Pictured: Keith Wright and the Crimson are bringing Harvard
to the forefront of college basketball (Steve Slade)
by Curtis Eichelberger, Bloomberg
Dec. 23 (Bloomberg) -- Harvard University, the oldest and wealthiest U.S. school, hired Tommy Amaker three years ago to build a basketball program that would compete for Ivy League championships. The investment is paying off.
The Crimson, 7-2, have their best start in 25 years and face No. 14 Georgetown University today. All-Ivy League guard Jeremy Lin is averaging 18.6 points and 4.6 assists a game. Sophomore forward Keith Wright, twice named Ivy League Rookie of the Week last season, leads Harvard with 15 blocked shots. And the team's up-tempo offense and 50 percent field-goal shooting led it to a 74-67 upset victory over Boston College.
"We're not a nationally ranked team, yet," Amaker said. "But we certainly believe it's possible. The institution has put the pillars in place. We have a vision. We're going to do this."
The Cambridge, Massachusetts, school does have other rankings: It's listed as the best university in the country by U.S. News & World Report along with Princeton. In intercollegiate basketball, it faces obstacles.
The Crimson play in a 2,195-seat gym that's smaller than many high school arenas. The Ivy League, which is composed of eight top-ranked schools in the Northeast U.S., doesn't allow athletic scholarships to defer Harvard's $48,868-a-year cost of attendance, and the league doesn't have a national television agreement to showcase its best players.
The Harvard Brand
Amaker, 44, a former All-American point guard at Duke University who spent four seasons coaching Seton Hall and six seasons coaching Michigan, says he has one thing working to his advantage: the Harvard brand.
"I tell (recruits) no matter what happens on the basketball court, the worst-case scenario is that you finish with a Harvard degree," Amaker said. "Think about that. And you get to play basketball at the Division I level, too. Hey, we can build a great team here."
It would be the first one. The Crimson haven't won a league championship in their 109-year history, finishing second three times.
"I really think they are building something there," said Jay Bilas, a former Duke player who now is an ESPN basketball analyst. "Tommy has done an unbelievable job creating a culture of winning and competing that wasn't there before."
Bilas said more-athletic recruits and a tougher schedule -- including a 85-64 win over Rice and a 79-73 loss to then-No. 14 Connecticut -- are helping build the program. Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, is the two-time defending Ivy League champion. The Big Red are 9-2 this season.
"I don't think anyone went into that UConn game thinking, ‘We lead the nation in moral victories,'" Bilas said of the Harvard players. "These guys expect to win now."
Wright, a sophomore psychology major from Suffolk, Virginia, who carries a 3.0 grade-point average, said he chose Harvard over Illinois, Virginia Tech, George Mason and each of the other seven Ivy League schools.
"At Harvard, it was about making history," said Wright, who scored a career-high 21 points in the win over Boston College. "All the other coaches talked about being part of history, but Harvard doesn't have any history.
‘‘So we talked about making history; doing something great. So we work hard, accomplish something, and then we build on that. It happens one day at a time.''
Wright, 6-feet-8 and 240 pounds, said he would like to play professional basketball some day but knows the odds are long. If that doesn't work out, he said, Amaker's credo about the Harvard brand may be proven right.
‘‘I'm particularly interested in developmental psychology - - the upbringing of children," Wright said. "If I can't keep playing, I'll still have my degree and all that I learned here, to start my career."
The Crimson will face their biggest challenge of the season at noon today when they meet a taller Georgetown squad at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., a 10-minute drive from the Hoyas' campus. Georgetown, who won the national championship in 1984, is favored by 15 points, according to Las Vegas Sports Consultants, which helps set betting lines at the Nevada city's sports books.
"Georgetown moves the ball very well, and they are good shooters," Bilas said.
Georgetown's front line has an average 2-inch height advantage over the Crimson, and converts 36.6 percent of its 3- point field goals compared to Harvard's 30.9 percent.
Although Georgetown, 8-1, is nationally ranked, it's coming off a 61-57 loss to Old Dominion on Dec. 19. Before the Old Dominion loss, the Hoyas' closest game was a one-point victory over Philadelphia-based Temple University, 46-45, at home on Nov. 17.
"We are preparing for this game no differently than we did for Bryant or Rice," Wright said of Harvard's earlier victories. "We can't think of Georgetown as being, ‘Oh my gosh, these players are so great.' They are basketball players. But hey, so are we.
‘‘We have to play Harvard basketball, which starts with great defense and being true to our own identity.''
Amaker sees a program on the cusp of competing for its first Ivy League championship and perhaps more. What he needs to build the program now, he said, is better attendance and recognition from the school's students and fans.
What's the best way to get that?
‘‘Beating Georgetown would help," he said.