KING JAMES BIBLE: Same Failures Crop Up Again

This is unacceptable.

Maybe that was the topic of postgame discussion during the team meeting after the Harvard men’s basketball squad dropped its fifth-straight Ivy League game Saturday night.

If it was, then Saturday night might have been a little late.

The discussion could have started two Saturdays ago, after the Crimson blew a seven-point lead with five minutes to go at Cornell. Or it could have started the following Friday, when Harvard handed Princeton a win despite holding a six-point advantage with less than one minute to play. Failing that, it definitely should have come this past Friday night, after Brown, a team which the Crimson beat by 17 on the road three weeks prior, soundly thumped Harvard on its own floor by 13.

But Saturday night was a little too late.

A little too late to express the frustration that comes from being the favored squad in three out of four home games over the past two weekends, but watching early sluggishness leave the team trailing at halftime in each contest only to be outscored by only one opponent in the second half.

A little too late to ponder the chain of events that left the team most likely to be within a game of the league-leading Quakers languishing just a game out of last.

A little too late to wake up and salvage the remains of what had been one of the most promising seasons in school history.

As much as Harvard coach Frank Sullivan and his players wanted to distance themselves from it, the current collapse draws an eerie parallel to the one that happened three seasons ago. The Crimson started out 10-5 and 2-0 in the Ivy League in both years, but after losing a few close games early, the team went in the tank. The 2002-2003 squad won two of its final 12 games. This year’s team has won two of its last eight and has just four more chances to make a move from shockingly similar to just somewhat comparable to the season three years ago.

That makes twice in four years that Sullivan has had his players quit on him. At most schools, that’s not a good sign for a basketball coach. At Harvard, it’s never really clear if any of that matters.

And that introduces us to the third party that needs to shoulder some of the blame in this case—the administration and, more broadly, the program itself.

Fielding a successful collegiate basketball team starts before any players ever step on the court. The quality of the facilities, the amount of support given by the admissions office, and the development of a student and local fan base all signal a program’s emphasis on winning.

If you’ve ever watched the green Astroturf, hidden beneath Lavietes Pavilion, roll across the gym floor for baseball practice (though that activity has relocated to the recently renovated Palmer-Dixon tennis courts) or if you’ve ever visited each of the other seven Ivies, you know that Harvard’s facilities rank in the bottom half of the league. Compared to Penn’s Palestra, Princeton’s Jadwin, and Yale’s John J. Lee, Lavietes best strikes one as a high school gym, not only by its size, but also with the relative lack of buzz or excitement felt inside it. That serves as a perfect explanation for why the former three schools have hosted several major conference opponents over the past five years, while the Crimson hasn’t been paid a visit by such a quality foe since 1991 (Boston College).

The admissions office gives basketball the most help it can (and questions of rifts after the huge nine-person entry class of 2002-2003 seem to have been answered with the six-person entry class this year). But faced with a higher Academic Index requirement than the rest of the Ivies, in addition to Harvard’s traditionally strong commitment to its hockey program, there is a limit to the flexibility that admissions has with regard to basketball recruits.

Finally, the administration has done little to influence students to attend games. Whether it be forcing the band to choose between hockey and basketball, leaving it idle on nights when there is a basketball game but no hockey game, or whether it be the failure to promote its biggest events or even directly communicate to students that tickets would be necessary to gain entrance into Lavietes for Penn-Princeton weekend, the Harvard basketball program makes little attempt to sell itself to the students and cultivate a fan base.

The point is that when a program as a whole is mired in mediocrity, it’s hard to demand more than that from each of its component parts. Sure, Sullivan seems destined for no better than a 7-7 Ivy finish, which would be the squad’s sixth in eight years and the ninth straight season that the Crimson failed to finish above .500 in the Ivy League. But in six seasons under coach Peter Roby, Sullivan’s predecessor, Harvard never cracked .500 in league play and only hit 7-7 twice.

This season, for the first time since 2002-2003, Sullivan had first-place talent. Yet, poor coaching decisions and poor execution on the part of the players have left the Crimson dangerously close to the Ivy cellar.

If the goal of the program was to challenge for the Ivy title every three years, then Sullivan has ultimately failed, making a run at it just once (1997) and falling flat thrice (2001, 2003, and 2006). But if the goal is merely to be one of the best non-Ps, year in and year out, he has succeeded on a relatively consistent basis.

Until the administration makes a concerted effort to value the former over the latter, terminating Sullivan’s tenure at Harvard is unlikely to move the Crimson any closer to the goal of an Ivy League title.

—Staff writer Michael R. James can be reached at mrjames@fas.harvard.edu.

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