With its third straight NCAA Tournament appearance and second consecutive trip to the third round, the 2013-2014 Harvard men’s basketball team (27-5, 13-1 Ivy) proved that Cinderella can wear the slipper twice.
The team bore the weight of expectations all season—if last year’s team was characterized by coach Tommy Amaker’s statement “We may not have had what we had, but we have enough,” this year’s team was known for an embarrassment of riches. Six different players were named to All-Ivy teams, while three-star recruits and potential All-Ivy talent populated the bench.
“They won because they had depth and could afford injuries,” said Yale coach James Jones after Harvard clinched the Ivy League title on his team’s home floor. “If [sophomore point guard] Siyani [Chambers] is injured, you have [co-captain] Brandyn [Curry] on the bench. How many teams have a first or second team All-Ivy guy on the bench?”
Last year’s team was good enough to get the school’s first-ever NCAA Tournament win, but also enough to raise the hype to unforeseen levels for Ivy League teams. Enough to garner preseason AP Top 25 votes and cause the team to be unanimously predicted to repeat as Ancient Eight champion. Enough, even, to be tapped by one ESPN analyst to make the Final Four.
The expectations were not without reason. After a year off, Harvard welcomed back senior forward Kyle Casey and Curry—both All-Ivy talents. The freshman class included top-100 recruit Zena Edosomwan, the first player of such status to choose Harvard. The team had lost only one senior—Christian Webster ’13—from the previous year’s squad, and he returned to the bench as an assistant coach.
The challenge with an abundance of riches was to find balance and define roles.
“We know how important it’s going to be for everyone to sacrifice something of themselves for the greater good,” Amaker said before the season.
The team was defined by its ability to share responsibilities early. In its first five games, four different players led the Crimson in scoring. Harvard rattled off four victories to start the season before its first setback, a 70-62 loss at Colorado in which the Crimson led by 12 at the break.
After the loss to the Buffs, Harvard would not lose again for nearly six weeks. Along the way, the Crimson swept Denver, Green Bay, and TCU to take home the Carrs/Safeway Great Alaska Shootout title.
The team hit a bump in the road after the winning streak, dropping two of three for the only time all season with road losses to eventual national champion Connecticut and Florida Atlantic. After the FAU loss—the worst program defeat in the last three years—the team rallied for Ivy League play, running off five straight wins to begin the year.
Then came Yale. The Bulldogs came into Cambridge on Feb. 8 and broke the Crimson’s 20-game winning streak at Lavietes Pavilion with a 74-67 victory that evened their record with that of Harvard atop the Ivy League.
“I know this group, and we will respond,” Curry said afterwards.
Indeed, the team emerged from the Yale loss with a renewed sense of urgency. It won in double-overtime at Columbia, overcoming 34 points from Lions junior Alex Rosenberg. A week later, it went to Princeton and did something it had not done in 25 years—win at Jadwin Gymnasium. Despite falling down by nine points early, the Harvard defense put the clamps on the Tiger offense, which shot just 34 percent, in a 12-point Crimson victory.
With the finish line in sight—all the Crimson needed to do to clinch its fourth straight Ivy League title was win out—Harvard played its best basketball of the season. On the season’s penultimate weekend, it crushed Cornell and Columbia by a combined 58 points at home. It clinched the title with a 12-point revenge victory over the Bulldogs in which it led buzzer-to-buzzer.
Head to Head: How Harvard and Cincinnati Match UpBoth teams’ hopes rest on their respective stars being able to shut down the other while continuing to contribute on the offensive end. Harvard and Cincinnati are just 11-8 when their stars make less than 35 percent of their shots, and a combined 42-2 otherwise.
Confident Crimson Ready For the SpotlightNow, as it enters its opening game in the NCAA tournament Thursday afternoon against Cincinnati (27-6, 15-3 American Athletic Conference), Harvard has a chance to re-assume the exciting identity of the underdog—and relief has given way to a different feeling.