While he knows that they have the skill necessary to be a formidable force in a few years, the usual concerns about whether they’ll acquire the intangibles—like the mental toughness necessary to compete and thrive in the grueling Ivy schedule—cause the veteran coach to take pause.
But there is also a sense of relief in those words. Sullivan finally has his prized freshmen on campus—a rare occurrence for a representative of a league that plays by different rules than the rest of the Division I conferences.
Getting perspective recruits to look past the typical Ivy academic stereotype is tough enough. According to Sullivan,, there is one league rule that proves to be the toughest hurdle in enticing a highly touted prospect to come to the Ancient Eight.
“I think scholarships are the main thing,” Sullivan says. “Guys get into this recruiting game hoping to get a scholarship, and I think there’s a lot of peer pressure to go to the highest available school.”
“I don’t think that happens in women’s basketball,” Sullivan adds. “Women might choose the Ivy League over a high-level scholarship school, [but] we just don’t see the guys doing that. We don’t see Jerome Allen anymore. We don’t see Matt Maloney anymore.”
If the recruit does fall into the Ivy pool, the six non-P’s face a desperate struggle to out-duel the two traditional league powers for the top prospects. Penn and Princeton work from a position of strength in this endeavor, as they have the qualities that recruits demand most.
“I think tradition is one thing, and facilities are another thing,” Sullivan says. “Kids that are going through this recruiting process now are very consumed with getting to the NCAA tournament, and when you have two schools that have been there 28 out of the last 30 times, I think that becomes very attractive.”
Along those lines, many fans, players and coaches around the Ivy League have pushed for a conference tournament, citing that the structure of the league has created a self-perpetuating cycle at the top.
“It certainly would,” responds Sullivan, when asked if a conference tournament would level the playing field. “That’s what a lot of schools around the Ivy League feel. We just need to bust through one time, because if we get there once, we might be able to get there again. And I think that’s why both Penn and Princeton continue to fight a conference tournament.”
Even in the current situation, it is far from impossible to snatch a recruit from Penn and Princeton’s grasp. The other six Ivy institutions can offer benefits—such as immediate playing time—that the Quakers and Tigers sometimes cannot.
“I kind of felt that I would be able to contribute more right away coming [to Harvard],” says junior guard Jim Goffredo, who chose the Crimson over Princeton.
But playing time isn’t the only factor, as Harvard’s academic prestige can sometimes provide the final nudge to get a prospect to come to Cambridge.
“I’m from Brooklyn,” says Beal, who joined the Crimson after orally committing to Georgetown, “and one of my coaches, who was like a father figure to me, said that if I went to an Ivy League school—if I went to Harvard—it would show people in my neighborhood, people that I grew up with, that you could use basketball as a way to get other things and that you didn’t have to play basketball just to go to the NBA.”
One of the common strategies employed by the six non-P’s is to load up a few consecutive recruiting classes, hoping to develop those players together and ride them to the top. Keeping those recruits together all four years, however, can be difficult.
“One of the biggest problems in the league is attrition,” Sullivan says. “Because we’re non-scholarship, all of a sudden there can be holes in your program.”
The variability of the evaluations of talent also can create difficulties, as it is common for recruits with high expectations to flop and for true talents to slip almost completely off the radar.
One of those hidden gems was junior center Brian Cusworth, an Ivy Player of the Year candidate, who openly admits that he “wasn’t recruited very much.”
“I was a late bloomer to say the least,” Cusworth recalls. “I was looking at a few Division III schools. My parents actually took me up here, and we kind of did an unofficial tour...[Assistant] coach [Lamar] Reddicks and [assistant] coach [Bill] Holden and even Coach Sullivan came out to a couple of my games. Out of all the Ivy League schools, this was really the only one recruiting me with great consistency.”
Cusworth’s fellow Player of the Year candidate, senior forward Matt Stehle, had to take a similar pro-active approach to get himself on the radar of certain Ivy schools.
“Harvard wasn’t really recruiting me...and my high school coach lives on the same street as Coach Sullivan,” Stehle recalls. “I asked my high school coach to ask Coach Sullivan why he didn’t think I was good enough to come to school, not because I had wanted to be recruited by Harvard, but because I really wanted to know what I needed to improve upon during my senior season to get better.”
Stehle, Cusworth, Beal and forward Zach Martin are the four survivors of a gigantic nine-person recruiting class in 2002.
With those attrition rates staring Sullivan in the face—and with the long history of futilely fighting against the reputations of Penn and Princeton still to be overcome—it’s no wonder that Harvard’s coach approaches even the most impressive recruiting class with guarded optimism.
—Staff writer Michael R. James can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.