The 2013-2014 Harvard men’s basketball season posed a relatively new challenge for coach Tommy Amaker, but it was a challenge that any head coach would have welcomed without a second thought. Perhaps unlike any other season he’d had at the helm of the Crimson, Amaker had more talent than he knew what to do with. Anything but a fourth consecutive Ivy championship would be viewed as a waste of the talent he had accumulated in Cambridge.
But managing expectations is a skill in coaching just like any other, and Amaker did that expertly, calmly guiding his team to a program-best 13-1 conference record and another bid to the NCAA Tournament.
This season, Amaker saved his best coaching moment for last. In its first game of the NCAA Tournament, Harvard narrowly edged No. 5-seeded Cincinnati, 61-57, and then faced a showdown with preseason No. 2 Michigan State in Spokane, Wash.
Against the Spartans, Amaker was going up against one of his coaching nemeses from his previous stint coaching at the University of Michigan, Tom Izzo.
Amaker and Izzo, who first met while recruiting Chris Webber more than twenty years earlier, had coached against each other multiple times in the early 2000s.
Izzo came out on top almost every time since the rivals met for the first time in 2002.
In the opening half, Amaker and the Crimson looked as if they might be swept away by the athletic, aggressive Spartans, taking a double-digit deficit into the locker room as Michigan State forward Branden Dawson put up 20 points on an array of fastbreak dunks and layups.
But after the break, it appeared Amaker had outfoxed Izzo.
Trotting out a small lineup against the bigger Spartans allowed the Harvard guards to finally find both some space in the lane and their open shooters, whose three-pointers fell much more readily than they had in the first period. Harvard made four threes in the second half after just two in the first.
The Crimson stormed back into the game, even briefly taking a two-point lead on co-captain Laurent Rivard’s three with seven minutes to go, and winning over the Spokane crowd in the process.
But in the end, the boost Amaker had given his team could not overcome the Spartans’ edge in talent, and the Crimson fell, 80-73, under a barrage of threes from the Spartan wings.
“I thought that group in particular really gave us the effort that we needed,” said Amaker after the game about the smaller lineup. “We spaced the floor a lot better being smaller…. [W]e wanted to stay with that group. That group was the group that obviously got us back into it and made the run, and we were hoping that that group [was] going to be able to bring it home for us.”
With all this season’s accomplishments, Amaker appears to have completed the five-step process he outlined upon taking the Harvard job: upstart, contender, winner, champion, and, finally, dynasty.
The Crimson is the first Ivy team to win four straight titles in two decades as well as the first to win 20 games in five consecutive seasons since the 1970s. The team had never won an Ancient Eight championship before Amaker arrived; now it has taken home the last four.
And with Harvard returning a bevy of talent next season, there is no indication that he (or the team) will be slowing down anytime soon.
“Tommy is a great leader, a great coach and a great educator,” wrote Athletic Director Robert L. Scalise in a statement after Amaker announced that he would return to Harvard next season. “He is an inspiration to many in the Harvard community.”
—Staff writer Andrew R. Mooney can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @mooneyar.