Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Is Harvard Officially the Evil Empire of Ivy Men's Basketball?

You have to either subscribe to ESPN the Insider or ESPN the Magazine to get the article about Harvard's recruiting efforts, which amount to trying to lure 3- and 4-star recruits to Cambridge. It's pretty amazing as to how a) Coach Tommy Amaker (who still hasn't convinced me that he is a good technical coach, as opposed to a good recruiter) can lure these kids to Cambridge, b) how so many top players are good enough students to play at Harvard and c) how the kid featured in the article said that he liked the concept of Harvard because of the possibility of making good basketball connections and going to "an Ivy." From this article, it also sounds like talent-loaded Harvard has a bunch of recruits who could be the Ivy's version of the "Fab Five" -- AAU teammates who might choose the Cantabs over bigger-time basketball schools.

Too often in my life have I run into situations that seemed too good to be true. Sure, call me a jealous hoops zealot who is lamenting the loss of the vivid Penn-Princeton rivalry and who resents Harvard as a wannabe interloper. I can assure you that's not it. I enjoyed watching the Crimson last year and marveled at the assemblage of talent. (I also think that had Sydney Johnson coached the Crimson, they wouldn't have lost a single game). It's just that it seems hard to believe that having gone 65 years without an NCAA tournament bid and without having put a very good team on the court for decades, that all of a sudden perhaps dozens of top-notch recruits are considering Harvard over scholarship schools with good academics and traditional Ivy basketball titans Penn and Princeton, not to mention recent superpower Cornell, which had about as good a three-year run of any Ivy team in a long time.

I recall talking to a Princeton assistant about six, seven years about a top 100 recruit who had a connection to Princeton. The kid was considering Duke (he eventually went there), but word came through that he was interested in Princeton. The recruit went to the school for a visit, but he ultimately chose Duke. Commented the assistant, "We always lose kids when we go up against Stanford, Duke and schools like that." I'm sure that Penn probably would say the same thing. Yes, the schools get good recruits, but increasingly over the years both Penn and Princeton have lost players to schools that somehow Harvard is now competing against and perhaps winning.

What gives? It's not that Harvard has a winning tradition (it doesn't). It's not that Harvard has a great facility (it doesn't). It's not that Harvard has an outstanding coach (Amaker didn't do well at either Seton Hall or Michigan, and while he's recruited well at Harvard he hasn't won a title yet, although with the talent he has he should mail it in and win a title this year). Sure, Harvard has a huge name, but since when has the huge name simply been enough? Especially when you have schools with storied programs in your conference.

Something just doesn't seem to add up. It could be that Harvard finally has gotten it's men's hoops' act together and corralled the optimal combination of hoops talent that can qualify for Harvard. If so, congratulations for catching lightning in a bottle or something like that. Go on-line if you subscribe to ESPN the Insider or buy the magazine and see what you think. Is it newly found brilliance on the Charles River, or something else? And, if so, what?

Any way you slice it, Harvard is certainly defining itself as the team to beat (perhaps for years) in the Ivies. They'll still have to beat archival Yale (which has a good team this season) and take on Penn and Princeton on back-to-back nights twice this season. That's a tough challenge whether you have three- or four-star recruits -- or not.


Anonymous said...

Harvard didn't go to the tournament last year, but it did win a share of the title.

Anonymous said...

You do come off as a jealous hoops zealot who laments the loss of his Princeton-Penn duopoly, but that doesn't mean you're wrong.

I like how Tommy Amaker reacted after The New York Times published an article in 2008 alleging that he was lowering academic standards to recruit two- and three-star players. He started recruiting three- and four-star players.

That's a nice "in your face" to all the people who were quoted in the article: competitor coaches elsewhere in the Ivies and former assistant coaches to Harvard head man Frank Sullivan.

I'll leave it to others to elaborate upon conspiracy theories, but one place where Harvard undoubtedly *IS* bending the rules (though not breaking them) is by funneling extra low Academic Index recruits to the men's basketball team and away from, say, the lacrosse and hockey teams. That's within the letter of the Ivy law, but arguably not within the spirit.

It's just a coincidence for the time being but Harvard's meteoric rise in men's basketball takes place at the same time that troubles have befallen the lacrosse team and especially the hockey team, two other programs which usually rely upon low Academic Index players to thrive. One or two years of basketball up and lax/hockey down is just random noise. But we can probably expect to see this state of affairs continue indefinitely until Amaker leaves .

Anonymous said...

Right now for each school in the Ivy League, football is in its own pool all alone for AI purposes. All the other sports, including basketball, fall in one big AI bucket.

One can safely bet first that, if Harvard wins the Ivy basketball title and tournament bid in 2011-12, there will be serious talk around the League about establishing an AI pool for basketball alone, similar to that for football. The first salvo in this battle was fired earlier this year when the non-football sport AI pool rose five points.

If the talk does not lead to a 7-1 vote in favor of such a move in 2011-12, it will most likely cause such to happen after a second Harvard title/Big Dance date in 2012-2013.

If and when the above ensues, one can also bet that: a) Coach Amaker will be unable to earn Ivy titles on the leveled playing field, and b) will soon voluntarily exit Cambridge.

You have to give Scalise and the Harvard administation credit for doing this. However, one must also believe that the other league members are not going to put up with the failure to adhere to the spirit, once it is proven that a sheer agglomeration of talent can overcome such marked deficits in the technical art of basketball coaching.

Steve B said...

Kudos to Amaker and good riddance to Penn, Princeton and the good ol' four decades of P & P domination. (Though I loved Carril and Dunphy as coaches and people.) Harvard is recruiting that talent because they can. Until those kids start flunking out or dropping out of school, it will take some masterful criticism to prove Harvard's done anything but successfully bring a predominantly black game to a bastion of white civility, and, heaven knows, it's long overdue. What do you think Skip Gates and Charles Ogletree and Amaker are talking about at those Friday morning breakfasts? Long overdue. Coaches Harrison and Roby assembled lots of talent in the early 70s and late 80s, respectively, but were up against even more talent and more experienced coaches. I said when Amaker was hired (and said it to his face), all he needed to do was recruit like you can recruit at Harvard, because it is Harvard, and do a good job - just a good job coaching - and Harvard will have justifiably earned what the Dukes and Penn and Princetons have earned over these long years. Kudos to Amaker, his staff, his players and Harvard. It's not just good for Harvard, it's good for basketball.

Anonymous said...

Steve B, one of the very few college athletic programs that still maintained strict, bona fide academic standards for its players has finally succumbed and materially loosened up its admissions requirements.

Please explain to me how that is good for basketball. It's definitely not good for Ivy League basketball. I don’t even think it’s good for Harvard, which used to stand for something.

SportsProf said...

Thanks, everyone, for your comments. I have nightmares about Keith Wright's inside play and the long-range bombs of Laurent Rivard singing my beloved Tigers.

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Anonymous said...

It seems that Harvard is just doing what Duke and Stanford do: trading on their august reputation to build athletic program successes. They are the best positioned Ivy to do it followed by Yale, Princeton and Penn. Harvard should be able to get top athletes and students--and probably beat others at doing it once they have some more sports successes.

Re basketball: do they have a cynical coach, a crummy facility and a limited history in the sport? Yes, but you can't blame them for trying to reverse things, and using the rare coin Harvard has above all the Ivies--sorry others--to do so.

Penn Quaker fan

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CBell said...

The sad part is that this ploy will probably work. Not only will Harvard go national in hoops, but like Georgetown in the 80's, it may end up becoming an even "hotter" (or cooler) school than it already is.

But it still won't be Princeton.

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