The Harvard Crimson

Uncommon Ground: A New Age of Recruiting for Harvard Basketball

In a conference not usually known as a destination for top recruits, Harvard Basketball and Tommy Amaker are in new territory.
Head coach Tommy Amaker stands in front of his team following Harvard’s 93-74 win against Columbia this season. The win gives the Crimson its sixth Ivy League title in eight years. By Timothy R. O'Meara
Head coach Tommy Amaker stands in front of his team following Harvard’s 93-74 win against Columbia this season. The win gives the Crimson its sixth Ivy League title in eight years.
Head coach Tommy Amaker stands in front of his team following Harvard’s 93-74 win against Columbia this season. The win gives the Crimson its sixth Ivy League title in eight years. By Timothy R. O'Meara

Uncommon Ground: A New Age of Recruiting for Harvard Basketball

In a conference not usually known as a destination for top recruits, Harvard Basketball and Tommy Amaker are in new territory.
By Troy Boccelli

It’s March 3, and in front of sold-out crowd at Lavietes Pavilion, the Harvard men’s basketball team caps off its season with a 93-74 thrashing of a Columbia team it lost to earlier in the season. The win, along with a double-overtime victory against Cornell the night before, gives head coach Tommy Amaker his sixth regular season title in just eight seasons.

Storylines abound.

Harvard’s seventeen made three-pointers tie a program record. Penn—the heavy favorite to take the title heading into the weekend—lost on a last second buzzer beater to Yale the night before, giving the Crimson a chance to share the title. Harvard, despite losing former Ivy League Rookie of the Year Bryce Aiken to injury, has won eight of its last nine.

Perhaps most notably, though, Amaker—arguably the most noteworthy coaching addition to the conference in recent memory—ends a two year drought atop a conference he’s brought to national recognition.

It was, after all, under Amaker’s guidance that Harvard won its first ever conference championship in 2011, with the program ranked in top-25 polls for the first time in team history. From there, the Crimson would make four straight NCAA tournament appearances, with upset wins against New Mexico and Cincinnati coming in 2013 and 2014 and a near upset of North Carolina in 2015. Buoyed by the success, in 2016 Harvard brought in a class of freshman ranked 10th best in the nation.

In short, this win against Columbia is a bit of a return to glory.

In the ensuing celebration the typically reserved Amaker joins the team at centercourt with the championship trophy, gesturing towards a mass of players jumping up and down. It’s a Kodak moment if there ever was one.

Typically one to stick to the ins and outs of the game itself, Amaker is particularly candid in the postgame press conference.

“I hope you guys didn’t see me get in the stands out there,” he quips as he sits down.

Speaking largely to his foundation of sophomores—arguably the most talented class to ever enter the conference—Amaker notes the relative youth of a group that just earned the right to put up a championship banner, putting the youthful bunch in the context of the five other championship teams he’s coached.

“Last year’s team—it was very young, and again we’re still young. But last year’s team was even younger,” Amaker says. “We showed some of the clips of previous championship teams to our kids right before the game here tonight. We wanted them to recognize what it is like to be a part of that.”

And it’s true. If anything, Amaker was perhaps even understating the youth of the talented squad.

"Last year's team—it was very young, and again we're still young. But last year's team was even younger," Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said.


With the exception of junior guard Corey Johnson, no upperclassman on Amaker’s roster averaged more than nine minutes per game. On the season, and despite losing the previous season’s leading scorer Bryce Aiken to injury early on, over three-fourths of Harvard’s scoring came from Amaker’s heralded sophomore class alone. Including the three freshman on the team would push the number to nearly 89 percent of scoring coming courtesy of underclassmen.

Still, it’s another fitting chapter for a program that in all likelihood will remain relevant as long as Amaker is in Cambridge. The narrative of success—something increasingly difficult in the context of college basketball—is one inherently tied to Amaker’s recruiting ability.

In particular, the team’s sophomore class, consisting of three four-star recruits and another trio of three-star players has been at the center of the continued success inside the aged, but perhaps aptly recently renovated walls of Lavietes Pavilion. It’s not simply within the context of the Ivy League—but in many ways in context college basketball as a whole—that the rise of Harvard basketball and the conference with it, has been nothing short of remarkable.

An assessment of the sophomore class alone could tell the story.

Sophomore forward Chris Lewis, ranked the 68th best player in the nation as a senior, had offers from Memphis and New Mexico as early as ninth grade. He considered MIT before ultimately committing to Harvard.

Classmate Seth Towns, who earned Ivy League Player of the Year honors this season, turned down the likes of Michigan, a team that went to the championship game of this year’s tournament, and perennial contender Ohio State. Aiken picked the Crimson over heavyweights such as Miami, Seton Hall, and Auburn. 6’10’’ Robert Baker Jr. passed up on Georgia, Clemson, and USC, among others.

Sophomore guard Bryce Aiken steps up on defense against Kentucky earlier this season. The sophomore had offers from top tier programs including Miami, Seton Hall, and Auburn.
Sophomore guard Bryce Aiken steps up on defense against Kentucky earlier this season. The sophomore had offers from top tier programs including Miami, Seton Hall, and Auburn. By Sam Danello

The list could go on, but the narrative of such a turnaround at Harvard—particularly in the only conference in Division I that doesn’t allow athletic scholarships—is one that has been years in the making.

***

On a warm evening early in September of 2016, amongst a group of students standing outside Currier House and waiting for the shuttle, it would have been difficult to miss one individual in particular.

Standing at 6’10’’ and and just north of 260 pounds, Wendell Carter—then ranked the third best high school basketball player in the nation—was making his official visit to Harvard, then one of eight schools he was considering.

Carter, an Atlanta native, fit the bill of a paradigmatic student at Harvard. In high school he was a member of National Honor Society and was actively involved in theatre, at times missing the high-exposure world of travel basketball for rehearsals—all while maintaining near perfect grades.

Really he just happened to possess otherworldly basketball abilities along with everything else he did.

Days later, the senior would narrow down his list to just four schools—Harvard and Duke, along with in-state programs Georgia and Georgia Tech. In the process he cut out the likes of basketball powerhouses such as North Carolina, Arizona, and Kentucky.

At this point it was no well kept secret the choice for Carter was largely between the Crimson and the Blue Devils. In interviews, Carter’s parents, and particularly his mom, Kylia, expressed her hope Wendell would pick Harvard.

Two days after the visit, the high school senior was concise but unambiguous in his assessment of campus, tweeting out, “Harvard was a movie this weekend.”

The tweet must have inspired some semblance of concern out in Durham as less than a week later legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski and the entirety of the Duke coaching staff paid a direct visit to the Carter family in Atlanta. In the discussion at the Carter’s home were pleasantries such as Wendell’s post moves and Coach K’s appearance in NBA 2K.

Unsurprisingly, Carter picked Duke just over a month later.

The fact of the matter, though, is that Carter—who recently declared for the NBA Draft and is widely expected to be a top-10 pick—probably would not have considered Harvard ten just years back.

In later interviews, Carter noted his mom still wears her Harvard hoodie around the house.

***

Nestled in the picturesque New Jersey borough of Tinton Falls, an unimposing suburb indifferentiable from most in New England, sits the Ranney School—a private day school that up until recently wasn’t particularly known for much.

Surrounded by a clean white fence, it would be hard to imagine the selective prep school school is also competing to be one of the best high school basketball programs in the nation.

Headlined by a pair of shooting guards Bryan Antoine and Scottie Lewis, ranked the seventh and eighth best players in their recruiting class, Ranney has risen to the top of the cutthroat New Jersey high school basketball world. Also in the mix on the day school’s team is guard Alex Klatsky and center Chris Autino, both of whom have also been at the prep school since their freshman year.

"It's still rare today is seeing a five-star recruit interested in an Ivy League destination but a lot of it just has to be with the environment he's grown up in and putting academics first," Brain Klatsky said.


The Ranney School, prior to the arrival of the talented bunch, had won just 20 games in a six year stretch. Buoyed by the talent, however, Ranney won the sectional championship this past winter and is expected to compete for the state championship next year. It’s now a program that’s being talked about nationally.

To the unsuspecting onlooker, Ranney’s rise to the top would be appear to be a modern day iteration of the plot of Hoosiers.

The nature of high school basketball these days, though, doesn’t necessarily lend itself to such organic narratives. The bunch of Antoine, Lewis, and Klatsky and have all been playing on the same nationally recognized AAU team for years now.

Nonetheless, with their senior year approaching, both Lewis and Klatsky have expressed their interest in Harvard.

Amaker, unsurprisingly, has pursued both of them with the tenacity of a major program.

Brian Klatsky, father of Alex and the founder of the AAU team both Klatsky and Lewis play on, isn’t shy about the turnaround the two have brought about at Ranney.

“Prior to Scottie and Alex, at Ranney there was no basketball history, the team had never had any success,” Klatsky says. “Scottie and Alex were the first two to come together at Ranney and from eighth grade going now into their senior year they took Ranney from nothing of obscurity in the basketball world to a top-20 national program and a state contender.”

To Klatsky, the mutual interest, particularly with a player of Lewis’ caliber, is in no small part a result of the environment at the tiny prep school. Describing Ranney as a ‘springboard’ for many students into the Ivy League, Klatsky sees that beyond a mutual interest between the two parties, there’s a mutual understanding of the value in academics.

“It’s still rare today is seeing a five-star recruit interested in an Ivy League destination but a lot of it just has to be with the environment he’s grown up in and putting academics first,” Klatsky notes. “That’s what makes Scottie unique and what makes him really relate with Tommy.”

Amaker, who got his start in college basketball as a graduate assistant under Coach K after four years as a player at Duke, certainly has just as much recruiting experience as the coaches he’s trying to beat out. After a stint at Seton Hall where he became the youngest coach in Big East history and then six years at Michigan, to say the choice of Harvard was a surprise would be a bit of an understatement.

Coach Amaker speaks with TNT following Harvard’s loss to Michigan State in the 2014 NCAA tournament.
Coach Amaker speaks with TNT following Harvard’s loss to Michigan State in the 2014 NCAA tournament. By Robert F Worley

Always dismissive of his own role in the success he’s brought to the program, Amaker has brought an approach to recruiting that has unquestionably bore fruit. Speaking to Amaker’s recruitment of Alex and Lewis, Klatsky notes Amaker’s own role in pitching Harvard to the talented duo.

“They’ve had an unofficial visit, they’ve hung out with the team a little bit, they’ve been on campus,” Klatsky explains. “Tommy has come down and sat down with them presented his vision of what it would look like playing in the Ivy League. They love it. It’s a special place and they know it. They respect and they appreciate. I’m not sure that in today’s world if all recruits really realize the doors that a Harvard can open for you.”

Lewis, in an interview with New York journalist Adam Zagoria this January, gave just a sense of the recruiting effort coming on behalf of the Crimson.

“I talk to coach Amaker every day now, he asks me about my grades,” Lewis said. “Coach Eski from Harvard as well.”

The appeal of Harvard, which Amaker has been known to pitch as a forty—not four—year decision, isn’t lost on the two potential recruits.

“They look at it as a very, very viable option,” Klatsky says. “Especially when you take Tommy’s resume and blend the basketball in with the school.”

***

It would be hard to point to a single event that changed the trajectory of recruiting both at Harvard and in the Ivy League.

It wasn’t, after all, overnight that the Crimson went from a team that had never won its conference to having Wendell Carter roaming the cobbled streets of Cambridge. When asked, though, most point to some combination of three events with a single one nearly always topping the list.

Interestingly enough, it was an event that really had next to nothing to do with recruiting or basketball.

Spearheaded by Harvard’s Financial Aid Initiative, which began in 2004 and culminating with a complete overhaul of the the college’s financial aid policies in 2007, the price of a Harvard education saw itself reduced for a substantial amount of potential applicants and students. It was particularly noteworthy for its assurance that families with annual incomes of 60,000 or less would not be expected to contribute towards tuition.

The rest of the Ivy League soon followed suit, with Yale, Dartmouth, Penn, Cornell and Brown pushing nearly identical initiatives months after. For its part, Princeton had been offering loan-free tuition since 2001 and Columbia added its own iteration just over a year later.

The changes couldn’t have come at a better time for Amaker, who was hired to coach the same year.

According to Carolyn Campbell-McGovern, the Deputy Executive Director of the Ivy League, the changes in financial aid were central in the changing dynamic of recruiting.

“One of the big changes that lead to the ability of our coaches to recruit more students from a wide variety of backgrounds was the change in financial aid policies that happened just about ten years ago, where all institutions made more financial aid to all students.” Campbell-McGovern says.

In particular, Campbell-McGovern notes the degree to which the changes put the conference in a place where it could at least compete with institutions that offered athletic scholarships.

“The fact that a middle-class family could come out of an Ivy League education without any or much debt was a pretty big sell—I think that was more able to compete with the athletic scholarship offers that other institutions had,” Campbell-McGovern says. “I think that really changed things for our coaches ability to compete.”

Though visible from the perspective of the conference as a whole, the changes and their impact on recruiting have been seen at the individual level as well. Brett MacConnell, an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator at Princeton has seen first hand the impact of aid.

“The financial aid in the Ivy League, and I’ve finished my sixth season, going into year seven—and I don’t know exactly what is was 10, 20 years ago—is excellent now and it hasn’t always been that way,” MacConnell says. “That’s had a major effect on the uptick in recruiting.”

"The fact that a middle-class family could come out of an Ivy League education without any or much debt was a pretty big sell," said Deputy Executive Director of the Ivy League Carolyn Campbell-McGovern.


Under his tenure the Tigers have increasingly managed to snag top recruits away from other programs. Currently a sophomore at Princeton, Myles Stephens turned down the likes of Seton Hall while senior Alec Brennan spurned contenders such as Wake Forest and Purdue.

Perhaps most notably, though, earlier this year Princeton received a commitment from Jaelin Llewellyn. A four-star recruit hailing from Ontario, Llewellyn had his choice of among 19 offers. Headlining his options were opportunities at Virginia, Tennessee, Providence, and Florida.

Yanni Hufnagel, an assistant and recruiter under Amaker at Harvard from 2009 to 2013 who would later do stints at Vanderbilt, Cal, and Nevada, views the change in financial aid in a similar light. Speaking to the changes he saw under his time, Hufnagel points to the expansion of aid as one of the key drivers in the recruiting changes the conference began to see while he was at Harvard.

“The changing landscape of financial aid changed the game as well, across the board,” Hufnagel notes. “Not just at Harvard.”

***

The backdrop of having athletes such as Carter and Lewis contemplating a school like Harvard is one that began well before either of them were considered to be professionally-bound. In fact it began when both were likely still in grade school.

“I think there are several events that paved the way for this reality that we’re living in right now,” Hufnagel says. “I would tell you Cornell’s run to the Sweet Sixteen, it coincided with Harvard’s hiring of Tommy Amaker. I would tell you those two events were the trampoline that the Ivy League needed to create parity.”

Within their context, both events undoubtedly had a notable impact on the way Harvard and the conference was viewed and as a result, who would consider it as a recruit. Amaker brought the pedigree of a coach who had been in the Big East and the Big Ten while Cornell’s improbable run put the conference on the map for the first time in a long time.

And what a run it was.

Coached by Steve Donahue—now coaching a Penn squad that would take down Harvard in the Ivy League Tournament final this season—No. 12 seeded Cornell made a run fit only for March.

The Big Red, which had gone 13-1 in its conference slate and lost just four games all season, took the tournament by storm. They began by disposing of No. 5 Temple 78-63 in the first round. In their next matchup, against No. 4 Wisconsin, Cornell doubled down on its first round performance, trouncing a Badgers team that had held opponents to an average of 56 points, 87-69.

Now in the Sweet Sixteen, the Big Red faced a No. 1 Kentucky team that had on its roster what are currently six NBA players including the likes of DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe, and John Wall. Unsurprisingly, the Cornell’s Cinderella run ended at the hands of the Wildcats, 62-45.

The limelight of an Ivy League team in the Sweet Sixteen, however, is one that along with Amaker’s hiring, many consider as a turning point in the conference.

“I think Cornell’s success back in 2010 put the Ivy League on the map, having them in the Sweet Sixteen and having coming pretty close to at least being competitive with Kentucky in that game,” Campbell-McGovern says, “I think that made people take notice a little bit better about what was happening in the Ivy League and the level of basketball that was being played.”

Since that 2010 season—and also in no small part due to Harvard’s own success from 2011 to 2015—the perception of the Ivy League and Harvard in basketball has changed fundamentally.

“Tommy definitely brought a different level of recruiting caché to the Ivy League, just like Cornell playing in the Sweet Sixteen about this time and—I think people know this—suddenly different kinds of players were considering the Ivy League,” Campbell-McGovern notes.

Coach Amaker and Chris Lewis address the media following the Crimson’s win over Cornell in the Ivy League tournament. Amaker swayed Lewis—ranked the 68th best player in his class—to come to Cambridge despite having offers since 9th grade.
Coach Amaker and Chris Lewis address the media following the Crimson’s win over Cornell in the Ivy League tournament. Amaker swayed Lewis—ranked the 68th best player in his class—to come to Cambridge despite having offers since 9th grade. By Timothy R. O'Meara

***

The backdrop of college basketball recruiting is one that has only intensified in recent years, with athletes increasingly receiving offers before they even step onto a high school basketball court.

The last season of college basketball in particular has brought to light the often problematic nature of attempting to enforce amateurism in college basketball. In light of an FBI probe this February it was revealed college basketball players at multiple top programs had been receiving impermissible benefits, in some cases as massive as five-figure loans, in the process of recruiting.

Such a landscape, while certainly far removed from the scope of basketball in the Ivy League, presents what can only be described as considerable impediments when it comes to being competitive in recruiting and, by proxy, on the court.

Increasingly, Harvard and programs such as those implicated are going after the same players.

In regards to the changes that have ensued in college basketball and the conference’s increased difficulty in recruiting as a result, Campbell-McGovern offers a curt, but encouraging perspective.

“It’s difficult,” she says. “But it’s not impossible.”

Perhaps Amaker’s star-studded sophomore class speaks for itself in this regard.

Campbell-McGovern’s point, though, is indisputably true. Unlike the vast majority of conferences in Division I, the Ivy League operates under what’s called the Academic Index. While details on the index itself and its exact composition are hard to come by, its name is mostly self-explanatory in this regard. The index, ranging from 60 to 240 points, provides a score for athlete applicants as a combination of high school test scores and grades. There is a conference wide minimum under which no student athlete can be admitted and as described by Campbell-McGovern, it’s a system that relies on a degree self-regulation from admissions deans at the eight institutions.

“The agreement to use the Academic Index as a communication tool is among the admissions teams, the eight Ivy League schools,” Campbell-McGovern says. “We track that for them, we collect the eight academic indexes that they provide to us of all of their athletes and report that back out to them about who’s where, which students have which academic index. The admissions teams are the ones who review that information and really hold each other accountable for meeting the standards in place.”

The enforcement of regulation, despite apparently transparent information provided to admissions deans across the Ivy League, has not spared the conference from scrutiny. At the outset of Amaker’s tenure in Cambridge, reports surfaced that admissions standards had been lowered for the talent Amaker was recruiting back in 2008. In particular, Yale coach James Jones was quoted saying, “We don’t know how all this is going to come out, but we could not get involved with many of the kids that they are bringing in.”

To this point, though, Hufnagel is straightforward.

“The idea of Harvard or any other school changing admissions standards for basketball players is one of the most far fetched ideas that there is,” Hufnagel says. “Admissions standards don’t change. What changed was Tommy’s genius to bring really compelling stories to the admissions department.”

"The idea of Harvard or any other school changing admissions standards for basketball players is one of the most far fetched ideas that there is," Yanni Hufnagel said.


Campbell-McGovern also describes the degree to which schools address athletics recruiting on an institutional scale, this due to the fact the Ivy League places limits on the number of athletes each school is allowed to matriculate. In this regard, coaches and their respective athletic departments work together given the limits provided. Speaking to the uptick in particularly notable recruits, Campbell-McGovern describes the value of the transparency the conference provides.

“It’s up to each institution to use those spots as they see fit,” Campbell-McGovern explains. “The admissions deans review all of that information and if they see something that is different, an outlier, then they will call each other’s attention to that and ask for adjustments. That’s the method that we have in place to monitor that and regulate it.”

The most recent publicly available document from the Ivy League on the Academic Index itself—dating all the way back to 2001—offers bits of insight into the academic constraints under which the conference operated and likely still does.

In particular it notes that for men’s basketball and hockey, “the average Academic Index for each year’s group of admitted student-athletes must equal or exceed a specified score based on the average Academic Index of the school’s previous four admitted classes.”

While this is unsurprising, it presents a particular challenge when it comes to Harvard and perhaps even more so when it comes to basketball. Given incoming classes of particular teams are required to meet a minimum average set by their institution—a mark speculated to be set a standard deviation below the school average— schools with a higher average Academic Index have to be more stringent about the potential athletes they recruit.

To add to this, the conference caps the number of athletes who can travel on a given trip for basketball at 15 athletes. What this means is that an incoming class of recruits, usually between three and six athletes in basketball, has to meet a minimum based off its school average—something increasingly difficult at Harvard in particular, and on the relatively small roster of basketball.

***

If one were to turn the tables around and give coaches a choice of conference to recruit within, it would be difficult to make a case for the Ivy League as a preferable choice.

Between the choice of stringent academic guidelines and few to none, most would take the latter. Between the hope that a particular recruit will be covered by financial aid and the option to award an athletic scholarship, most would take the second choice again.

In many ways, Amaker’s heralded sophomore class is nothing short of a small miracle in the arc of Ivy League basketball. In many ways the entirety of the application process at Harvard represents a very different reality relative to schools that can and often hand out offers to athletes early on in their careers.

Coach Amaker talks with a ref during the Crimson’s 2014 NCAA tournament game against Michigan State. The Crimson advanced to the third round that year after a win against Cincinnati. It marked Amaker’s third tournament appearance in a row.
Coach Amaker talks with a ref during the Crimson’s 2014 NCAA tournament game against Michigan State. The Crimson advanced to the third round that year after a win against Cincinnati. It marked Amaker’s third tournament appearance in a row. By Robert F Worley

“You have to apply to Harvard before you know that you’ll be able to go there and student athletes have to be able to do that too,” Campbell-McGovern says. “It’s difficult for them—they have an offer in their hand that they know they can take and count on, and sometimes that’s happening earlier and earlier unfortunately, but our philosophy is that student-athletes have to be treated in the admissions process in the same as non-athletes so we’re going to continue to do that.”

From a recruiting perspective, this means there needs to be mutual effort on behalf of athletes. The process at Princeton, and similarly in the rest of the conference, is one vastly different from the rest of college basketball.

“A kid can say, ‘Oh I have on offer from state university,’ and he can commit there the next day and be admitted the next day,” MacConnell explains, “I think the people that want to come to Princeton understand that a little bit more effort on their part is well, well worth it in the long run as opposed to going somewhere where it’s that simple snap of the fingers and you’re into our school.”

Given the nature of the conference one might be lead to think that high-level recruiting—particularly in the Ivy League, at Harvard, and in basketball—is an exercise in futility. There do, however, exist means by which the conference attempts to stay competitive and keep potential recruits engaged through the process.

To reiterate Campbell-McGovern’s point—“It’s difficult. But it’s not impossible.”

Done on an institutional level, coaches are often in touch with the admissions office well before the admissions process begins itself in November and December of a students senior year. Though there are guidelines surrounding such conversations, coaches are provided guidance on which applicants would make strong candidates and which perhaps wouldn’t.

“We do have this feedback mechanism with admissions, but even that doesn’t start until July prior to senior year where the admissions office reviews transcripts and test scores and says, ‘Well I think this student is a viable candidate,’ so they can at least get that feedback along the way,” Campbell-McGovern explains.

“The coaches obviously know what the kind of test scores and background, in terms of extracurricular activities, that the admissions office is going to want to see. They’re really going to be able to narrow down who is really a viable candidate and provide some unofficial assurances to the students.”

Such conversations, which aren’t allowed to occur before July 1, give coaches the ability to adjust and focus their recruiting efforts.

Another aspect of the conference that coaches work around is the limit on the number of players that can travel on a given weekend. While this number is set at 15 athletes for basketball, all but two of the schools in the Ivy League had basketball rosters greater than 15 this season. Penn, the conference tournament champion, lead the way with 21 players on its roster this year. Harvard had 19. Brown and Dartmouth, the only two schools with 15 or less, finished the season last and second to last, respectively.

Though such a practice means the whole team isn’t allowed to travel and play on the road, for sports such as basketball that have limited rosters, it provides greater flexibility while navigating the recruitment process as a whole—in particular it gives coaches a greater number of athletes in the process of reaching a given Academic Index. This aspect of recruiting in the Ivy League, though it is has come under scrutiny in the past, by and large remains a fixture.

The narrative of scrutiny in regards to this practice is one that typically argues highly prized recruits are balanced out with a greater than necessary number of academically above-average athletes. Interestingly, this is something the conference has looked into in the past, albeit on a scale that goes beyond basketball in particular.

“We did do a study a few years ago, a while ago now, about whether the students who were playing were the ones who were the highest AI’s—basically a correlation between the playing time—and we found there wasn’t much of a relation.” Campbell-McGovern says.

“There’s a hypothesis,” she explains. “That the people who are not playing, not making the travel squad are the ones who are there because they brought the average up, and we found that to not be true.”

***

Despite the nuance associated with recruiting in the Ivy League, Amaker has been relentless in his pursuit of the best and the brightest.

In the past Harvard has been tied to now professional players such as Brandon Knight and Spencer Dinwiddie, the likes of which might be discussed in the same sentence as Carter and Lewis a few years down the road. Nonetheless, the possibility that an NBA-bound talent would want to spend a year in what most people don’t primarily associate as athletic conference is novel to say the least. Still, this off-chance presents what can only be looked at as an opportunity.

Coach Amaker stands on the sidelines during the first round of the Ivy League tournament in Philadelphia. The Crimson won the game against Cornell to advance to the championship game against Penn.
Coach Amaker stands on the sidelines during the first round of the Ivy League tournament in Philadelphia. The Crimson won the game against Cornell to advance to the championship game against Penn. By Timothy R. O'Meara

Having worked particularly close with Amaker in regards to recruiting, Hufnagel offers a perspective most outside Lavietes Pavilion have rarely seen.

“You have to look at the opportunity cost,” Hufnagel says. “If you look at a game-changer of that magnitude, even if you try 100 times and only get him one time, it’s worth the investment because they can forover change the trajectory—they can open up the gate of the ‘I turned down the Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina, Kansas, UCLA, for Harvard.’ You’ve seen kids turn down almost everyone besides the Big Six.”

The last point is one that has been increasingly true. Scores of athletes, many on Amaker’s roster, turned down perennial contenders for Harvard. Wendell Carter, though, ultimately chose Duke.

Hufnagel—who in 2011 was voted the mid-major assistant most likely to “make it big-time due to his recruiting ability”—paints the off-chance commitment of a such a recruit in nearly prophetic terms.

“The allure of recruiting the five-star is unimaginably intoxicating and I would tell you that’s my psychology and that’s Tommy’s,” Hufnagel says. “That’s why we continue to do it even if the odds are long.”

He continues.

“If you do somehow swing and connect, it would be like winning Powerball. That’s why you continue to play the lottery.”

***

Recruiting, particularly among a set of eight schools where admissions are front-page newspaper material, provides a provocative discussion. The changes that have ensued, particularly due to the increasingly involved recruiting of Amaker, lend themselves to the possibility that at one point or another a player such as Carter or Lewis might actually matriculate.

Discussions of the potential for a ‘one-and-done’ athlete, whereby a player goes professional after just a year of college, are becoming less and less a territory of imagination at Harvard. Combined with the academic identity of the conference, such a possibility raises interesting questions—among them whether admissions offices would consider the possibility of admitting a student that would more than likely last just a year in college.

Prior to the Ivy League tournament this March, Amaker received a question on the possibility of a one-and-done athlete at Harvard. His response, in great length, would indicate it was something he had thought about.

“I think one of the things, what I’m in charge of doing, what I’ve been entrusted to do as a teacher and a leader on this campus, is to try to attract the kids that belong here,” Amaker began. “We have no crystal ball to say when it’s right or when someone will decide that another portion of their life has become more important.”

“We’ve had a variety of students and people here at this university who’ve done just that,” Amaker continued. “They haven’t been for basketball reasons, but they’ve been for other reasons. The number one thing is to try to make sure we stay true to our perspective and our ideals and our mission to try to attract the people that we honestly know and feel belong on this campus and this great institution.”

Almost as if rehearsed, Amaker closed out the monologue.

“And we’re going to try to continue to do that. If they happen to have enormous ability and game-changing talent in whatever they do and whoever they are, we like to welcome that with open arms.”

Though not in basketball, Ryan Donato’s jump to the NHL from Harvard’s hockey team would prove Amaker’s point just a few weeks later.

The question, though, of an athlete coming to Harvard with near certainty of leaving to pursue professional sports soon after, is one that the conference as a whole still hasn’t really approached.

“We don’t have any regulations about it so I don’t know exactly—I’m not sure we’ve had a conversation about it either,” Campbell-McGovern says. “The NCAA is trying to work to eliminate these one-and-done situations. Right now the players that are at that elite level, who are ready, at least physically, to play in the NBA, can’t.”

***

No discussion of recruiting would be complete without the man at the center of it all in Cambridge.

When describing Amaker the adjectives abound—charismatic, personable, engaging, remarkable. The list could go on.

Coach Amaker looks ahead at his team after clinching a share of the Ivy League title this March. Lead by a sophomore class ranked 10th best in the nation at the time, the Crimson finished the conference season with just two losses.
Coach Amaker looks ahead at his team after clinching a share of the Ivy League title this March. Lead by a sophomore class ranked 10th best in the nation at the time, the Crimson finished the conference season with just two losses. By Timothy R. O'Meara

It’s possible no amount of words could fully describe the role Amaker plays not just in recruiting, but in a Harvard community he’s been changing since the day he arrived. At the time of Amaker’s arrival, none of Harvard’s 41 varsity sports had an African-American coach. The trailblazing soon continued, as Amaker and faculty such as Ron Sullivan and Charles Ogletree began a breakfast club of local black leaders.

Since then Amaker has continued to be a presence outside of his work on the sidelines, inviting notable figures such Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to campus as part of a coaches clinic and later a conversation at the Institute of Politics.

The focus to life outside of basketball is one that Amaker has also incorporated into his recruiting. Speaking to the pitch Amaker has taken in regards to potential recruit Scottie Lewis, Klatsky notes it’s one that goes well beyond the scope of basketball.

“If you do a little research on Scottie you’ll find he’s very outspoken on different social issues and he’s a very articulate young man that’s a natural leader,” Klatsky notes. “Part of the message from Tommy has been, ‘Can you imagine how powerful your voice would be and the doors it would open to you in life being part of Harvard as a student and an athlete.’ All of that appeals to Scottie and so Tommy and him have really connected and it’s something he’s serious about.”

It’s in no small part due to Amaker that Harvard basketball has seen what is not so much a resurgence, but really its first prosperity ever. After the Harvard’s second NCAA tournament upset in 2014, perhaps Amaker himself put it best, saying, “We have become a program that has become relevant in the world of college basketball.”

And he’s continued to see it through since.

Hufnagel points out what at first seemed to be an unexpected, but soon enough appropriate, pairing.

“As long as Tommy Amaker is the coach at Harvard I think that Harvard’s recruiting has a limitless ceiling because it would be hard to find a better coach, leader, teacher, and father-figure than Tommy Amaker,” Hufnagel says. “Harvard found the one person walking this planet that was a perfect match for Harvard.”

—Staff writer Troy Boccelli can be reached at troy.boccelli@thecrimson.com.

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