Harvard will get down to business
Underdog Crimson say they aren't satisfied just being in the NCAA tournament
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- The focus for Harvard is simple: Win the tournament.
Then win the next tournament.
Confused? It's simple -- in order to make the challenge of playing in the NCAA tournament a little more manageable, Crimson coach Tommy Amaker has instructed his charges to narrow their focus.
"We'll break it down," Amaker said. "We need to bring things & in focus for us. By that I mean, we'll have a four-team tournament right now. And that's all that we want to focus on.
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"We know what those teams will be and who they are, and we'll make sure our kids are focused on that and that only."
No. 12 seed Harvard faces No. 5 seed Vanderbilt in Albuquerque on Thursday (4:40 p.m. ET), and if victorious in that game will face the winner of the game between No. 4 Wisconsin and No. 13 Montana.
"Certainly the first step in that four-team tournament is to get prepared for Vanderbilt," the fifth-year Crimson coach said. "That's how we'll approach it. And not get wrapped up in everything else."
There's a lot of everything else when teams get to the Big Dance. Masses of media requests. More fan attention. Travel. Open practices. Odd start times.
Oh, and top-flight opponents like the one Harvard has to deal with Thursday.
"They just beat Kentucky, the No. 1 overall seed," Keith Wright said of the Commodores. "So they're going to be a tough team obviously."
Vanderbilt was ranked No. 7 in the ESPN/USA Today coaches poll during the preseason, went 24-10, including 10-6 in the SEC, won the SEC tournament with that upset of overall No. 1 seed Kentucky and finished the season ranked No. 24.
If a loss to Cleveland State in November was a lowlight, the win over Kentucky (which had handled 24 straight opponents, including the Commodores twice in February) was a definite highlight.
John Jenkins led the SEC in scoring for a second straight season. He finished with 19.9 points per game, 18th most in the country, fueled by a 44.8 percent mark on 3s, eighth best in the country.
The 3-pointer is an important part of Vanderbilt's attack. The Commodores feature three regulars who shoot better than 40 percent from long range, and though they rely quite a bit on big man Festus Ezeli inside, they get a large percentage of their points from behind the arc.
"We know we're matched up with a very tough opponent," Amaker said in a conference call on Monday. "We recognize how talented and tough they're going to be. But we're excited to participate and to represent our conference."
Harvard finished fourth in the country in scoring defense, allowing an average of 54.8 points per game, and held opponents to 33.4 percent shooting from behind the arc.
"We'll prepare the same way," Amaker said Sunday night. "We're confident in our preparation and how we go about it, and we're confident how [the players] receive it. We know that we've played in a tournament before this year.
We know what those teams will be and who they are, and we'll make sure our kids are focused on that and that only.” -- Harvard coach Tommy Amaker
"We've been on neutral-site courts and we've played against some teams that will be comparable to the team that we have to play coming up this week."
Unlike every other conference in the country, the Ivy League doesn't have a postseason tournament. So Harvard didn't have the same built-in preparation that Vanderbilt had immediately preceding the NCAAs.
But the Crimson did play in a tournament this season, and they're hoping to draw something from that experience.
Held over Thanksgiving weekend in Paradise Island, Bahamas, the Battle 4 Atlantis gave Harvard a crash course in tourney play. There was the travel. There were distractions -- it was the Bahamas, after all. And there was good competition.
"We'll have a lot of things we can point to, but I think the main thing [is] we should take some confidence from the tournament we just played in this year down in the Bahamas," Amaker said. "We had to play three games in three days against high-level teams."
Harvard took care of business against Utah 75-47 in the opener, then outlasted Florida State 46-41 in a defensive slugfest to make the final, which the Crimson won 59-49 over Central Florida.
The win over Florida State, which had yet to find its footing in late November but would go on to beat both North Carolina and Duke to win the ACC tournament en route to a No. 3 seed in the NCAAs, would prove the best of the season for Harvard.
While a critic might question how applicable lessons learned in an early-season tourney are to the NCAA tournament, such questions wouldn't faze the Crimson. This is a team that knows who it is and how it got where it is.
Harvard also knows what it wants to do now that it finally has the opportunity it's waited so long for -- the 65-year gap between NCAA appearances had been the longest in Division I.
"It's all about winning," said Wright, a senior cocaptain who leads the Crimson in rebounds with 8.1 per game. "That's what I want to do this week."
"Obviously win," said Kyle Casey, a junior who leads the Crimson in scoring at 11.3 points per game. "Really just live in the moment and take every game, every possession, every timeout as they come and just play as hard as we can and try to make some noise."
"Just to leave it all on the court," said Brandyn Curry, a junior who leads the Crimson in assists with 5.0 per game. "We have nothing to lose. This is what we wanted. We've just got to go out there and play our game and have fun.
"We're blessed and grateful that we made it to the tournament, but that's not what our objective was. We want to advance in the tourney."
The three sentiments all echoed those of Oliver McNally, the Crimson's other cocaptain and starting 2-guard. A 6-foot-3, 180-pounder from San Francisco, McNally is the Crimson's career leader in games played.
The senior passed Jeremy Lin in the last weekend of the regular season and has appeared in 117 Harvard games.
When McNally committed to Harvard as a senior in high school, the Crimson were coming off an 8-22 season in Amaker's first at the helm. There was much work to do, but McNally wasn't daunted. He believed in the vision Amaker sold to him during his visit to Cambridge.
And with the berth in the Big Dance, another aspect of that vision has come true.
McNally's not ready for the dream to end.
"I want to win," he said. "My career is over when we lose, so I want it to last as long as it can.
"So we're going to go down there, and it's going to be awesome. We'll have our open practice and people will be loving it and all that. But what it boils down to is it's just going to be heartbreak if you don't win."
Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com.