If you’re a sports fan and you haven’t been living under a rock without Wi-Fi, you know by now that the Cornell men’s basketball team has become this year’s March Madness media darling during its remarkable run through the NCAA Tournament. After upsetting Temple and Wisconsin, the Big Red finds itself in the Sweet 16 tonight taking on its toughest challenge yet: No. 1 seed Kentucky.
As the country watches, so will a number of Harvard athletes. Cornell’s success evokes mixed emotions here on campus, especially for the Crimson men’s basketball players. Not long ago, it was Harvard that was grabbing the headlines, thanks in large part to star senior Jeremy Lin’s uncanny all-around play and a group of talented, energetic young players.
The Crimson made a name for itself by standing tall against tough opponents, upsetting Boston College for the second year in a row and taking a then-No. 13 UConn team down to the wire. But while Harvard set a school record with 21 wins, it faltered in league play and was unable to secure its first-ever Ancient Eight championship. Now the Big Red has brought the often overlooked Ivy League to the forefront of the sports-watching nation’s consciousness, and Crimson athletes are forced to reconcile Ivy pride with the bitterness of seeing a rival thrive.
“I’m kind of neutral,” Lin said. “The more [Cornell wins], the better the Ivy League looks. But at the same time... being a competitor, playing against them, it’s tough to root for them.”
For some of Harvard’s younger players, many of whom were highly-touted recruits brought in by coach Tommy Amaker to revitalize a long-stagnant program, the Big Red provides a possible glimpse into their own future.
“If they can do it, there’s no reason we can’t do it,” freshman guard Christian Webster said.
Webster alluded to Cornell’s core group of veterans—spearheaded by the now-heralded senior trio of Ryan Wittman, Jeff Foote and Louis Dale—as a model for success that the Crimson may soon be able to emulate.
“They’ve been together four years,” Webster said. “We’re going to be doing the same thing in a few years.”
Whatever their perspective, the Harvard men’s basketball team will be watching the Cornell-Kentucky game closely tonight, along with the Crimson’s biggest fan, senior Cheng Ho.
Ho, a running back on the football team and a blockmate of Harvard hoopsters Lin, Doug Miller and Pat Magnarelli, led student efforts to energize the Crimson’s fan base in Lavietes Pavilion during the basketball season, almost singlehandedly turning the small arena—often derisively compared to a high school gym by other schools’ supporters—into a lion’s den for visiting teams. (See here and here.)
Now, Ho has focused his (albeit dampened) enthusiasm on Cornell’s run, going as far as picking the Big Red to play in the championship game in his personal bracket (“A bold move,” as he called it, made even bolder considering his other pick was the now-eliminated Kansas).
“A lot of people have this idea that the Ivy League is not a contender [in athletics],” Ho said. “The fact that Cornell is doing so well speaks for the league and is related to our school.”
Strange as it might be for a Harvard athlete, most seem to have jumped on the Cornell bandwagon, at least until the Crimson gets another shot at the three-time defending Ivy League champions next year.
“At first, because it’s our archrival, I wasn’t rooting for [Cornell in the tournament],” sophomore guard Max Kenyi said. But after casting aside the initial bitterness, Kenyi reconsidered.
“I guess deep down inside I was rooting for them.”