Until recently, Harvard's basketball program was, frankly, non-existent.
The Crimson are the only Ivy program to have never won a conference title in men's basketball. Of the 34 teams that Harvard lists on their website, the men's basketball program is the only one that has never won the Ivy League. As Tommy Amaker told the New York Times back in March, "I'm not sure you can walk anywhere on this campus and find something that hasn't been done before."
Except, of course, winning a conference title in men's basketball.
You want more examples of their historic ineptitude in hoops?
Prior to the 2009-10 season, the program had never won 20 games. They had managed double figure wins in Ivy League play just twice -- in 1970-71, when they went 11-3 and finished second in league play, and in 1996-97, when they finished 10-4 and tied for second. Their only NCAA Tournament appearance came way back in 1946, a full decade before Ivy League came into existence.
That should put the job that Tommy Amaker has done building the program into perspective. In 2007-08, his first year with the program, the Crimson finished 8-22 overall and 3-11 in conference play. Two years later, the Crimson had their first 20 win season, finishing third in the Ivy League standings and sending Jeremy Lin to the NBA, the first Harvard player to play in the league since Ed Smith in 1954.
Last season, the Crimson finished tied with Princeton for first place in conference play and came within a Douglas Davis leaner of making the NCAA Tournament. And with everyone from that team -- including a healthy Kyle Casey -- being joined by a recruiting class that ranks up with Gonzaga, Memphis and Xavier as the best among the non-BCS schools, its little wonder why the Crimson are the favorite to win their first Ivy League title this year.
There isn't a program in the country whose stock is rising as quickly as Harvard's.
In 2007-08, Harvard won eight games. Fast forward three seasons, and the Crimson are struggling to convince high-major programs to schedule them for a non-conference game.
Part of the program's rapid growth is luck. Lin was a diamond in the rough, a kid that didn't receive a single scholarship offer coming out of high school that happened to be a member of the Crimson when Amaker took over. The Ivy League isn't exactly a breeding ground for the NBA. Lin provided an invaluable foundation for Amaker to build his program around and a key marketing tool when he developed his star into a guy that can play in the NBA.
But Lin graduated in 2010, and not only did the Crimson get better the following season, that improvement will continue come November.
The credit for the continued improvement falls squarely on the shoulders of the coaching staff. The key for an up-and-coming program is to be able to market a successful season on the recruiting trail; to convince kids that not only is the winning not a fluke, but that the program will continue to grow; to bring in kids that should be playing at a higher level by selling them on that future success.
The talent in Harvard's 2011 recruiting class is impressive.
Among the six members of the class is Wesley Saunders. A 6'5" combo-forward from Los Angeles, Saunders not only held offers from USC, Colorado, and San Diego State, he was ranked 88th in the Rivals top 150. Kenyatta Smith, a 6'8" center out of Brea, CA, held offers from Northwestern and Vanderbilt and received heavy interest from UCLA, Stanford, and Cal during his recruitment. Smith was a top 20 center nationally according to both ESPN and Scout. Steve Moundou-Missi is a physical-if-undersized power forward from Florida that found his way onto Jeff Borzello's final top 150.
How is Harvard able to bring in this kind of talent?
"It boils down to Harvard targeting the right kids," said Borzello, who is a CBSSports.com recruiting analyst. "High academics and interested in actually getting an education. And [the coaching staff] sticks with them. They're not afraid of missing on a kid and they don't bail once a bigger school comes in the mix."
According to the US News & World Report's 2011 rankings, Harvard is the best school in the country, edging out fellow Ivy Leaguers Yale, Princeton and Columbia. As you might expect, that makes Harvard one of the most difficult schools -- and the most difficult university -- in the country to get accepted into.
Given the lack of reverence that the stereotypical blue-chip hoops recruit gives to hitting the books, you would think the stringent academic requirements would be a hindrance on Harvard's recruiting.
Actually, its quite the opposite.
"We're very comfortable with who we are," Harvard assistant coach Yanni Hufnagel told me by phone on Tuesday night. "We know that we're an Ivy. We know that we might not have the biggest arena or the best locker room. But what we think we have here is the best brand in the world and an incredible environment for the right kid."
"[The kids we recruit] come from great families who understand that Harvard's not a four year decision, it's a 40 year decision."
As Hufnagel explains it, the high academic requirement actually works in their favor. Whereas some of the bigger programs can literally recruit any kid in the country that is capable of signing his name on a letter of intent, Harvard has to narrow down their search. The pool of kids they can choose from is limited. And while that requires the coaching staff to do their due diligence identifying potential recruits, it also allows them to focus their energy on the kids that they know they can get into school.
"We've been very aggressive in trying to figure out who we want to recruit," Hufnagel said. "We want to get the best players in the country who are academically motivated and who are looking to take a little bit of a different path to greatness."
Hufnagel also stressed the value of building a strong relationship not only with the kid he is recruiting, but with the people in his life on a day-to-day basis.
"That's important," he said. "Without a strong relationship, we've got very little chance to have the kind of success we’re having and hope to have in the future."
Between the program's recent successes, their targeted recruiting efforts, the Harvard brand, and a head coach with a recognizable name, a perfect storm of recruiting is brewing.
And some of the nation's top talent has taken notice.
Zena Edosomwan is blossoming into one of the best big men on the West Coast. A product of Harvard-Westlake (CA) HS, Edosomwan is a Class of 2012 consensus top 100 recruit, topping out at 67th and 69th according to CBSSports.com and Scout.com, respectively. He's gotten interest from just about every school in the Pac-12, including UCLA, as well as programs like Texas, Maryland, Missouri and Vanderbilt.
But Harvard is up there on his list, battling with some of the biggest of the big boys.
"It's the No. 1 school in the world academically," Edosomwan said. "You can't beat a Harvard education. And also getting to know Coach Yanni, Coach Amaker and the rest of the coaching staff, I have a really good relationship with them."
Its clear in talking to Edosomwan, who was born in Houston to Nigerian parents, that academics matter to him. An extremely well-spoken young man, Edosomwan understands that basketball won't always be there. There are worse safety nets than a Harvard degree.
But he's also a very talented basketball player. The fact that Harvard is a winning program with a very good shot of playing in the NCAA Tournament and recent NBA pedigree is why the Crimson are a legitimate contender for his services.
"I really like Jeremy Lin's story," he said. "I remember watching him in college and thinking 'man, that guy's good.'"
"For him to have success [in the NBA], that's great to see. It shows the program their building, that players have continued success. I'm excited about that."
Edosomwan isn't the only high-profile recruit in the Class of 2012 that Harvard is chasing. Big man Mike Hall and point guard Siyani Chambers are among the high-major rising seniors Harvard is involved with.
The real litmus test for where this program is headed will come in the Class of 2013. Harvard is heavily involved with a number of top 50 recruits. Stephen Domingo, Brannen Greene, Austin Colbert, and Davon Reed -- all, at worst, borderline top 50 players -- are interested enough in the Crimson that they will be joining Edosomwan in an on-campus visit on September 22nd.
Harvard's rapid ascent amongst the ranks of the Ivy League has, as you might expect, begun to ruffle some feathers.
Its not necessarily due to their on-court success. The issue that has arisen is that Harvard's on-court success can be directly attributed to their recruiting success, which is flourishing as the result of lowered admission standards.
Or so believes Harvard's Ivy League opponents.
"They definitely lowered their standards, although the Ivy League has set standards using the academic index," an Ivy League source told me. "Its not like Harvard is admitting kids below what the league set. Its not like they're cheating. They're using what is a published rule. The difference is that it used to be that Yale, Harvard, and Princeton were the three hardest schools to get into. ... [They] bring a kid to admissions who is acceptable at other schools, but they're not getting in [there]."
"It used to be that Harvard wasn't getting those kids either. I think that, probably when Tommy showed up, they said 'listen, you can get in any kid that you want that's within the academic index rule of the league.' I think that's how they lure them to campus, and I think that’s at least partially the reason why they've been able to get better players and better talent and have a little bit of a turnaround."
The Ivy League is unique. For starters, none of the schools in the conference offer scholarships for academics or athletics. While they do provide need-based scholarships and financial aid, its another hoop that players heading to Ivy League schools need to jump through that isn't required at other programs around the country.
Then there is the academic index. The academic index, which can be determined using the calculator here, is a scale that factors in a recruit's standardized test scores, GPA and class rank and turns it into a single value. In order to be eligible to be accepted into an Ivy League school, a recruit needs to reach a league-mandated minimum value on his academic index.
And all that is before you factor in the teacher recommendations, the on-campus interviews, and the applications that non-basketball playing college students have to deal with around the country as they apply to schools.
"Every school in the Ivy League has the same minimum admission standards which no school, including Harvard, can go below," Hufnagel said. "What we've done is presented cases to admissions that are unique and compelling. Our admissions department values a kid's personal qualities more than anything else."
The issue other Ivy League teams have isn't that Harvard is breaking the rules. Its that they are no longer requiring more than the minimum, that they are allowing in recruits that barely reach the necessary academic index number.
"The answer is no," Hufnagel said emphatically when I asked him if Harvard had lowered their admission requirements for basketball players. "The admissions process for us is probably the most difficult piece of the puzzle."
Its easy to write off either side. On the one hand, fellow Ivy League members are jealous of Harvard's recruiting success and their pending Ivy League dominance. On the other hand, you have a Harvard staff member defending his program. Both parties have reason to try and spin the news in their favor.
But consider this -- I'm told one fairly recent Harvard target, who was a borderline top 100 recruit, tried to commit to the Crimson. After being asked to try and get a higher test score, the recruit opted to head elsewhere, ending up at a program in a high-major conference.
"Our admissions would never admit a kid that they don't feel confident in to have an incredible amount of success in the classroom and as a part of the community at Harvard," Hufnagel said. "Our guys have done an incredible job at backing that up. We are very proud of the job our team has done in the classroom."
As any college basketball fan can tell you, mid-major programs are as powerful as they have ever been.
Gonzaga and Xavier have established themselves as the elite, the high-major operating outside a BCS conference. Butler is well on their way to doing the same, having made back-to-back title games. George Mason and VCU both reached the Final Four in the last five years. The Steph Curry-led Davidson team came a 25 foot airball away from making the Final Four.
Perhaps the most relevant recent postseason run for Harvard is Cornell's 2010 Sweet 16 run. The Big Red play in the Ivy League as well.
That's the direction the Crimson see their program heading.
"There's no rule that Harvard can't go to a Final Four," Hufnagel said. "In fact, that's our goal and vision. ... Now we're presenting that dream, that vision, to our future recruits. I think it's a lot harder to see that when you're 8-22. But when you're 23-7, it's a lot easier to see where this thing can go."
The difference between playing in a league like the Ivy and a power conference is shrinking. Slowly, yes. But it is. With the arrival of the internet, the reach of ESPN, and a 24 hour newscycle that features constant updates from writers, bloggers and tweeters from every corner of the college basketball landscape, small conference studs are no longer a secret.
Jeremy Lin proved that its possible to make the NBA from the Ivy League. Greg Mangano of Yale, who is currently playing for Team USA at the World University Games, may do the same next year. Cornell and company have proven its possible to have great success on college basketball's biggest stage despite coming out of the small conferences.
Its a part of the reason Harvard is able to chase some of the best players in the country.
"In a way now, for us, its almost like the higher level the player, the greater the attraction," Hufnagel said. "Now, the way it is with the high school kids that have such a buzz about them, a profile with rankings, they're on people's radar before they even play a college game."
At Harvard, not only will you be able to compete with the best teams in the country and set yourself up for a potential professional career, but you'll leave school with a degree from the best university in the country.
"People might think I'm crazy for saying it," Hufnagel said, "but if you can do it at Harvard, why would you want to do it anywhere else?"
Thursday, August 11, 2011
Until recently, Harvard's basketball program was, frankly, non-existent.