell and JaMychal Green; it was easy to predict a late collapse, even a fall off the bubble, for a team whose two leading scorers would be missing such important games down the stretch. Instead, the Crimson Tide keep, well, rolling. They've now won three in a row and prevented any hint of a collapse. Mississippi State, on the other hand, appears to be doing exactly that: The Bulldogs are collapsing. This is the Bulldogs' fifth consecutive defeat, a stretch that has included some good basketball (in the near-miss vs. Kentucky this week) but also some baffling losses (the loss at Auburn especially). It's no stretch to say Mississippi State -- which for much of the season looked like a tourney near-lock -- could wind up missing the tournament after all. The Bulldogs are, after all, 6-8 and tied with rival Ole Miss in the SEC standings. Ouch.

[+] EnlargeJohn Shurna
Rob Christy/US PresswireJohn Shurna's free throws pushed Northwestern past Penn State -- and kept an NCAA bid in sight.
Northwestern 67, Penn State 66: Breathe a big ol' sigh of relief, Northwestern fans: In the chase for their first NCAA tournament appearance in school history, the Wildcats remain very much alive. Senior forward John Shurna made the game-winning free throws with just 2.6 seconds remaining, giving Bill Carmody his first win in State College since 2002. Big challenges still lie ahead: Ohio State comes to town on Wednesday, followed by next weekend's season-ender at Iowa, a team that just knocked off Indiana and Wisconsin in Carver-Hawkeye Arena. But for now, some minor rejoicing is in order. Northwestern's tourney hopes are still very real.

Rutgers 77, Seton Hall 72 (OT): Let's not take Seton Hall off the bubble just yet, eh? The Pirates got a great win over Georgetown this week, one that could have firmed up a previously shaky at-large profile. All Seton Hall needed to do the rest of the way was avoid bad losses. Well, losing to a young, 13-16 Rutgers team at home is just that. Next weekend, the Hall travels to DePaul. If the Pirates lose there, all the good vibes from the emphatic Georgetown victory will have almost entirely faded from the picture.

VCU 89, George Mason 77: First things first: Thanks to Drexel's one-point win at Old Dominion on Saturday afternoon, VCU's win over George Mason won't give them a share of the CAA title this season. Bummer, sure, but the Rams would surely settle for a spot in the NCAA tournament, something to which they're at least a little closer after this victory today. As a league, the Colonial's top teams (Drexel, VCU and GMU) didn't get quality nonconference wins (VCU's best came against South Florida, for example), so any at-large consideration will have to come from separation at the top and perhaps a pair of deep runs for both Drexel and VCU in the CAA tournament. A win here was a must, and Shaka Smart's team got it, behind Bradford Burgess' career-high 31 points.

Dayton 76, UMass 43: A home loss to UMass can't be called "bad," but for a team like Dayton -- which is desperately scrapping for a spot in the NCAA tournament -- it could have been disastrous. Instead, the opposite happened: UD won, and won big, looking very much like one of the A-10's best teams and a squad worthy of a tourney bid in the process. We'll see how the Flyers finish up, but if they're one of the last four in, they might just be one of the play-in game candidates, which are held in -- you guessed it -- Dayton!

Saint Joseph's 82, No. 22 Temple 72: Speaking of somewhat fringe Atlantic 10 tournament hopefuls, the A-10 can't offer a bubble team a better shot at a marquee win than Temple on its own floor late in the season, but the Hawks still had to overcome Fran Dunphy's typically peerless bunch, which had won its previous 11 games and 13 in the 15-game stretch beginning with its Jan. 4 victory over Duke. Phil Martelli's team is now 9-6 in the league and 19-11 overall, and it added the one thing it desperately needed to its profile: A legitimate top-25 RPI win. Temple is most definitely that.

Penn 55, Harvard 54: Just when you think it's time to plan a long-awaited Harvard hoops coronation, Penn's Zack Rosen comes along, scores 20 points, makes a huge jumper down the stretch and ices two game-winning free throws in the final 30 seconds. And all of a sudden the Ivy League race is legitimately up for grabs with both of these teams having two losses. (Another one-game playoff for the Crimson? Oh boy.) As an at-large entity, Harvard is still in decent shape, but its profile isn't so strong that it can afford to lose at either Columbia or Cornell in its final two games, lose out on the Ivy auto-bid, and still feel safe about being picked to join the group of 37 at-large teams. Big days ahead for Tommy Amaker's team.

Washington 59, Washington State 55: For the first 10 or so minutes of the first half, it looked like Wazzu was going to hand its in-state opponent the type of loss that would severely damage Washington's at-large chances. But the Huskies fought back and, as the AP report notes, won the game's most important battle -- at the charity stripe: "Ultimately, the game came down to free throws. WSU (14-14, 6-10) went 11 of 12 to keep the game tied at 28-all despite shooting 27 percent in the first half. In the second half, the Cougars shot 6 of 20 from the free throw line, while the Huskies, who only went 2 of 5 in the first half, finished 17 of 24." The win keeps Washington on the right side of the bubble for now, but UW's marginal profile might not be able to survive a loss at either USC or UCLA going away.

Xavier 65, Richmond 57: Kenny Frease's season highs in both points (19) and rebounds (14) helped carry Xavier to an ugly but ultimately victorious Saturday. A loss here would have kicked Xavier off the bubble for good and almost certainly, barring an upset in the A-10 tournament, ended Chris Mack's 100 percent NCAA tournament hit rate in his XU tenure. Instead, the Musketeers live to fight another day.

No. 21 San Diego State 74, Colorado State 66: The Rams pass at least two NCAA tournament bubble tests: The RPI/SOS numbers are great, and they sure do look like a tournament team. But will that be enough? A win in Viejas Arena would have provided a tidy bookend to this week's huge victory over New Mexico, but the loss isn't a huge deal. Colorado State, which is undefeated at home in Mountain West play, hosts UNLV in Fort Collins in just three days' time. Win that one and the Rams are probably set.

What we learned from Saturday night

February, 19, 2012
2/19/12
1:45
AM ET
This Saturday was always going to be a bit more underwhelming than recent weeks, but boy, did it end well. Once it ended, that is. Creighton students rushed the court before the game was officially over. Their reverse storm, in which they calmly walked off the court, was one of the most surprisingly orderly things I've ever seen. Bravo, Bluejays fans. Bravo.

Read up on Long Beach State-Creighton, Michigan-Ohio State and the rest of Saturday night's action here. If you missed our afternoon recap, catch up now.

No. 19 Michigan 56, No. 6 Ohio State 51: Here's something I learned Saturday -- Michigan hasn't won a Big Ten title since 1986. As Dan Shulman said on the broadcast, that's kind of hard to believe. Here's something else we learned Saturday: The Wolverines have a legitimate chance to break that streak this season.

The race for the Big Ten title is officially a three-way affair. How did Michigan get there? By taking care of business at home. Saturday's win was the Wolverines' 16th consecutive victory in Ann Arbor. For much of the past 10 years, under Tommy Amaker and then John Beilein, Crisler was usually a cold, detached, almost lifeless place. On Saturday, it was rocking in Minute 1 and Minute 40 and constantly in between.

Of course, a home atmosphere is nice, but it doesn't mean much if your team can't play. And Michigan most certainly can play. Point guard Trey Burke continued his impressive freshman campaign against the Buckeyes, scoring 17 points -- including a flurry of much-needed late buckets, one of which he took straight at former grade-school teammate Jared Sullinger -- and dishing five dimes against the best perimeter defender in the country, Ohio State guard Aaron Craft. Tim Hardaway Jr. added efficient perimeter scoring, while forward Jordan Morgan scored 11 points and 11 rebounds against Sullinger. Those matchups -- point guard and forward -- should be Michigan's weaknesses, particularly against OSU. In this one, Burke and Morgan turned them into strengths.

That said, Michigan won the game on the defensive end, where it held the Buckeyes to .91 points per trip, and in some part it has the Buckeyes to thank. Shooting guard William Buford struggled yet again, going 3-of-12 and continuing his senior slump. Credit the Wolverines for forcing the Bucks into perimeter jump shots, but also blame Ohio State, which often settled for those jumpers without first attempting to get Sully into an iso situation on the low block. When Sullinger did touch the ball, the Buckeyes usually got a score. They figured this out eventually, which is what got them back into the game in the second half. But it was too little, too late. You wouldn't think you'd need to "figure out" that you should probably give the ball to Sullinger because, you know, he's really good.

Look, Ohio State remains a very good defensive team. After all, holding Michigan to 56 points on its own floor is no easy task. But the Buckeyes' offense, particularly its perimeter shooting (or lack thereof), looks like a serious liability. It lurched helplessly against Michigan State's defense last Saturday, and it played right into Michigan's hands tonight. As a result, OSU allowed its sworn rival to tie it in the league standings, a game behind MSU in the loss column. If the Buckeyes can't fix these problems, their March ceiling -- once as limitless as any team's in the country -- will suffer accordingly.

No. 14 Murray State 65, No. 16 Saint Mary's 51: How much fun is Murray, Ky., having right now? With a rare national audience and Dickie V in the house, the Racers played as well as they have all season, as their fans -- an intense, buoyant bunch -- gleefully soaked it all in. Judging by Vitale's rave reviews of the small burgh, I'd say Murray might be one of the best places in the country to spend this exact Saturday night. I kind of wish I was there. (My colleague Jason King is and had this to say about the game.)

In any case, the nation got a chance to see what this Murray State team was all about, and the timing couldn't have been better. After its loss to Tennessee State two weeks ago, the tone of the discussion around the Racers changed from "Whoa, this team could go undefeated!" to "Well, that was fun, but check out that at-large profile -- Murray State could miss the tournament!" I think we can put that debate to rest. The Racers might not be a national title contender, but with Isaiah Canaan leading the way (he had 23 points, 4 assists, 3 rebounds, 1 steal, a 5-for-8 mark beyond the arc and at least two or three downright crossovers that made this viewer yelp in enjoyment), they are certainly one of the better mid-major teams in the country and one that can give plenty of outfits issues in the NCAA tournament. Sure, some of the wins were shaky, and sure, the Ohio Valley Conference is bad, but when you win your first 23 games, guess what? You're pretty good.

Saint Mary's was far less convincing. The Gaels' offense was hobbled by Matthew Dellavedova's rolled ankle and Rob Jones' early foul trouble, but those weren't the primary causes -- and the road atmosphere and tough Murray defense don't explain it all, either. In reality, the Gaels, who have lost three of their past four (all by double digits), are just flat-out struggling. Over the course of the WCC season, the Gaels have posted about 1.17 points per possession (adjusted), best in the league. In their three recent losses, Dellavedova & Co. have failed to exceed a point per trip. Much like Creighton, this team's defense isn't nearly good enough to get the job done when the offense struggles. Much like Creighton, if the Gaels don't throw points in at something near their usual rate, they're going to lose. It's really just that simple.

Creighton 81, Long Beach State 79: Speaking of fun, how much fun was this? The finish -- Antoine Young's brilliant left-handed, last-second game winner -- was merely the icing on the cake. The 40 minutes that preceded that shot were chock full of high-octane mid-major awesomeness. LBSU's Casper Ware, T.J. Robinson and Larry Anderson trading deep 3s and inside moves with Young and Doug McDermott? Yes, please.

We couldn't have predicted the ending, but we should have seen the entertainment value coming. These teams both excel most at one thing: scoring the basketball. That's what Creighton does. When the Bluejays don't put the ball in at a high rate, they lose, as they did in their recent three-game losing streak, culminating with a home blowout at the hands of Wichita State last weekend. The defense simply isn't good enough to save Creighton from an off night.

Fortunately, Creighton has Doug McDermott. McDermott has been great all season, though he's struggled of late, and it's no coincidence his team had lost three of its past four in that span. But on Saturday night, he was amazing. Not "amazing" in a "wow, this sesame chicken is amazing" sort of way; McDermott was actually, literally amazing. He scored 36 points on 14-of-20 shooting and added 11 rebounds, six of which on the offensive end. The most impressive came late in the second half, when McDermott flew to the hoop and somehow tipped in a wayward shot arcing halfway over his head. Once it was clear McDermott was on, LBSU coach Dan Monson ordered his charges to begin aggressively double-teaming the opposing coach's son. But McDermott's eager passing and ability to make plays without the ball in his hands -- see the aforementioned tip-in -- neutralized that strategy. He was just so good. And at the perfect time, too.

As entertaining as this game was, as memorably as McDermott performed, the good news for Long Beach is that a loss at Creighton hardly hurts its at-large profile. Chances are, this team will continue its blistering Big West pace and get to the NCAA tournament in academic, auto-bid fashion. But if something goes awry in the conference tournament, LBSU's crazy nonconference schedule -- the toughest in the country by, like, a lot -- should be more than worthy of the committee's respect. Whatever happens, we'll always have Saturday night in Omaha. What a game, man. What a game.

Other observations from the night that was:
  • All season, Arkansas has been bad on the road (where it is still winless) but great in its own building (where it was undefeated). That trend ended emphatically against the Gators. Florida hung a 98-68 offensive blitz on the young, up-tempo Razorbacks, led by Erving Walker's career-high 31 points on 9-of-11 from the field, 5-of-6 from 3, and 8-of-8 from the free throw line. Walker has been criticized this season, and rightfully so; his insistence on forcing bad shots in bad situations (at Kentucky, for example) is maddening. But you can't really play much better than he did Saturday night. Insane line.
  • Harvard's vaunted defense handled rival Yale with relative ease, which immediately brings to mind images of old men in smoking jackets, teasing each other over cigars and snifters of cognac. (This is how I see Harvard-Yale. I know it's silly, but I can't help it.) This creates a rather compelling finish to the conference season: Harvard, the long-dormant program with sudden title expectations, will face traditional league powers Penn and Princeton at home this week. If the Crimson win, they'll sew up at least a share of the Ivy title, maybe more. There's something slightly poetic about that.
  • Huge win for Xavier, which held on to its slim margin in the final seconds of overtime to beat Dayton, 86-83. The Musketeers have been flagging badly along the bubble cut line lately and they desperately needed a home win tonight to stay viable. Oh, and here's a fun fact (unless you're a Dayton fan): This loss made it 27 straight for the Flyers at rival Xavier. Dayton hasn't won there since -- get this -- 1981. Yikes.
  • Speaking of fun facts, after an 18-point effort in a 64-53 win over Minnesota, Northwestern forward John Shurna became the Wildcats' all-time leading scorer, toppling Billy McKinney's 35-year hold on the honor. That's all well and good, but Shurna is no doubt more focused on the here and now, where the Wildcats couldn't afford to drop this game and still hope to land an at-large NCAA tournament bid, at least if the bracket was selected tomorrow. The victory keeps Northwestern very much alive. Minnesota's chances, unfortunately, will suffer in proportion.
  • When it rains, it -- well, you know. The cliche certainly applies to Villanova, which is struggling through an uncharacteristically bad season but had, even without Maalik Wayns (knee) and James Bell (ankle), a 20-point lead in this game. Notre Dame came back and won in overtime and, well, yeah: That's a tough way to lose. Villanova could surely have used some brief flash of sunlight in an otherwise dark year. It was so, so close Saturday. And then it wasn't. Brutal. Notre Dame, meanwhile, won its eighth game in a row. The Irish don't always look pretty, but they get the job done.
  • Southern Miss lost at Houston. Yep. That happened. It's bad news for Larry Eustachy's team, of course -- it puts a definite dent into the Golden Eagles' otherwise stellar tourney résumé, which features gaudy RPI and SOS numbers -- but also bad news for Conference USA, which would no doubt prefer to be a multi-bid league this season. Speaking of which, Memphis took its own awful loss today, too, 60-58 at home to UTEP. Yes, Memphis lost to UTEP at home. The Tigers had been quietly working their way through C-USA play with relative ease, but the offensive inconsistency that plagued them in their nonconference slate crept back in against the Miners, and that doesn't bode well for the coming tournament. Mild C-USA intrigue abounds!
  • Speaking of bad losses by Mississippi teams, what is going on at Mississippi State? The Bulldogs were listless at Auburn -- Auburn! -- in a 65-55 loss, MSU's third in a row in a season that is stunningly spiraling in the direction of the bubble. The Bulldogs are just 6-6 in the SEC and have games against Kentucky and at Alabama this week. Uh-oh.
  • And speaking of uh-oh and three-game losing streaks, Gonzaga lost in the closing seconds at San Francisco -- the third consecutive year it's lost to the Dons on the road. The Zags shot 51 percent and yet still lost, falling into a tie with BYU for second in the WCC, one game behind 12-2 Saint Mary's.
  • Colorado State held on for a rather ugly win over Wyoming. This was a definite bubble elimination game, one Wyoming couldn't afford to drop if it wanted to preserve any chance of at-large consideration. The victory won't put CSU in the field by any means, but it keeps the Rams alive, if only barely.
  • Watching Georgetown, it's hard not to be impressed with the Hoyas' pinpoint Princeton offense. But this team's real strength is its defense. We saw that again Saturday, as Georgetown held Providence to 25 percent shooting at the Dunk, a win that pushed Georgetown to 10-4 in the Big East and should quell any lingering concerns its fans may have had about another late-season collapse. That's not happening.

SPONSORED HEADLINES