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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Memo to Top 100 Harvard Basketball Recruits: Why?

Several decades ago (give or take one, perhaps), I had a conversation with a friend who was a very good Ivy League basketball player. He had mentioned that his high school, a basketball powerhouse, had a player who had succeeded him at his position and who was drawing national attention. North Carolina, Kentucky, UCLA, to name a few, were hot after this player.

My friend also offered another tidbit: "And the thing of it is, his grades and scores are better than mine."

Which drew the following automatic response from me: "So why doesn't he go to your school?"

My friend laughed. "If you could really play, why would you play where I do?"

I tried to talk about the benefits of an Ivy education, that sometimes an Ivy school could have a breakthrough, perhaps get to the Round of 16, but my friend wasn't buying what I was selling. He had gone Ivy and done well, but he lacked foot speed and a jumper to go to a big-time school, despite the reputation of his high school and its coach.

He just shook his head and offered that if you were that good a player, you had to go where the best players played to see how good you were and to play at an elite level. He also offered that if you were reasonably motivated as a student -- as this kid was -- you could get a good education at any of those schools (my note: back then he was right; today, you have to wonder about a) being "one" and done and b) the pressure put on the kids, so much so that do they have time to progress toward a degree in something other than keeping seaweed off the fine arts' program's batik collection, and, as for a), well, then, you're en route to a pretty good career, aren't you?).

The compulsion, though, was the competition. My friend went Ivy because it suited him and because the combination of aid, academics and basketball was better than say a low-DI school that had offered him a full ride. But the thought -- for an 18 year-old -- of playing in the ACC on national TV against the best competition and for Dean Smith, for example, was very compelling to him. But what of the kids who now populate ESPN's Top 60 for the Class of 2013, three of whom have Harvard on this lists (as do one or do of the Top 100 for the Class of 2012)? What are they thinking?

Sure, Harvard is a great school, perhaps the greatest, but what is Harvard and coach Tommy Amaker trying to accomplish? And will these kids be happy in a place where they pretty much will be kids who participate in just another extracurricular activity and who have to play Columbia and Cornell on back-to-back nights twice, when, legitimately, they could be playing a Pac-12, Big Ten, Big East or ACC schedule? And, presumably, if their academics are that good, get a pretty good education, to boot, depending on how much effort they elect to put into their school work?

In other words, these recruits can really play. They are not a step slow, a few inches too short, have limited range, a weaker left hand, etc. They are the real deal. And forget all the hype about Harvard's trying to do something special. If you're an elite cellist, you'll want to go to Juilliard or Curtis. If you're an elite astrophysicist, MIT, Cal Tech or Princeton, to name a few. And if you're an elite basketball player. . . you'll want to go to . . . Harvard?

Not Carolina? Kentucky? Duke? Ohio State? Syracuse?

Food for thought.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why not? If you're smart enough to handle Harvard's academics, you get to play D-I basketball while going to one of the best (if not the best) colleges in the country. If Harvard's team continues to play at the level it is this season (which it should be able to do with ever-improving recruiting classes), there is no reason to think that the non-conference schedule and TV exposure won't improve dramatically each year. Being surrounded by the diversity of Harvard could be a great college experience for many ballplayers and a Harvard education is a good thing to have if basketball doesn't work out.

3:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You ask a very good question. And I give Tommy Amaker all the credit for getting his top recruits to look at Harvard when they have the opportunity to go ACC or Big Ten.

I think it's great that Harvard has national ambitions in men's basketball, trying to join the Dukes and Stanfords of the world.

But Harvard should really recuse itself from competing for the Ivy League championship. Harvard has thrown aside the academic restrictions which limit the other seven Ivy programs.

If Harvard wants to go big time, good for the Crimson. But as far as Ivy competition is concerned, Harvard is no longer following the spirit if not the letter of the Academic Index law.

Harvard is competing fair and square in its non-conference schedule but, as far as Ivy play is concerned, Harvard is cheating.

1:37 PM  
Blogger George Clark said...

To suggest, as Anonymous did, that "Harvard has thrown aside the academic restrictions which limit the other seven" strikes me as the type of bomb that can only be thrown from the safe position of anonymity. I have heard it argued that Harvard has "found a way to massage the system" and that critics from the other Ivy schools are "envious" that Amaker was the first to act. Is there any evidence to support the proposition that any Harvard players are not adademically quailfied for admission to the Yales or the Penns or the Princetons of the league?

8:11 AM  
Blogger SportsProf said...

George: Thanks for your comment. I think it's right to ask the question regarding what Harvard is doing, but I also agree that to cast anonymous aspersions without facts is dangerous. One of the main problems with the Ivies is that there is no transparency on this topic, or, if there is, it's so complicated that you need a higher math degree from one of them to figure out how a certain kid gets in or does not. I doubt very much that Harvard is cheating. What may well be the case is that a) they could have found a unique combination of kids with grades and scores who also are elite basketball players or b) that they are pushing the system pretty hard to get the mix of kids that they have who can play basketball at an elite level. I would suggest that the answer lies somewhere in between, although much closer to the latter end of the continuum than the former.

8:34 AM  
Blogger George Clark said...

Allow a response, please. Regarding your alternative explanations, I must suggest that (a) is extraordinarily unlikely, even once let alone in several consecutive recruiting cycles, and (b)what does "pushing the system hard" mean? I am not yet ready to accept the view that "cheating" explains the recent remarkable recruiting success in Cambridge, but neither do I accept your "doubt," the basis of which is unexplained. Although it may be right to ask the question, to whom can it be addressed? If Ivy recruiting standards are just a matter of a "gentlemen's agreement" among the schools someone is bound to push the envelope sooner or later.

9:24 AM  
Blogger SportsProf said...


My point is that because the system (academic index) is hard to figure out, it's hard to conclude that Harvard is cheating. It could be that they work the academic index system in such a way that they get all of these players into school within the rules. The lack of transparency makes it hard to understand whether they're compliant or not. I just think that it's a big step to accuse them of cheating because Harvard's success is hard to explain. That's all that I am saying.

As for your last question, it would be great for an enterprising sports reporter to ask the hard questions and ask for proof. It would be interesting to see how Harvard responds.

4:56 PM  
Blogger George Clark said...

I accept your point. I can think of any number of ways to massage the system to admit individual players with otherwise "noncompliant" AI numbers. But who determines "compliance" in the first instance? Is there an Ivy League compliance office? Or is it left up to the individual schools?

5:53 PM  
Blogger SportsProf said...


Again, great questions from you. I am not sure whether there is an Ivy compliance office that does this or not. It would be great either for the Ivies themselves to get out in front of this and be transparent or for a good sportswriter to challenge the Ivies about it.

8:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

George, this is the anonymous poster of 1:37 PM to whom you responded at 8:11 AM. Please excuse my continued anonymity as I do not share your boldness for posting my name on the internet.

As you correctly surmise, there has always been one gigantic loophole in the Ivy League Academic Index rules available to all conference teams and Harvard is merely the first to take advantage of it. The “critics from the other Ivy schools are envious,” as you put it, not only because “Amaker was the first to act,” but because he has driven a truck through it.

The loophole is as follows: As you may know, football is the only sport which has its own AI restrictions. For example, each team is allowed only two admits per year from “the low band,” where the best athletes usually are found. (That’s where they should be found. If each coach only gets two, they had better be good or his team will suffer. Of course, high scoring recruits such as Ryan Fitzpatrick are the big prize because they have academic bona fides and can play.)

All other sports get lumped together into one general pool at each school. Each university merely needs to keep the mean AI of athletes from ALL its sports above a level which falls within one standard deviation of the average AI score for all students at that university.

Therefore, each school has tremendous latitude in how it allocates its low AI athletes internally between non-football sports. Traditionally, these low AI admits were sprinkled among a number of teams so that many coaches would have the benefit of one or two. Men’s basketball probably got no more low AI admits than, say, baseball or lacrosse.

Harvard has made the strategic decision to emphasize men’s basketball, allocating many more than the typical one or two low AI admits to the program. As long as each recruit satisfies the League minimum score of 176, that is Harvard’s prerogative under current rules. Other Ivies have their favorite sports as well. But because basketball has such a small roster, strategically allocating low AI admits to hoops can have a disproportionately beneficial impact than it does in baseball or lacrosse, as we are seeing with Harvard’s remarkable improvement since Amaker arrived.

So it’s a fine line between cheating and taking full advantage of a loophole which exists for all. Whatever the semantics, for the time being, Amaker has an enormous advantage compared to his seven Ivy coaching peers because they do not get similar admissions leeway from their own institutions.

You characterize the situation aptly when you say “that Harvard has found a way to massage the system.” I agree with your choice of words that, for all sports besides football, the AI arrangement is just what you call it, a “gentleman’s agreement” that the other sports will be treated relatively equally on each campus.

Furthermore, only in football is there any kind of supervision or AI compliance function. Football teams need to share AI data, but all other sports are treated more or less on an honor system. As long as a school’s self-reported overall mean is sufficiently high, no further audit is performed.

With so many high schools today using nontraditional grade point systems and not reporting class rank, there is a lot more leeway to any applicant’s AI score, athlete or not, than there was thirty years ago when the system was instituted. Getting one high-scoring power forward past the admissions door is easier when that component of the AI is less precise.

I repeat my assertion that, when Harvard travels outside of conference, the Crimson are absolutely competing on a level field. Any high profile wins such as Central Florida, BC or Florida State are legitimate reasons for celebration. But when Tommy Amaker wins the Ivy title with more low AI admits on his team than James Jones or Jerome Allen are working with, that’s -- in the spirit of the Academic Index law, if not the letter -- cheating.

3:41 PM  
Blogger George Clark said...

Finally, someone has explained the reality of the situation. The key, to me, is the assertion that "Harvard has made the strategic decision," not simply the basketball coach. When Gary Walters, a Carril guy, took the AD job many believed that Princeton made that kind of strategic decision. No such luck. Sydney Johnson's abrupt departure last year indicates, to me at least, his understanding that the deck is stacked. If your facts are correct, your conclusion follows unavoidably. I just wish my institution would choose to compete.

10:46 PM  
Blogger SportsProf said...

Thanks to both Anonymous and George for the last two comments. I think that Sydney Johnson left because he saw that he'd have trouble winning (although I thought the same thing of Bill Carmody when he left Princeton, because after seeing Penn's Ugonna Onyekwe play, I figured Carmody thought there was no way Princeton would win an Ivy title for the next three years; Carmody at least left for a Big Ten school, while Johnson went to Fairfield, not exactly a step up).

It will be interesting to see what the Ivies do about this. I don't think that they'll continue to let it happen. First, women's teams will complain about equality. Second, regulations come into play in all sorts of areas where someone is too successful or where there are unintended consequences (as seems to be the case with Harvard's men's team).

Penn fans have to smile widely at this controversy. For years, I think, some would have thought that they would do such a thing with the index and their men's team, but they aren't the ones doing it -- it's Harvard, of all places. Makes you wonder about the line between aggressiveness, genius, boldness, and unethical behavior. Sure, it's "compliant," but is it the right thing to do?

I would argue that the Ivies didn't set up the AI system beyond football to create a result like this.

10:29 AM  
Blogger George Clark said...

Additional factors in Carmody's decision to leave:1. Chris Young signed a baseball contract, thereby disqualifying him from Ivy sports, and 2. NW president was a former Princeton faculty member with whom Carmody had a close relationship. If he had left a few months earlier Scott would have been the coach at that time. The job JTlll did in his first year remains one of the best by anyone in Ivy history. On the recruiting thread, the President of the Princeton basketball boosters believes that Harvard's only recruiting advantage is its "urban campus" and that its recent good fortune may be dismissed as "flash in the pan" success.

4:44 PM  

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