By the spring of 2007, change was inevitable for the Harvard men’s basketball team. After posting five straight losing seasons — one of which was the worst in program history (4-23 in the 2003-04 season) — it was time for a fresh start.
Insert Tommy Amaker, a former Duke University basketball star who took his team to the NCAA title game in 1986 as a player, and, as an assistant coach, helped take five teams to the Final Four while winning two National Championships. After head coaching stints at Seton Hall University from 1997 to 2001 and the University of Michigan from 2001 to 2007, Amaker was announced in April of 2007 as just the fourth head basketball coach for the Crimson in 30 years. Amaker’s assignment: Turn around a basketball program that had never won an Ivy League championship, had not reached the NCAA tournament since 1946, and had just two winning seasons in the past decade.
Last season (Amaker’s first), it was evident the hoped-for transformation would not happen overnight. After starting the season a respectable 4-4, with a 30-point win over Northwestern State and a shocking win over Amaker’s former Michigan club, the Crimson imploded — losing seven straight —finishing the season 8-22 and last place in the league.
Despite the Crimson’s poor 2007-08 performance, Amaker was still able to bring in a strong recruiting class of seven, adding to an already young but talented nucleus.
Fast-forward to the Crimson’s Jan. 7, 2009, matchup against the Boston College (BC) Eagles, which may stand as a watershed moment for the program. Just days after BC shook the college basketball world with a seven-point road upset over No. 1-ranked North Carolina, the Crimson shocked the No. 17 Eagles, 82-70 at BC, marking the Crimson’s first-ever win over a ranked opponent. Hailed as the biggest victory in Harvard history and a turning point for the program, the game showed the young team standing tall in front of 3,174 fans on the road and against their toughest opponent of the season.
Despite its impressive 9-6, 1-0 Ivy League record this year, the team has had a few setbacks. After starting the season 4-2, the Crimson lost three straight, falling to Northeastern, George Washington, and Rice. But this year’s squad has proven that it is built to absorb adversity, as they followed those three losses by winning five of the next six, including the triumph over BC and taking the Jan. 10 Ivy opener last-minute against Dartmouth, 63-62.
“We’ve been very pleased with the direction, the effort, and the energy that our kids have displayed thus far,” said Amaker. “We’ve had some setbacks, as I think all teams are going to go through at various moments throughout the course of long seasons … but our kids have shown the ability now to bounce back, the ability to be focused, and also the ability to make big plays at critical times. As a coach and a teacher, you’re very pleased to be a witness and be a part of some of those moments.”
The Crimson have improved from last season in almost every way, including the win column, where — just halfway through the season — they have already surpassed last year’s win total of eight. And statistically, they are better in nearly every category including points scored, points given up, and field goal percentage.
Quite possibly the most visible improvement from last year, however, wears a No. 4 Crimson jersey. Junior guard Jeremy Lin, who is in the Ivy league top 10 for every major statistical category with 17.9 points, 5.5 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 3.1 steals, and 0.7 blocks per game, has been Harvard’s do-it-all Renaissance man doing more than his share to ensure the team’s success this season.
“[Jeremy’s] been as good as anyone thus far. His overall play, his focus, his consistency, and I’m very pleased and proud of the work he’s put in. He worked very hard this past summer and there’s always room for improvement — he’s the first to tell you that. He’s his biggest critic. He’s going to find ways to get better and do better and we’ll certainly show him things that he can improve, but he’s been as good as anyone thus far and I think he’s displayed that consistently.”
Lin dominated the statline against BC, recording 27 points, eight assists, six steals, and two blocks in the win, solidifying his second Ivy Player of the Week honor. In the nine weekly honors given out thus far, Lin is the only player to be recognized twice.
The Ivy League has also recognized three of the Crimson’s freshmen for their outstanding play: Keith Wright, Peter Boehm, and Oliver McNally. Harvard has taken the Ivy Rookie of the Week five times in the nine weeks of play (Wright, Nov. 24, Dec. 1; Boehm, Dec. 22, Dec. 29; and McNally, Jan. 12). So far this season the three have accounted for nearly 30 percent of the team’s scoring and have demonstrated why they were so heralded coming out of high school. And despite the challenge of adjusting to college basketball — in addition to campus life and academics — Amaker praised his youngsters for the job they have done transitioning from high school to college.
“I think the young guys are fitting in. They’ve earned the respect of the upperclassmen with their work ethic and their willingness to fit in and I think that was a huge moment for our program. … I think that’s one of the main reasons we’re having some success at this point: because we’re really playing unselfishly; we’re playing together as a team; and we’re having fun playing.”
Although the Crimson currently have the league’s second-best record (behind last year’s champion Cornell), there is of course no guarantee the Ivy League season, referred to as the “14-Game Tournament,” will be without a few bumps, bruises, and heartbreaks. But Amaker insists the Crimson are just looking to improve during league play and take things one step at a time. But for the first time in a while, the Crimson have the tools to make a respectable run at their first Ivy championship.
“We’re working hard, as are all of our teams in our conference. Everyone knows that it’s a long horse race and so many things are going to happen throughout the course of this next month and a half. … Right now we’re just hoping we can deserve things and get better each day.”
In his short time at Harvard, Amaker has the program moving in the right direction. “I’m pleased for them. I’m pleased for our program as we’re trying to build Harvard basketball to become something special for our University,” said Amaker. “A lot of people are proud of what these kids have been able to do thus far and it’s nice that they’re able to get some attention and recognition for it.”