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Harvard: The Newest Powerhouse in College Basketball

Coach Amaker with 2013 Ivy League rookie of the year Siyani Chambers

When thinking of Harvard University, athletics is not typically what comes to mind. Prior to 2009, the Crimson were never nationally ranked, never beat a nationally ranked opponent, never won an NCAA tournament game, never won a conference title, haven’t produced an NBA player since the early 1950’s, and showed no signs of becoming a dominant organization. After new coach Tommy Amaker took over the team in 2007, all of this began to change.

 

Amaker began his coaching career as an assistant alongside coach Krzyzewski at Duke. He accepted his first head coaching job in 1997 at Seton Hall, becoming the youngest Big East head coach in History. In 2001 he moved to the Big Ten conference to coach Michigan. As a head coach at these teams he made it to the NCAA tournament one time with Seton Hall in 1999-00 and lost after reaching the Sweet 16. In 2007 he left to the Ivy League to coach a struggling Harvard team.

 

Before his arrival, the team was riding a streak of losing seasons for five straight years. Amaker’s first season was similar to the team’s previous, resulting in more losses than wins. After ending 14-14 the following year, the Crimson have never looked back, continuing to break and re-break school records. Since 2009-10, Harvard has put up at least 20 wins in each season, setting new school records in season, conference, and home wins. On January 7, 2009 Harvard defeated then ranked #17 Boston College, marking their first ever victory over a ranked opponent. In 2010-11 the began to get recognition nationally and received a few votes here and there in the AP and Coaches polls. Later that year they accomplished two more firsts: a shared title of the Ivy League season championship and a trip to the NIT tournament, but lost in the first round to Oklahoma State. 

 

The following season the winning kept on coming for Amaker’s team, winning a school record of 26 games. On December 5th, 2011, Harvard made its first ever appearance in the AP and Coaches top 25 polls. They reached rankings as high as 22 in the AP poll and 21 in the coaches poll, and went on to win a conference title and it’s first NCAA tournament berth since 1946. After a first round loss to Vanderbilt, the Crimson earned another conference title the following season and second consecutive berth into the tournament. On March 21, 2013 #14 seeded Harvard defeated #3 seeded New Mexico, marking it’s first ever victory in the NCAA tournament. The win also marked the team’s first ever win over a top ten ranked team, as New Mexico entered the tournament ranked #10 by the AP and coaches poll.

 

So why the sudden surge of dominance from the once dismal basketball program? A change was made at Harvard before the hiring of new coach Tommy Amaker that has allowed sports programs to progress. Harvard does not allow athletic scholarships to be offered, however in 2006 the school made a change to it’s financial aid policy. The new rule states that any student (not just athletes) whose family income is under $180,000 will have to pay no more than 10% of family income, and those families who earn under $60,000 are awarded full academic scholarships. The new standards allow low to middle class families to be able to afford the prestigious institution, giving Harvard athletics a better shot at recruitment similar to other non-Ivy League schools.

 

Aside from the new financial aid rules, the major success piece to the puzzle has been the hiring

of coach Tommy Amaker. Since Amaker’s arrival, the Crimson have a record of 121-66 (100-30 since 2009) and a long list of new school records. Awards and accomplishments have become abundant for Amaker himself, as he has become very well recognized. In 2010 he was a finalist for the Ben Jobe award and was named Ivy League coach of the year by Fox Sports. In 2011 he was a finalist for the Ben Jobe and Hugh Durham award and was named the NABC coach of the year for District 13. He was also named Ivy League coach of the year by Collegeinsider.com. The following season he once again won the NABC coach of the year for district 13, as well as being a finalist in the ben Jobe and Hugh Durham awards. He also was selected by the U.S. Basketball Writer’s Association as the 2011-12 Men’s District I coach of the year. This past season he was recognized as the National Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association (NSSA) Clarence "Big House" Gaines College Basketball Coach of the Year in Division I as the top minority coach, as well as a third consecutive NABC district 13 coach of the year award and Ben Jobe award finalist.

 

Amaker has been a blessing at Harvard, but there was one incident of negativity. In March 2008, the New York Times published an article accusing Harvard of improper recruiting practices and violations of academic standards. The allegations were a setback and shined negative light onto Amaker and his staff, but eventually were dropped and no negative penalties were assigned to anyone.

 

Amaker has taken a bold approach at his recruiting strategies, and unlike other Ivy League schools he has continued to target top 100 talents over the past few years. So far he has been unsuccessful in securing a top 100 recruit, but nonetheless has been getting talented players. His 2008-09 recruiting class marked the first time an Ivy League school was ranked in the top 25 by ESPN. The majority of the committees over the past few seasons have been three-star talents, however this past August Amaker was able to get four-star Canadian power forward Chris Egi to commit to Harvard. The commitment of recognized recruits is becoming more common and players are choosing Harvard over more well known basketball schools.

 

This season the Crimson are 10-1 and sit atop the Ivy League conference. They have received votes in the AP and Coaches poll every week this season and look like they could be on their way to a third consecutive NCAA tournament berth. Their lone loss this season was a 70-62 defeat by Colorado back in November. If they continue to win and can beat #8 ranked Connecticut on January 8th, they will find themselves back in the top 25. Rightfully so, Harvard’s basketball program and the Ivy League are becoming more and more nationally recognized and seen as serious contenders.