By Terry Lyons of DigitalSportsDesk.com
CAMBRIDGE, Mass — “Think-Tanks” abound in the congested enclave located across the Charles River from Boston. The bustling suburb of Cambridge is known for its smarts and, in fact, was named as the fourth “smartest” city by Forbes Magazine a year or two ago. But that survey surely factored in the dim bulbs of Wall Street in the 10001-10005 zip codes, and we know where their smarts got them.
Down the road and across the river from Harvard Square, you’ll find an athletic complex in Allston that dates back to 1903.
Harvard Stadium and the surrounding facilities don’t define the institution, as its medical school is second to none in working the miracles of stem-cell research, while the Kennedy School of Government and Harvard Business School both seem to matter a lot more to this world than Ivy League athletics.
But tucked in, just off Soldier’s Field Road behind Harvard Stadium and Dillon Field House and just a short walk away from the Bright Hockey Center where Oliver Barrett IV fell in love with Jennifer Cavelleri (look-up Love Story if you don’t get the reference), there is Lavietes Pavillion, a 2,195-seat excuse of a gym that houses the men’s and women’s basketball teams of Harvard University.
The building honors Ray Lavietes, Class of ’36, a two-year letterman for men’s hoops team who donated a couple million to help the Crimson update the gym with some new offices, a lounge, a nice lobby and trophy case. But the trophies in that case mostly belong to Harvard women’s basketball team as its coach, Kathy Delaney-Smith, is in her 30th season as head coach and only trails Princeton’s legend and Hall of Famer Pete Carill’s 514 victories. A quick look at the math shows Harvard’s victory over Boston University last week to be Delaney-Smith’s 458th, leaving her only 56 behind the wizard of Princeton, to steal a phrase from UCLA, Hollywood and Westwood.
Just 56 more and the popular Harvard coach will be the winningest coach for any sport in all of Ivy League athletics history. Not bad.
That might seem to be a bit daunting to the coach of the Harvard men’s basketball team, but Tommy Amaker has enjoyed an amazing basketball career himself, as he is mostly known for his backcourt work for the Duke Blue Devils where he led the team as its point guard extraordinaire during four consecutive NCAA tournament appearances and the 1986 NCAA championship when Duke boasted a stunning 37-3 record.
He later became an assistant coach to Duke’s Hall of Fame head man, Mike Krzyzewski, and helped guide Duke during two other NCAA championships and five Final Fours. He left Durham to become the head coach at Seton Hall University in the rough and tough Big East Conference, then went on to coach Michigan in the Big Ten when it actually had just 10 teams.
In 2007, Amaker was named head coach of the Harvard Crimson, and he is entering his fifth year at the school, a year after coaching his team to a co-championship in the Ivy League but a disappointing loss in a playoff game which left Harvard without a ticket to the big NCAA tournament — the same disappointing result for the school since its appearance in the 1946 NCAAs (2011 – 1946 = 65 years, for you non-Ivy leaguers and the other mathematically challenged.)
The 2011-12 season might just be the time for Harvard men’s basketball. In many preseason polls, Amaker and the Crimson were penciled-in as the odds-on favorites to win the Ivy League title, a feat to be noted, as last year’s Anastasia/Drizella act was the only NCAA basketball title the men have ever shared. The team is off to a 7-0 start in 2011, including two impressive wins at Holy Cross and Loyola Marymount (LA) and an in-season tournament win after three victories at The Bahamas’ Paradise Island versus Utah, Florida State and upstart Central Florida, the semi-final winner over then-No. 4 ranked UConn. Take that Brendan Suhr.
In Harvard’s 46-41 win over the ACC’s Florida State Seminoles, the halftime score of 14-14 gave viewers the cause for a double-take to be sure the Crimson weren’t dabbling in big-time NCAA football rather than hoops. The Harvard faithful, however, are now very accustomed to a lock-down defensive strategy that Amaker has installed with a gradual success rate that will make Duke and Coach K envious.
But, to say the least, the Ivy League honchos know the story because the Crimson earned 16 of the 17 first-place votes in a preseason poll to predict the league champions, with rival Yale registering one first-place vote and tied for second in the poll with Princeton. Rounding out the poll were Penn, Brown, Cornell, Columbia and Dartmouth.
Harvard is coming off a 23-7 season and a trip to the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) for the first time in program history. Amaker has 12 players returning from last year’s team, including senior co-captain and reigning Ivy League Player of the Year, Keith Wright.
Wright, who led Harvard with 14.8 points and 8.3 rebounds per game last season, was named to the John R. Wooden Award Preseason Top 50.
Oliver McNally, also a senior co-captain, finished second in the nation and established a new Harvard record last year when he made 92.6 percent (100-of-108) of his free throw attempts. Juniors Kyle Casey, Brandyn Curry and Christian Webster also return after being honored to the All-Ivy League team. Casey averaged 10.7 points and 6.0 boards per game, while Curry was an Academic All-Ivy League choice.
“We’ve been building toward something like this,” said Amaker after winning the Thanksgiving tournament at the Atlantis in the Bahamas. “It’s nice to see it happen for us. We’ve talked about and worked toward it, but we certainly needed to see it happen, and it certainly happened for us here.”
The 7-0 start (heading into a Sunday afternoon matchup against Seattle) has Harvard a few votes away from a Top 25 ranking in this week’s major college polls. In the Associated Press rankings, Harvard claimed 101 votes, just 14 away from No. 25 Texas A&M, while in the ESPN/USA Today poll, Harvard was 17 votes shy of No. 25 Saint Louis. While an appearance in the Top 25 polls would be gratifying, the real deal will be Harvard’s Ivy League record, and the league schedule doesn’t begin until a January 7th tilt versus Dartmouth.
In the week ahead, the undefeated record will be in likely go down the test tubes when the Crimson travel to play No. 10 Connecticut on Dec. 8. After that, while juggling their term finals and the holidays, Harvard will play the locals, Boston University (Dec. 10) and Boston College (December 29).
For now, that 1.000 winning percentage has Tommy Amaker and the ten thousand men of Harvard feeling as though this may be the season to break that 65-year drought.
SheridanHoops.com and DigitalSportsDesk.com will be providing our readers with shared content as the basketball season progresses. This column is by DigitalSportsDesk.com founder and executive editor Terry Lyons, who has resettled in Boston after a 25-plus year career with the NBA league office, where he often wrote for Hoops Magazine and NBA.com.