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The Rise of Harvard Basketball

Meredith H. Keffer

From left, sophomore Laurent Rivard, seniors Keith Wright and Oliver McNally, and junior forward Kyle Casey have helped bring about a men's basketball renaissance at Harvard.

On the night of March 5, 2011, 400 Harvard undergraduates gathered in a cramped, aging building on the far side of the Charles River. They cheered and chanted, and they believed their team would win. And indeed it did, as the Crimson defeated Princeton to win a share of its first-ever Ivy League championship.

One year later, the Harvard men’s basketball team managed to pull it off again.

Penn’s 62-52 loss to Princeton Tuesday evening let the Crimson clinch the school’s first-ever outright Ivy title and send it to its first NCAA tournament since 1946.

The story of how it reached that milestone—one that overcame 112 years of on-court mediocrity—involves far more than just a 19-man roster that went 26-4 during its regular season.

It encompasses a coach in search of redemption, an athletic director determined to oversee the rebirth of one of the most maligned programs in college basketball, and an impassioned group of Harvard graduates with the resources to do something about it.

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THE DARK AGES

Exactly five years before the ebullience of clinching its second consecutive Ivy title—which it did on Saturday at Cornell—the Harvard men’s basketball team was down and defeated on the final night of the 2006-07 regular season.

That evening, the Crimson fell at Columbia, dropping its ninth conference game and bringing another disappointing season to an end. The 2006-07 campaign was like many others that the program had experienced—the Crimson’s 12-16 overall record marked the team’s fifth straight losing season.

Harvard hadn’t been faring much better in conference play, either; the 2006-07 season marked the fifteenth time in then-head coach Frank Sullivan’s 16-year reign that the Crimson failed to finish with a winning record, extending Harvard’s Ivy League title drought. Despite its success in other sports, the Crimson was the only team in the Ancient Eight never to have won a basketball championship.

“We underperformed, for sure,” says Drew A. Housman ’09, the Crimson’s starting point guard during the 2006-07 season. “[After the season] we all felt like...something needed to be shaken up.”

Two days after the Crimson’s season-ending loss to the Lions in 2007, the Harvard athletic department announced it was making a change: Sullivan, at the time the longest-tenured coach in Harvard basketball history, was being let go. That decision set in motion a series of events that would lead to the emergence of the Harvard men’s basketball program on the national stage.

JUST NOT ENOUGH

Eight hundred miles west, the University of Michigan men’s basketball program was experiencing similar feelings of disappointment.

Heading into the 2006-07 season, expectations were high for the Wolverines. Michigan’s coach, 41-year-old Tommy Amaker, was entering his sixth season at the helm and had assembled a talented roster led by seniors Courtney Sims and Dion Harris that appeared primed to take the Wolverines back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1998.

But after jumping out to a 14-3 start, the Wolverines faltered midway through conference play and were forced to settle for a spot in the National Invitational Tournament, where they were bounced by Florida State in the second round.

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