.45 CALEBER: Thrill of Victory Escapes Harvard

I should have gone to SUNY Albany.

Why? It would have been a lot more fun than Harvard.

Albany is perennially ranked among the top party schools in the nation. You don’t have to look any farther than the notorious insanity of “Fountain Day,” held every year at the start of Spring, for evidence that the college students populating New York’s capital know how to unwind in a way entirely foreign to Harvardians.

But while that advantage is sizeable, it’s not the main reason I’d like to be cruising the downtown bar scene on Lark Street or Madison Avenue this week.

That would be instead the school’s basketball team, which clinched its first ever berth in the NCAA tournament on Saturday afternoon, beating Vermont 80-67 in the America East Conference title game.

My family moved to Albany a few years ago, and watching the Albany game last weekend in my dorm room, I discovered a measure of pride in my adopted hometown for the first time. The Recreation and Convocation Center was rocking, filled with a capacity crowd of 4,500 that watched the Great Danes jump all over an overmatched Catamounts squad early and never ease up all game. Albany fans, waving “growl towels,” showed up early to establish the atmosphere and then stormed the court in a wave of purple and yellow after the victory became official.

“We just want to enjoy this today,” coach Will Brown said after the win.

“It’s a good time for us to lay back and be in awe of everything,” America East player of the Year Jamar Wilson added in front of ESPN’s camera, with chants of “M-V-P! M-V-P!” coming from the students behind him.

Indeed. I certainly wish I could’ve been one of those students, rushing the court following the biggest victory in my school’s history, participating in the excitement of getting that first invite to the best event in college sports.Not to mention possibly helping burn a car or two in celebration.

It’s something that hasn’t come to Harvard in 60 years—that excitement—as the Crimson’s first and last entry in the tourney came in 1946.To watch the celebration on the court at Albany only reinforced in my mind how sweet just one trip would be.

But perhaps it’s not such a big deal. Maybe Albany is just another mid-major school experiencing its brief flicker of recognition before getting blasted into oblivion by the big guns in the NCAA tourney. Albany received no respect from the tournament selection committee, drawing a No. 16 seed in the Washington, D.C., regional and a date with No. 1 seed UConn on Friday.The Huskies are the 5-2 favorite to go all the way, so it’s virtually assured the Great Danes will have faded from most basketball fans’ consciousness by halftime of Friday’s first-round match-up.

But this seeding means a little more than such seeds usually do, both for Albany and, coincidentally enough, for Harvard.

Saying this is the first time Albany has ever gone to the NCAA tournament masks the fact that the program only moved up to Division I status in 2000. The Great Danes won the regular season division crown by going 13-3 in the America East and 21-10 overall.Then, after entering this season 0-4 in America East tournament play, they took care of postseason business as well to lock up the automatic bid.

If any members of the Harvard men’s basketball team were watching the game on Saturday afternoon and had seen the joy of Albany, they probably couldn’t have helped but feel a twinge of regret.

Harvard beat both teams that played in the America East final in non-conference play when it went 8-5. Particularly noteworthy was the win over Albany, perhaps the best game the Crimson played all year.

At the RACC on December 17th, the Crimson held Wilson to just 11 points and the Great Danes to just 36 percent shooting to key a defensively dominant 61-48 victory.

So it must surely have been painful to watch Wilson pile up 29 against the Catamounts, a reminder of what might have been for this year’s Harvard squad. The Crimson’s three key victories over quality non-league foes—Harvard beat Vermont in its opening game, and also knocked off Patriot League finalist Holy Cross—show that the team did indeed have the promise to contend for the first league title in school history.

But perhaps psychology was the chief culprit in the Crimson’s eight-game league losing streak that dragged the team to the bottom of the standings. Sixty years without a title can have a seriously deleterious effect on a team’s psyche, can form a rut of perpetuating mediocrity that becomes near impossible to escape from. Albany was lucky, then, to get that first NCAA bid so soon in its history of Division I play.

With that first bid comes so much more—increased ticket sales and increased recognition by the student body and national media, not to mention better leverage and recruiting, all of which often create the momentum that propels a program towards long-term success.

And in addition to bettered future prospects, of course, is the simple fact that that first time is also the sweetest.

Just ask those growl towel-waving Albany fans for confirmation.

—Staff writer Caleb W. Peiffer can be reached at cpeiffer@fas.harvard.edu. His column appears every third Tuesday.

Tags