Harvard Tests Reality of Ivy Title Against Princeton

Harvard University's Keith Wright
Harvard University's Keith Wright, right, takes a shot against a University of Michigan defender in Ann Arbor, Michigan on Dec. 4, 2010. Photographer: Eric Bronson/Harvard Athletic Communications via Bloomberg

Harvard University Coach Tommy Amaker says his plan to bring the nation’s oldest college its first basketball title in more than a century of seasons is on track. He gets a major test tonight in Princeton, New Jersey.

“We said when we started: ‘We want to begin as an upstart, go to a contender, become a winner, become a champion and then create a dynasty,’” Amaker, 45, said in a telephone interview. “We think we are on schedule to doing some of those things.”

The Crimson are 15-3 and 4-0 in the Ivy League, the second-best start in school history. They top the standings ahead of preseason favorite Princeton University (14-4, 2-0) and the University of Pennsylvania (8-8, 2-0), which plays Dartmouth College (5-13, 1-3) tonight in Philadelphia. Harvard is the only team in the eight-school conference never to have won a basketball title.

Amaker was hired four years ago to challenge the Tigers and Quakers as perennial league leaders, and has big ideas for a basketball program that has never measured up to the Cambridge, Massachusetts, school’s ranking as the top university on U.S. News & World Report’s annual list.

Harvard fans may learn just how far along the team’s transformation is in tonight’s game, televised on Walt Disney Co.’s ESPNU.

Keith Wright, a junior forward from Suffolk, Virginia, is averaging a team-high 14.7 points a game along with 8.4 rebounds in an offense that sometimes has three or four guards on the court.

The Crimson start four sophomores and a junior, and lead the league in scoring defense, allowing an average of 62.7 points per game. They rank No. 2 in the nation in free-throw percentage (79.7), trailing Wisconsin (81.8 percent) in games played through Jan. 30, the most recent list available.

No Titles

Harvard, established in 1636, started a men’s basketball team in 1900-01, and didn’t field squads from 1909 to 1920. Its best start was in 1945-46, when it was 19-3 and went to the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament.

Since then, their best Ivy finish was second place with an 11-3 league record in 1970-71, and they finished third last season.

In the 54 years the Ivy League has been naming a men’s basketball champion, Princeton and Philadelphia-based Penn have each won at least a share of the title 25 times, followed by Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, with four each; Dartmouth in Hanover, New Hampshire, with two; and Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, and Columbia University in New York City with one apiece.

Princeton Coach Sydney Johnson, 36, played for the Tigers from 1993-94 through 1996-97, and was named the Ivy League Player of the Year after guiding the team to its second consecutive league title as a senior.

Victories Wanted

Johnson said Harvard has invested in its men’s basketball program, and that it’s clear to him the school is no longer satisfied with good efforts and moral victories.

“Their recruiting has been very aggressive over the last three years and that’s reflected in the depth of their roster,” Johnson said in a telephone interview. “When I attended Princeton as a player, Penn and Princeton were the dominant teams and kids who viewed themselves as basketball players would only consider those two schools.”

Cornell reached the third round of the NCAA tournament last season after winning its third straight Ivy League title. The league doesn’t give athletic scholarships, determines its champion without a postseason tournament and never has had more than one representative in the national championship field.

Pace of Play

Princeton, which last won the league title in 2003-04, has traditionally run a slower, half-court offense, but has quickened the pace at times this year, Amaker said. The Tigers also have more experience in their starting line-up with a senior, two juniors and two sophomores.

Sophomore guard Ian Hummer from Vienna, Virginia, is Princeton’s leading scorer with 13.7 points and 6.4 rebounds, while Douglas Davis, a junior guard from Philadelphia, is the best long-range threat, converting 42.3 percent of his 3-point shots.

“The pace of the game will be the biggest factor,” Harvard forward Kyle Casey, last season’s Ivy League Rookie of the Year, said in a telephone interview. “We like to get up and down, and Princeton has been known to slow it down. It will be a game of tempos.”

Former Duke Guard

Casey, 20, grew up near Harvard and attended Crimson games during high school. He chose Harvard over Stanford University, Davidson College and George Washington University because of the changes he saw taking place under Amaker, who played point guard for Duke University, the reigning NCAA national champion, from 1983 to 1987 before becoming an assistant coach with the Blue Devils for nine years.

“Coach Amaker said he wanted to win the Ivy League championship, change the atmosphere around the program and start a new breed of basketball here,” Casey said in a phone interview. “It happened. As we won, more students started showing up at games, the recruits were a higher caliber, the atmosphere changed.

“I really believed that he could do it. And I wanted to be part of something special like that. It just felt right. And I think we’re getting close.”

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