The rise of Harvard basketball
How a once fledgling program turned into a national brand and the Ivy's leading squad
February 20, 2014, 6:35 pm · Updated February 21, 2014, 4:00 pm·
Rory Heilakka | DP
Seven years ago, Harvard basketball was little more than an idea.
A big-name school with little, if any, basketball success. An Ivy League school without an Ivy title. And a team with a coaching vacancy and no NCAA Tournament appearances in over 60 years.
But Harvard began its transition to becoming a national program on April 13, 2007, as former Seton Hall and Michigan coach Tommy Amaker was named the new coach of Harvard basketball.
Amaker, a former player and assistant under legendary Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, came to Cambridge after failing to make the NCAA tournament at Michigan. But he also came to Harvard with a plan: to turn a fledgling program into a brand name.
“Harvard is a magical name that presents the feelings and the thoughts that your dreams are possible,” Amaker said in an article in SLAM Magazine.
And seven years later, the results are undeniable: five straight 20-win seasons, three straight Ivy League titles and the first NCAA tournament victory in program history.
When Amaker arrived on campus, one piece of the puzzle was already there: Jeremy Lin, a sophomore point guard with immense potential.
Over the course of three years under Amaker, Lin developed into one of the best players in the Ancient Eight, becoming a unanimous All-Ivy guard by his senior season before going to the NBA, where he has made waves for the New York Knicks and Houston Rockets.
“Jeremy gave us a presentation [in recruiting] that certainly had more clarity because he proved you can still play in the NBA and go to Harvard,” said Yanni Hufnagel, an assistant coach under Amaker from 2010-13 before becoming an assistant at Vanderbilt.
But it wasn’t just Lin that brought energy to the program.Amaker, as well as his assistants, presented recruits with the idea that they could get a top-flight education and be a part of something special with the basketball program at the same time.
“We talked about the idea of having it all,” Hufnagel said. “So the chance to go to arguably the best school in the world but then to do something that had never been done before.”
That idea was enticing to a number of recruits, including senior captain Laurant Rivard.
“[Amaker] just used the words ‘making history’ and especially making history at a place like Harvard, where not much has been done,” Rivard said. “It was a really big part of my decision, to break records and to make history not just at any school, but at Harvard.”
When Harvard added Hufnagel to the staff in 2010 as the team’s recruiting coordinator, the Crimson began to get solid prospects from all around the country.
With players like current seniors Brandyn Curry and Rivard, junior Wes Saunders and sophomore Siyani Chambers, Harvard began to stockpile talent all over the court, loading up the team for its current run of success.
And the victories have come in abundance. The Crimson won a share of their first Ivy title in 2011 before losing to Princeton in a playoff. After that loss, the program continued to take strides, making the NCAA tournament a year later.
“That’s the vision that coach Amaker sold to us when he was recruiting us and that’s what we wanted to do,” Rivard said about Harvard’s success. “We wanted to come in and win the first Ivy championship Harvard ever had.
“After we did it, we were definitely disappointed to not go to the NCAA tournament, so we just kept working and coach Amaker kept putting more pieces together.
A NEW CHALLENGE
After beating out Penn by one game for the Ancient Eight crown in 2012, the Crimson appeared ready to repeat as champions in 2013.
But before the season began, the team lost two of its stars - Curry and fellow senior Kyle Casey - who withdrew from school after being implicated in an alleged cheating scandal involving a take-home exam.
Without Curry and Casey, the squad was left to a group of underclassmen, leading critics to believe that the Crimson wouldn’t be able to repeat. But Harvard was unfazed.
“I think coach Amaker is the best manager of personnel that you can find anywhere,” Hufnagel said. “And I think he has such an incredible pulse on his team.”
Behind coach Amaker and a young core led by Chambers and Saunders, the Crimson navigated their way through a tough nonconference schedule and captured the Ivy title.
“I thought our team really sacrificed last year,” Hufnagel said. “I thought we were really well connected and we showed tremendous resolve to come back the last weekend and win a pair of games at home.”
After Harvard won the Ivy title, the squad also won its first NCAA tournament game, beating No. 3 seeded New Mexico.
“It’s been a great experience,” Rivard said. “To play in the tournament is something that everyone dreams of when they are little.”
GOING FOR FOUR
With Casey and Curry returning along with the same young core, the Crimson are back at it again this season. The team has already eclipsed 20 wins and is tied for first in the Ivies.
But the road hasn’t been easy.
Yale upset Harvard in Cambridge three weeks ago, and the Crimson received another big scare at Columbia last weekend.
Tied in overtime, the Lions had a chance for the final shot, handing the ball to forward Alex Rosenberg. Rosenberg drove to the basket, making a shot that would have beaten the Crimson.
But he was called for an offensive foul as Rivard absorbed contact while guarding the 6-foot-7 junior.
“I knew all game long that he tries to get as close to the basket as he can, get fouled and get to the free throw line,” Rivard said.
“I got knocked down on my back. I saw the ball go in, and I didn’t actually know what the ref had called but I saw my teammates running after me ... so I knew it was a charge.”
As the squad has done all year, or each of the last three seasons for that matter, Harvard took a team’s best shot and kept standing tall, beating Columbia in double overtime to stay tied for the Ivy lead.
Moving forward, the Crimson have a strong chance to win another Ancient Eight title this year, and a solid group of underclassmen remaining for next season.
But it remains to be seen whether Harvard can maintain this amount of Ancient Eight dominance.
“I think one recruiting class can sustain you through a period of four years,” Hufnagel said. “But to follow it up and follow it up given intense academic standards, given the lack of scholarships, I think it’s a great challenge.
“We’ll see where Harvard goes from here, but as long as Tommy Amaker is at the helm, I expect Harvard to have this continued level of success.”