AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

At Harvard, education through athletics (and vice-versa)

Leave a comment

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (AP) — When Harvard sophomore Seth Towns awoke in his riverside dorm room Wednesday morning, he had options.

He could work out at the gym to prepare for the upcoming Ivy League basketball season. He could slog downstairs for another dining hall breakfast with his roommates. Or he could head over to Harvard Square to eat instead with civil rights activist Harry Edwards, sportscaster James Brown, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and philosopher Cornel West.

Towns chose to stretch his mind instead of his muscles.

“It’s the kind of thing you come to Harvard for,” the 6-foot-7 forward for the Crimson basketball team said. “Growing up, I would have never thought that I’d have these people to look up to and talk to. I’m just acting as a sponge, and taking it all in.”

At a monthly event dubbed the “Breakfast Club,” tucked away in the private dining room of a Harvard Square hotel restaurant, Towns and senior Chris Egi joined coach Tommy Amaker this week to mingle with a few dozen leaders in the city’s financial, political and intellectual communities.

Later that afternoon, Edwards spoke to the whole basketball team about a life at the intersection of sports and activism, from John Carlos and Tommie Smith — not to mention Malcolm X — to Colin Kaepernick.

Amaker arranged the talk for a simple but somewhat quaint reason: As long as his paycheck comes from Harvard, he plans to take his role as an educator seriously.

“We’re teaching, we’re engaging, we’re exposing. We’re hopefully enlightening,” Amaker said. “I’m not sure how much they know about Dr. Harry Edwards. But we’re going to give them an education about that. I promise you that.”

The oldest and most prestigious university in the United States, Harvard has produced more than its share of U.S. presidents and Nobel laureates, along with national champions in sports like hockey and crew. But the highlight of the athletic year has always been the football team’s century-old rivalry with Yale known as The Game.

The Crimson basketball team had never won an Ivy League title, beaten a ranked team or cracked The Associated Press Top 25 before Amaker arrived in 2007. But the former Duke point guard, who previously coached at Seton Hall and Michigan, knew he had something else going for him.

“How amazingly powerful the brand and the calling card of Harvard is,” he said. “It’s a powerful pull.”

While other schools built barbershops or miniature golf courses for their athletes, Amaker name-dropped Harvard’s academic credentials to attract top talent, landing a 2016 recruiting class that was ranked in the top 10 nationally — unheard-of for an Ivy school. He has also used it to lure politicians, Hall of Fame basketball players and coaches, and business and thought leaders to speak to his players on issues more important than bounce passes or boxing out.

“I tell them, ‘You’ll forever be able to say you lectured at Harvard,'” he said, half-joking. “They all like that.”

Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar spoke to the team last year, two weeks before the presidential election — not about his basketball records or titles, but about the rising tide of racism that concerned him. Edwards’ talk on Wednesday put Kaepernick’s national anthem protest in the context of athlete activism over the decades.

Amaker also shuttles his team to local plays with social justice themes. At an annual “Faculty, Food and Fellowship” dinner, they might hear from a cabinet secretary, a presidential candidate or a dean. And the Breakfast Club allows them to connect with prominent Bostonians and others with Harvard ties, many of them African-American.

“Their motivation is the full-rounded commitment to the people who play ball for them,” said Clifford Alexander, who played freshman basketball at Harvard and went on to serve as the first black Secretary of the Army.

“(Amaker) does not think that just because you can shoot and pass, that’s the end of his responsibility,” he said. “If you can find three other places in the country where the football or basketball team gets that kind of talk, I’ll buy you dinner.”

At last week’s breakfast, Towns sat down to eggs and French toast served family style a few seats away from orthopedic surgeon Gus White, the first black graduate of Stanford’s medical school, who this June gave the commencement address there 56 years after he spoke at his own graduation.

To Brown, the arrangement was a formula for success: “The teams I’ve seen that are successful are a mix of veterans and younger players,” he said.

Along with Harvard Law School professor Charles Ogletree, Amaker started the Breakfast Club as a sort of “kitchen cabinet” of advisers when he first arrived on campus as the only black head coach among Harvard’s 32 varsity teams.

But Amaker has also turned the mostly — but not entirely — African-American gathering into a network for his players, inviting them to meet potential mentors in law and business and medicine and politics, as well as authors and occasionally an athlete with something interesting to say.

“It’s one thing to read about riding a bicycle or swimming. It’s another thing to get in the pool,” Edwards told the group last week. Towns watched the luminaries file out after breakfast and said: “I’m in the pool right now.”

Then-Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas spoke last year, and two Massachusetts governors have dropped by the gathering. Egi said he met a professor at the Breakfast Club that led to an independent study and a research project that is now in its second year.

“Just being exposed to people who’ve done important things, and getting to hear about their life stories — it’s an inspiration,” the senior forward from Canada said.

And that, Amaker said, pays off on the court.

Too often, he said, colleges are forced into a false choice between education and athletics, between grades and winning games. But creating well-rounded, thinking citizens also makes them better players, he said.

“This isn’t something that’s happened because we’ve won a few games,” Amaker said. “I’m saying to you: This is how we won those games.”

And the wins have come.

In Amaker’s tenure, the school earned the first five Ivy League titles in its history, making four trips to the NCAA tournament and twice advancing as a double-digit seed. Harvard grad Jeremy Lin became an NBA star (though somewhat meteorically).

Amaker himself now occupies an endowed coaching position and is a special assistant to Harvard President Drew Faust. The school’s basketball arena, first built in 1926, is being renovated at a cost of $12 million, according to the architectural firm.

More importantly, there are off-the-court success stories, too.

Corbin Miller, who came to Harvard from Utah, said a faculty talk with Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen led him to a tech startup where he’s worked since graduating last spring.

Like Towns, he had options.

“You could kind of look around and see that each person in there had been affected in there in a pretty deep way,” Miller said. “Apart from the athletics and apart from the academics, it was a life lesson. It’s really a setup for the rest of your life, whether it’s basketball immediately after or not.”

Follow Jimmy Golen on Twitter

Bracketology: Purdue on a dominant run

Stacy Revere/Getty Images
1 Comment

How good has Purdue been?

Let’s take a quick peek … the Boilermakers haven’t lost since returning from Atlantis in November.  They are 5-0 in true road games, own a 6-2 mark against the NCAA’s new “Group 1” category, and have won 19 games by an average margin of 22.6 points.  This morning, Purdue ranks No. 1 on the Sagarin index and No. 2 at Ken Pom.  The Boilers also have a favorable Big Ten schedule; they only play Ohio State (home) and Michigan State (road) once.  In other words, without a slip up, Purdue is well on its way toward a potential No. 1 seed come March.

UPDATED: January 22, 2018

FIRST FOUR PAIRINGS – Dayton (First Round)

  • Kansas State vs. USC | South Region
  • Houston vs. Missouri West Region
  • WAGNER vs. NC A&T | East Region
  • FLA GULF COAST vs. ARK-PINE BLUFF | Midwest Region

BRACKET PROJECTION …

EAST Boston                 MIDWEST – Omaha            
Pittsburgh Detroit
1) VILLANOVA 1) PURDUE
16) NC A&T / WAGNER 16) FL GULF CST / ARK-PB
8) Miami-FL 8) SAINT MARY’S
9) Alabama 9) Florida State
Boise Dallas
5) Florida 5) Tennessee
12) BUFFALO 12) MID TENNESSEE
4) Ohio State 4) Texas Tech
13) E TENNESSEE ST 13) LOYOLA-CHICAGO
Wichita Nashville
6) Kentucky 6) Wichita State
11) SMU 11) Washington
3) Oklahoma 3) Clemson
14) VERMONT 14) WILLIAM & MARY
Nashville Detroit
7) Michigan 7) NEVADA
10) Butler 10) Arkansas
2) North Carolina 2) Xavier
15) CANISIUS 15) MONTANA
WEST – Los Angeles SOUTH – Atlanta
Charlotte Charlotte
1) Duke 1) VIRGINIA
16) RADFORD 16) PENNSYLVANIA
8) TCU 8) Providence
9) Marquette 9) Texas
San Diego Boise
5) RHODE ISLAND 5) Arizona State
12) NEW MEXICO ST 12) SOUTH DAKOTA ST
4) Michigan State 4) CINCINNATI
13) BELMONT 13) LOUISIANA
San Diego Dallas
6) Gonzaga 6) Seton Hall
11) Houston / Missouri 11) Kansas State / USC
3) ARIZONA 3) AUBURN
14) S.F. AUSTIN 14) WRIGHT STATE
Wichita Pittsburgh
7) Creighton 7) Louisville
10) Texas AM 10) Georgia
2) KANSAS 2) West Virginia
15) HAWAII 15) BUCKNELL

NOTES on the BRACKET: Villanova is the No. 1 overall seed – followed by Purdue, Virginia, and Duke

Last Four Byes (at large): Butler, Texas AM, SMU, Washington

Last Four IN (at large): Houston, Missouri, USC, Kansas State

First Four OUT (at large): Boise State, NC State, Baylor, Notre Dame

Next four teams OUT (at large): Syracuse, Maryland, UCLA, LSU

Breakdown by Conference …

SEC (9): AUBURN, Florida, Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Texas AM, Missouri

ACC (7): VIRGINIA, Duke, North Carolina, Clemson, Louisville, Miami-FL, Florida State

Big East (7): VILLANOVA, Xavier, Seton Hall, Creighton, Providence, Marquette, Butler

BIG 12 (7): KANSAS, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Texas Tech, TCU, Texas, Kansas State

Big 10 (4): PURDUE, Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan

American (4): CINCINNATI, Wichita State, SMU, Houston

Pac 12 (4): ARIZONA, Arizona State, Washington, USC

West Coast (2): SAINT MARY’S, Gonzaga

Atlantic 10 (1): RHODE ISLAND

Mountain West (1): NEVADA

ONE BID LEAGUES: Loyola-Chicago (MVC), Canisius (MAAC), Middle Tennessee (C-USA), Louisiana (SBELT), Penn (IVY), Montana (BSKY), Wright State (HORIZON), S.F. Austin (SLND), East Tennessee State (STHN), Hawaii (BWEST), Buffalo (MAC), Florida Gulf Coast (ASUN), Belmont (OVC), William & Mary (CAA), Radford (BSO), North Carolina A&T (MEAC), South Dakota State (SUM), New Mexico State (WAC), Vermont (AEAST), Bucknell (PAT), Wagner (NEC), Arkansas-Pine Bluff (SWAC)

Bracketing principles: read them for yourself at http://www.ncaa.com.

Team Of The Week: Kansas Jayhawks

Justin K. Aller/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Remember all that stuff we said about how this is the year the streak ends and how Kansas is no longer the favorite to win the Big 12 regular season title?

LOL

J/K

Kansas is awesome again, apparently.

The Jayhawks managed one of the most impressive comebacks of the season on Monday, erasing a 16-point deficit at West Virginia to pick up a massive road win before hanging on against Baylor at home. Bill Self’s club now holds sole possession of first place in the Big 12 and a win on the home court of the only team that’s within a game of first-place: West Virginia.

Not even losing Billy Preston can put a damper on a week like that.

THEY WERE GOOD, TOO

  • KANSAS STATE: The Wildcats thrust themselves into the NCAA tournament picture by knocking off both No. 4 Oklahoma and No. 24 TCU at home this week. The win over the Sooners was particularly impressive, as TCU held Trae Young to his worst game of the season.
  • SAINT MARY’S: Remember when we said that Saint Mary’s was the favorite to win the WCC this season? That seemed crazy for a while. Not so much now that the Gaels own a win over Gonzaga in Spokane.
  • PROVIDENCE: The Friars are working their way back into the NCAA tournament picture. This week, they picked off Butler and Creighton at home. The Friars have now won four straight – including Xavier – and currently sit just a game out of first place in the Big East.
  • NEVADA: The Wolf Pack moved into sole possession of first place in the Mountain West after they knocked off Boise State in Reno late on Saturday night. Eric Musselman is looking more and more like a guy that can take his team on a run in the NCAA tournament.
  • ALABAMA: The Crimson Tide extended their winning streak to four games after back-to-back wins this week, including a win over Auburn. Most impressive, however, is that both of those wins came without Collin Sexton healthy.

Player Of The Week: Jock Landale, Saint Mary’s

Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Prior to this week, Saint Mary’s season had been defined by a slump at the most inopportune time.

The Gaels lost to both Washington State and Georgia in the Wooden Legacy, the only two non-conference games they played against relevant opponents, and it put the program behind the eight-ball when it came to trying to earn  bid to the NCAA tournament.

What Saint Mary’s needed to do was win at least won – and quite likely two – games against Gonzaga during the WCC regular season. Consider the first step complete. Landale finished with 24 points, 12 boards, three assists and two blocks on Thursday night as Randy Bennett took his team into Spokane and picked off the No. 13 Zags. Saint Mary’s followed that up with a tougher-than-expected win over Pacific where Landale finished with 32 points and seven boards.

All told, Saint Mary’s is now in sole possession of first place in the league and in the midst of a 14 game winning streak, the final four of which all came on the road.

And Landale, who has quietly been one of the most productive and efficient big men in college basketball, led the way once again. He’s now averaging 22.4 points and 10.2 boards for a team that should get ranked in the top 25 this week. He’s very much in consideration for an All-American team now, and I’m not sure that would have been the case without that win on Thursday night.

THE ALL-‘THEY WERE GOOD, TOO’ TEAM

  • SHAKE MILTON, SMU: Milton played the best game of his career in the most important game of the season for the Mustangs, putting 33 points on 11-for-14 shooting and five assists on No. 7 Wichita State and Landry Shamet in a road win. He followed that up with 20 points, five boards and five assists in a win against Tulane.
  • JAMES PALMER, Nebraska: Palmer scored 24 points and hit a game-winning, buzzer-beating three against Illinois, following that up with 19 points, four boards and a pair of assists in a blowout win over No. 23 Michigan.
  • DEAN WADE, Kansas State: The Wildcats put themselves firmly in the NCAA tournament picture with a pair of wins over ranked teams this week, beating No. 4 Oklahoma and No. 24 TCU. Wade, in those two games, averaged 20.5 points, 6.5 boards and 6.5 assists with four steals and two blocks.
  • J.P. MACURA, Xavier: Macura scored 16 points on Wednesday night to help Xavier put away St. John’s before leading the Musketeers with 27 points and five boards in a 73-64 win at No. 19 Seton Hall. The Musketeers had lost their previous two games on the road.
  • PARKER JACKSON-CARTWRIGHT, Arizona: Jackson-Cartwright has gotten plenty of stick this season for his issues on the defensive end of the floor, and it’s not necessarily unfair. But in a game at Stanford with first place in the Pac-12 on the line, Jackson-Cartwright made two massive defensive plays down the stretch to help seal the win.

College Basketball Power Rankings: Kentucky drops out of the Top 25

Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Leave a comment

I’m not sure that this Kentucky season can be considered a worst-case scenario.

Kentucky fans have seen a worst-case scenario.

That came during the 2012-13 season, when a Wildcat team that was trending towards the back end of the top 25 lost their star center Nerlens Noel to a torn ACL in February, dooming them to the NIT, where they lost in the first round to Robert Morris.

That is a worst-case scenario, and barring something totally unforeseen, this Kentucky team is not going to turn into that Kentucky team.

This group looks much more like the team we saw the following year, the one that featured Julius Randle, James Young, the Harrison twins and Willie Cauley-Stein and entered the NCAA tournament as a No. 8 seed with a 24-10 record before making a run to the national title game. That team had plenty of talent, but they never quite gelled until March.

This year’s team does not have that same level of talent, but they are running into some of the same problems.

The question is whether or not this group actually has the potential to come together and make a run like that 2014 team.

RELATED: Kentucky just is not that good

And frankly, I still think they do. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has emerged as a go-to guy while Kevin Knox had seemingly regained his confidence before a poor performance in the home loss to Florida. Quade Green has returned to the lineup, as has Jarred Vanderbilt, who might be the key to unlock the potential on this roster.

In an ideal world, Kentucky’s length and athleticism allows them to be one of the nation’s best defensive teams while the playmaking of Vanderbilt and Green makes their offense fluid enough that they overcome some of their shooting issues. I can still tell myself a story where Kentucky finds a way to put it all together for six straight games in March.

But that’s not who they are right now.

And with each passing game, I grow less and less confident that the elite will ever come out of this group.

Kentucky is not a top 25 basketball team right now. They are nowhere near one of the favorites to win a national title right now. And, at this point, Kentucky fans would do well to adjust their expectations, as a trip out of the Sweet 16 should be considered a success.

Here is the full top 25.

1. Villanova, 18-1 (Last Week: No. 1)
2. Purdue, 19-2 (2)
3. Virginia, 18-1 (5)
4. Kansas, 16-3 (13)
5. Michigan State, 17-3 (7)
6. Duke, 17-2 (10)
7. West Virginia, 16-3 (4)
8. Arizona, 16-4 (8)
9. Xavier, 18-3 (11)
10. Oklahoma, 14-4 (6)
11. North Carolina, 16-4 (17)
12. Texas Tech, 15-4 (3)
13. Cincinnati, 17-2 (19)
14. Ohio State, 17-4 (22)
15. Auburn, 17-2 (18)
16. Tennessee, 13-5 (23)
17. Wichita State, 15-4 (9)
18. Clemson, 16-3 (20)
19. Saint Mary’s, 19-2 (NR)
20. Gonzaga, 17-4 (16)
21. Nevada, 18-3 (NR)
22. Florida, 14-5 (NR)
23. Rhode Island, 15-3 (NR)
24. Arizona State, 15-4 (14)
25. TCU, 14-5 (25)

DROPPED OUT: No. 12 Seton Hall, No. 15 Kentucky, No. 21 Michigan, No. 24 Miami

NEW ADDITIONS: No. 19 Saint Mary’s, No. 21 Nevada, No. 22 Florida, No. 23 Rhode Island

VIDEO: Northern Colorado wins game with halfcourt buzzer beater

Screengrab via @BigSkyMBB
Leave a comment

Northern Colorado knocked off North Dakota on Saturday night thanks to a half court buzzer-beating three from Andre Spight.

Spight is averaging 20.3 points on the season and finished with 34 points and six assists in the 94-91 win.