|Harvard hoops is on the cusp of creating something special for the long-term. Tommy Amaker can feel it. (AP)|
By Matt Norlander
NEW HAVEN, Conn. — The line to get into Payne-Whitney Gymnasium began to form more than an hour before the tip. By the time the ushers were ready to remove the blue-plastic barriers and start checking stubs, it was easily more than 300 people long, crowding out most of the lobby in the famed, historic athletic complex at the center of Yale’s campus.
Harvard-Yale basketball. It had never been this big nor this anticipated nor this good. At least it was that way in the days leading up to the game. Unfortunately, said game didn’t live up to expectation, not even for Harvard players and coaches, who expected something closer and more cosmetically appealing. Two teams playing in one of the biggest January Ivy League games in conference history fell far short of entertaining the home crowd. As for the busload of Harvard students who made their way down from Massachusetts and sat near the top of the rafters of John J. Lee Ampitheater: they were consistently entertained because, last Friday night, the Crimson earned the largest win (30 points) in the history of their 183-game, century-old rivalry with the Bulldogs.
Harvard won 65-35. It was ugly. I’d prefer to never watch a game like that again. However, Friday night did offer up new information about the Crimson, who should most certainly win the Ivy and take with it the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. See, 18-2 Harvard dismantled 13-5 Yale with its two best players, Kyle Casey and Keith Wright, totaling 12 points, one offensive rebound and four turnovers. They were largely absent, yet Harvard had no problem completely shutting down Yale, who averages 72.4 points per game.
Bench and balance. It’s the two Bs Harvard head coach Tommy Amaker has been preaching to his team this year. Give him some balance, and then the bench will flourish. Both Bs came to be in New Haven. There’s no other way to explain the beatdown and complete shutdown of Yale, who scored 18 points on 5-of-25 shooting if your remove big man Greg Mangano’s play.
The win over Yale was the second consecutive game the Crimson held an opponent under 40 points. (Teams are scoring less than 45 points against them in Ivy play.) The next night, Harvard handled Brown on the road, 68-59. This group is healthy and deep and developing weapons — freshman weapons — that lead me to believe Amaker’s in the infant stages of building an Ivy dynasty. Something's growing and catching on in the Harvard program. We're seeing the existence of program, not team, with the Crimson. That's not something commonly found at Ivy schools, who've often had one- or two-year runs and then started piling the bricks again.
Those close to Amaker have said he's not necessarily looking to leave for another big job, either. He had that at Michigan. Now, he's able to control so much of what he wants in Cambridge, Mass. He's getting really good players there, and if short-term, spotlighted success can happen this year and next, who knows, Harvard and Amaker may be able to commit to each other for the long-term, altering the perception and dedication of Harvard basketball going forward.
Nine players saw significant minutes in the Yale game. Afterward, Amaker sat in the tiny press room, smaller than the average common room in a Yale college dorm, and sounded like a man unsurprised with how his team completely dismantled the boys in white and blue despite his best two players failing to play a game worthy of a starter’s role.
“This has been great. … We’ve had a couple of kids injured, (Christian) Webster and (Corbin) Miller, who came back the game before the Yale game,” Amaker said. “Christian’s been a starter. We have six starters in our program. That’s what we’ve been saying.”
When Webster suffered a hip injury earlier in January, sophomore Laurent Rivard stepped in. He’s kept his starting role since. He had a team-high 18 points Friday night. The bright spots for the future can also be found in subtle frosh forward Steve Mondou-Missi, who Amaker calls “a gem” and someone who embraces his dirty-work role; and freshman guard Wesley Saunders, who’s barely tapped his potential. The team is now seeing sold-out Ivy crowds at every game. They've become the target. Freshman are already acclimated and the team is easily the deepest in the league.
“I’m pleased we’re seeing these kind of environments in our conference,” Amaker said. “It’s pretty nice and neat to see great crowds and turnouts, and to see all you [the media] here, in terms of the coverage and exposure. I’m proud of that.”
Harvard's been very good all season long. It defeated Florida State playing Florida State's game. It's an exceedingly good defensive team that will click to a next-level type of squad if it learns how to score in bunches. Only Rivard and senior Oliver McNally are a legitimate deep threats right now. But in that classic dial-it-down Ivy style, Harvard's maintained its identity and is playing its way toward a respectable seed if it can get through the Ivy without a scratch. Bus league play in the Ivy can be tricky, playing back-to-back nights for six straight weekends.All things considered, this year's gone nearly as well as anyone in the program could have expected. The win over Yale was as obvious a flag-planting moment Amaker could have had. The Ivy is now Harvard's to have, and with only two seniors on this year's team, the Crimson have set themselves up to be something they've never been before: respected and dominant.