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Vanderbilt facing Harvard shows all that's good with college sports


ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- It should be no surprise that part of Harvard's warm-up Wednesday came out of a dictionary.

Before the Crimson took the floor Wednesday for their first practice prior to their first NCAA tournament game in 66 years, precocious freshman Wesley Saunders played Hangman on the locker room dry erase board.

You know, the guess-the-word child's game? Think of game-show staple Wheel of Fortune. As players around him stretched, Saunders made it more warm-up act than warm-up. The goal was to stump his fellow academically-inclined teammates with a word that would melt Vanna White's brain stem.

"Pulchritudinous," Saunders said proudly when even this accomplished group of Harvard men couldn't get it. "I thought it would be a hard one to guess."

Turns out there is still hope, Vanna. Saunders needed to buy a vowel. He forgot a letter or two and had spelled the word wrong. As teammates taunted, Saunders even had to check his cell phone online for the proper definition.

"Characterized by or having great physical beauty," he recited, "such as myself."

It may have taken the better part of seven decades for Harvard to get back in the tournament, but it only took a few seconds for media in an open locker room to witness the shattering of some stereotypes. Not only can the nation's future CEOs preen, they can play.

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"Yes sir, without a doubt," junior guard Brandyn Curry said. "If people haven't realized that, they will."

"We can definitely play," said Kyle Casey, the closest talent the Crimson have to a star. Except that's not altogether the issue. The NCAA selection committee did an interesting thing this week -- unwittingly, probably. When it paired Harvard against Vanderbilt in an opening-round game here in the Albuquerque pod, it actually showcased the NCAA mission.

This game shows you can win at a high level and not disgrace the institution. Vanderbilt is at one of the high points of history, beating Kentucky for its first SEC tournament title in 61 years. Harvard is back in the tournament for the first time since 1946.

This game puts the "student" in student-athlete. This game proves a school president can look himself or herself in the mirror and not have to suppress the gag reflex. This single game is so academically exclusive, the average APR of the remaining tournament teams is probably somewhere around 237.

Kidding, but not by much.

"I think it's the nature of the business," Curry said considering the rash of scandals. "Everybody's just trying to get a leg up on each other. It's a very unfortunate thing that has happened to the NCAA with all the violations. That's why a lot of people love college basketball. We're not professional athletes being babied, getting paid. We're not getting paid to play regardless of what people want to think."

That's part of the problem. This game is too academically exclusive in a field of 68 teams. Vanderbilt has been known as the Harvard of the South. But when Harvard coach Tommy Amaker is recruiting, can he be blamed for trying to sell the Vanderbilt of the North?

Recruiting is a fine art, not a five-figure enticement. The closest these coaches come to a bagman is the grocery store.

"I couldn't tell you five names of the guys in the top 100 ... I don't care about those lists," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said, "because first of all about a third of those guys never do squat in college anyway.

"I don't need somebody to tell me where this [recruit] is ranked. He's ranked 1,344th in the class of 2013? Okay, well kiss my behind. You don't know that."

The only separation may be the degree to which each school stays on that academic mission. Vanderbilt dropped its athletic department years ago.

"They want us to be Harvard Monday through Friday and beat Alabama on Saturday," Stallings said.

Until coach Tommy Amaker arrived five years ago, Harvard had been mostly an Ivy League punching bag. They rehabbed each other's reps. Amaker, sacked at Michigan, had to drop down a notch to find his coaching sweet spot.

"When they first called early in my junior year I had no idea of going to Harvard," said Curry, who is from Huntersville, N.C. "I was young. I didn't know much about the Ivy League. I didn't know how powerful a Harvard degree was. Just to sum it up, Harvard is a 40-year decision, not a four-year decision. You go to this university and you're set up for life."

Curry is a sociology major. He gets up early each morning, heads for workouts, goes to class, practices, watches film and is back for homework at 8 or 9. In bed by midnight. That is not unique at Harvard -- or Yale or Stanford or Vanderbilt. The difference here is that Harvard athletes don't get academic support on the road. There are no tutors. If they have a big paper due, they are expected to complete it in the celebratory haze of March Madness.

Last week Harvard's Rebecca Nadler won an NCAA skiing national championship. The neurobiology major had mid-term exams proctored to her in Bozeman, Mont.

In a basketball sense, these teams are both pulchritudinous. Harvard has beaten Florida State. It plays a suffocating defensive style. The Ivy League is cutthroat. Conference games are generally played on Friday and Saturday nights to lessen the impact on academics. Try going to class all day, getting ready for a game, then hopping in a bus for a six-hour trip to Cornell.

In this meeting, though, the Commodores are the big dog. They have more tradition. They started the season ranked in the top 10. Harvard entered the Top 25 for the first time in the program's 101-year history. They beat Kentucky to win the SEC tournament, marking one of the high points in program history.

They have NBA prospects. Harvard holds out hope of producing another Jeremy Lin. But together on the floor of the Pit on Thursday, they are some sort of higher-calling brotherhood. Stallings pointed out that the last Vanderbilt senior who didn't get his degree played in the late 1970s.

"The fact that we're playing Vandy shows it can be done the right way," Saunders said.

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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