When Harvard coach Tommy Amaker left Michigan to take the helm of the Crimson men’s basketball team, he inherited a Harvard squad that notched just five conference wins in the 2006-2007 season. But in four short years, Amaker has led the Crimson to league and national relevance, punctuated by Harvard’s first ever Ivy League title this season.
“[It’s been] amazing [playing for him],” freshman guard Matt Brown said. “It’s one of those experiences where the stuff we learn from him and observe from him is something we’ll cherish the rest of our lives.”
There’s no denying Amaker’s impact on his players. This season, the Crimson set a school record with 23 wins, including a perfect 14-0 record in Cambridge at Lavietes Pavilion. The young Harvard team—which was the only squad in the Ancient Eight comprised entirely of non-seniors—is the early favorite for a repeat championship next season.
“On a basketball team, just like in a lot of sports, the team represents the coach,” junior co-captain Oliver McNally said. “He gets us to play a certain way, and we represent what he wants us to do.”
This year, the Crimson played a fast-paced, exciting style of basketball, dominating its opponents in front of packed crowds at home, while managing to also excel from the free throw line. Harvard shot nearly 81 percent from the charity stripe, a full six percentage points ahead of its nearest competitor in the Ancient Eight. The Crimson also led the league in field goal and three-point percentage, with .475 and .378 marks, respectively.
With Amaker in charge, four Harvard players earned All-Ivy nods, the most of any Ancient Eight team. The Crimson earned a share of the Ivy League title at home in early March, as Harvard took down Princeton by a comfortable margin of 79-67 in the highly-anticipated rematch of the Crimson’s first conference loss.
In the teams’ third and final duel, which pitted the newly-crowned Ivy League co-champions against one another, Princeton hit a buzzer-beater to rob Harvard of its first spot in the NCAA Tournament since 1946. But the Crimson earned a consolation prize, receiving its first-ever bid to the NIT this year.
To the team, responsibility for the rapid turnaround lies with the head coach.
“[Amaker’s] our main guy,” said junior co-captain and forward Keith Wright, who took home Ivy League Player of the Year honors this season. “He’s our leader; he’s in charge; he’s like the commander-in-chief. I definitely learned a lot from him.”
For players deciding whether or not to forgo potential athletic scholarships and play in the Ivy League, Amaker provides a huge draw, allowing Harvard to snag big-time recruits and continue to develop its program. And, though the Crimson last reached the Big Dance in 1946, a starting lineup featuring three sophomores—Kyle Casey, Brandyn Curry, and Christian Webster—boasts both youth and experience.
“[Amaker’s] a big-time coach, big-time recruiter...everything that he does I think we all learn from him,” Brown said. “He learned from Coach K at Duke, who’s an amazing person, and hopefully we can carry on the tradition of learning as much as we can from him.”
Under Amaker’s guidance, Harvard set new school records with 12 conference wins and 14 victories in Cambridge this year, and the Crimson earned a spot in postseason play for the second year in a row.
But for many of his players, Amaker’s impact extends beyond the court.
“As a player and as a person he’s been like a father figure to me,” Wright said. “Being from a household with a single mom has been tough; it’s been really nice to have Coach Amaker to talk to, as well as [assistant] coach [Kenny] Blakeney, so he means a lot to me.”
—Staff writer Catherine E. Coppinger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.