The Harvard men’s basketball team was 2.8 seconds away from its first NCAA tournament berth in 65 years. Up 62-61 in a playoff with Princeton, the Crimson needed only to defend the Tigers’ last possession. Princeton guard Douglas Davis took the inbounds pass, dribbled to his right, and paused. Harvard’s Oliver McNally ’12 jumped to block Davis’ shot, but was too early and flew past his opponent. Davis coolly leaned forward for a 12-footer. The ball fell through the net as time expired, and Princeton won, 63-62.
Crimson coach Tommy Amaker acknowledges that his team and its rejuvenated fan base were heartbroken by last March’s loss, as they were in 2010, when Harvard’s bid for an Ivy League title came down to the last games of the season. Yet Amaker is excited both by his team’s recent successes and by its prospects for the 2011-12 season, which begins Nov. 11 against Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“We look at last season as a whole, which is what we always would do,” said Amaker, now in his fifth year at Harvard. “The loss to Princeton was a gut-wrenching, painful moment. After we got through that, though, we were very fired up about the year we had. Now we’re on to a brand-new season. We hope that we can have another successful year.”
In fact, Amaker’s team has delivered many more triumphs than disappointments. In 2009-10, the Crimson men won 21 games, the most in the program’s history. In 2010-11, the team set the record again with 23 wins. While the loss to Princeton kept Harvard out of the NCAA playoffs, the Crimson did beat the Tigers in the last game of the regular season to earn a share of the Ivy championship — another first for the men’s program. Harvard also earned a trip to the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) last March, the first post-season play for the men’s basketball team since 1946.
“We didn’t get over the hump to make the NCAA tournament,” Amaker said, “but it’s amazing to think that, four years in [to his coaching tenure], we won a share of the Ivy League title. We went to the NIT. We’re very proud of our program.”
This year’s team has been named the Ivy League’s best in a preseason media poll, thanks to a remarkable balance of stability and new blood. The Crimson return all of last year’s starters — including co-captain Keith Wright ’12, the 2011 Ivy League Player of the Year, and All-Ivy juniors Kyle Casey, Brandyn Curry, and Christian Webster. Wright, a 6-foot-8-inch forward who led the team with an average of 14.8 points and 8.3 rebounds per game last season, was recently named a preseason candidate for the John Wooden Award, given each year to the best player in college basketball. Wright says that he appreciates the recognition, but his focus is on getting better and on helping his team win.
“Ivy League Player of the Year is definitely something that I looked at last year and thought, ‘It would be awesome if I could win this,’ ” he said. “This year, I want to be a better leader and a better captain. I want to work harder than I did last year. Defense in the post is definitely key: ball screens, stepping out, hedging. I think I can also be a better rebounder.”
The Crimson will welcome seven freshmen to the team, including big men Kenyatta Smith and Wesley Saunders, two of the top high school prospects in the country. Amaker says this year’s recruits will make an impact.
“This group is going to be tremendous throughout their time at Harvard,” he said. “I think they bring different dynamics to the table: size, athleticism, shooting ability. I really am high on the future of this recruiting class.”
The infusion of young talent has inspired Amaker to stress the concept of sacrifice in the team mindset. The coach said that, while the Crimson have some talented players, the team will only reach its potential if everyone adopts an unselfish approach on the floor.
“Sacrifice is going to be a key word for us this season,” Amaker said. “Will our players be willing to sacrifice a little bit of their individual performance — minutes, shots, points — for the sake of the team? I think that if we adopt an attitude of sacrifice, the chances of us having a strong season increase tremendously.”
Amaker believes the Crimson have to beat the best to be the best, so he has sought throughout his tenure to schedule games with some of the toughest teams in college basketball. This year will be no different. In late November, Harvard will travel to the Bahamas for the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament, which includes the University of Connecticut, the defending NCAA champion, as well as perennial top 25 team Florida State University. Moreover, if the Crimson don’t meet UConn in the Bahamas, they will see them in Storrs, Conn., when they play a game in the Huskies’ home arena.
“We have a very challenging schedule,” Amaker said. “We have road games at UConn, Boston College, Boston University, and Holy Cross. Then we have Fordham, George Washington, and St. Joseph’s at home. We’re playing a lot of teams that are incredibly challenging for us to compete against, but that’s what we want — to go into some difficult places and play some tough teams.”
As for league play, Amaker won’t say there are any games circled on his team’s calendar, but he does mention several schools that will be hard to beat.
“Penn is going to be a bear,” he said. “I think Yale is a team that many people are overlooking in the Ivy League and beyond. Princeton shared the title with us last year, and they will still be tough, even with a new coach. To win our league would be a monumental achievement for our program and our school.”
While the team’s self-confidence appears on the upswing, Amaker says there are some important ways in which success has not changed his players’ mindset or approach.
“It’s important that, no matter where we are, we remain true to our identity,” he said. “I think that’s been a staple of our program. Our kids are clear about who we are and who we want to be. They’re very clear about our goals: We want to get better today. We’ve benefitted from staying very focused on what’s right in front of us.”
Wright agrees, but still gives himself some room to dream. He wants his last season at Harvard to be special, and said he’s looking forward to every game. He has his sights set on the Ivy League championship, but added that his ultimate goal is not just to reach the NCAA tournament. He wants to advance … deep.
“I want to make the ‘Sweet 16,’ the ‘Elite Eight,’ the ‘Final Four,’ ” he said with a smile. “Advancing in the ‘big dance,’ that’s the final goal.”