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You thought nobody cared about Ivy League basketball?
Well, apparently somebody out there does.
Kathy Orton, a writer for The Washington Post, spent the 2005-06 season following four Ancient Eight teams in their quests to win the league championship. Orton translated her notes into her book, “Outside the Limelight,” which was published this past November.
While Orton does a fine job of showing her readers the inner workings of Ivy League basketball during 2005-06 season, she does an even better job of illuminating the major changes that have taken place within the Harvard basketball program over just the past four seasons.
Orton writes about a Harvard basketball program that seems highly foreign from today’s reality.
While Orton describes a cast of scrappy players who know their playing days are coming to an end, the current squad is filled with higher-caliber athletes, many of whom aim to make basketball a career.
Orton writes about a team that largely flew under the radar, while today’s team has received national media coverage from ESPN, Time Magazine, and several other publications that project the Crimson to challenge Cornell for Ancient Eight dominance.
This change can be largely explained by the entirely new roster of players who don Harvard uniforms. (The book takes place one year before the start of the Jeremy Lin Era, meaning none of the Crimson’s current players were on the roster.)
But the greatest changes to the Harvard basketball program since the 2005-06 season have had more to do with the man now pacing up and down the Crimson bench rather than the players who are running up and down the court.
When Harvard head coach Tommy Amaker arrived in Cambridge following the 2006-07 season, he took the helm of a mediocre basketball program. During former head coach Frank Sullivan’s final season in charge, the Crimson finished 5-9 in conference play and failed to capture the ever-elusive Ivy League championship.
“As Division I basketball programs go, Harvard has one of the more barebones operations,” Orton writes of Harvard basketball’s recent Dark Ages. “With just a head coach, two assistants, and a trainer, the Crimson is the mom-and-pop store in the corporate world of college basketball.”
Harvard basketball found the perfect person to bring it into the corporate world of college basketball when Amaker arrived on the scene three seasons ago.
Amaker—who played and coached under Mike Krzyzewski at Duke before becoming head coach at Seton Hall and Michigan—has taken giant steps to turn a titleless team from the Ivy League into one that battles top programs on the court in games and off the court for standout recruits.
The once “barebones operation” now staffs three assistant coaches, a director of basketball operations, a trainer, and four team managers. Amaker now boasts his own website, (CoachTommyAmaker.com), hosts a coaches’ clinic in the fall, and coaches a summer basketball academy at Harvard that attracts some of the nation’s top high school players.
But most importantly, the third-year coach has been able to land some of those top players, stealing top prospects from such bigger-name programs as Vanderbilt and Stanford.
For all these successes off the court, the Crimson’s play on the court during Amaker’s first two seasons was far from impressive.
Halfway into Amaker’s third year as head coach, things have started to change for Harvard.
The Crimson is currently riding a six-game winning streak and finished non-conference play with the most victories in school history.
But as dramatically as the culture and atmosphere surrounding Harvard basketball off the court has changed in recent years, this is not the first time expectations have been high for the ballers from Cambridge on the court entering the heart of conference play.
In fact, the last time expectations were this high for the Crimson going into Ivy League play was four seasons ago—the same season Kathy Orton followed Harvard.
Despite lacking the corporate swagger the Crimson now possess, that mom-and-pop Harvard team managed to win its first six non-conference games and many expected the Crimson to challenge the league favorite—Penn, back in the day—for the league title. Just like this year’s team, expectations continued to mount as the Crimson captured its first two conference matchups against Dartmouth.
What remains to be seen is whether Harvard will continue to follow in the footsteps of its ancestor from a recently passed era or blaze its own path.
While the 05’-06’ Crimson crippled under the pressure—dropping nine of its final twelve league games—Tommy Amaker and his revamped Harvard squad will look to translate its big program attitude into some big program wins.
—Staff writer Martin Kessler can be reached at email@example.com.
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