Tommy Amaker

Siyani Chambers, Wesley Saunders (AP Photo)

How Harvard spent 62 minutes waiting on its NCAA Tournament fate

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Siyani Chambers, Wesley Saunders (AP Photo)

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – An hour before tipoff, there was no power inside Lavietes Pavilion.

That appeared to be an ominous sign for Harvard, which needed a win over Brown and a Yale loss to Dartmouth, on the final day of the regular season, in order to keep its NCAA Tournament hopes alive.

By 9:02 p.m., in a state of bliss, Harvard senior forward Jonah Travis laid motionless on the court staring directly up at the Lavietes’ lights.

After an agonizing 62 minutes of sitting and waiting, an improbable sequence of events resulted in Harvard and Yale sharing the Ivy League title (the fifth straight for the Crimson), meaning the two teams will square off next Saturday at The Palestra in Philadelphia for a trip to the 2015 NCAA Tournament.

“Live to fight another day!” Travis told NBCSports.com.

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Harvard had just completed a 72-62 win over Brown in the regular season finale on Saturday night. For the next hour, the Crimson would see if Dartmouth would do its part by upsetting league-leading Yale. The night before, the Bulldogs had taken control of the Ivy League with a 62-52 win at Harvard, leaving Yale one-win shy of the program’s first tournament appearance since 1962.

“What’s the score?” Harvard’s Tommy Amaker asked reporters after the game, a rare instance in which a coach asks the first question during a press conference.

Two computers were streaming the game with the Bulldogs leading the Big Green 39-35 with 15:30 left in regulation. Amaker answered questions for 15 minutes before he exited the lounge that hangs above the far baseline of the arena.

Of course, not before he could get another update as he exited through the door.

“What do we got? What’s the score?” Amaker asked.

“49-46, Yale. 8:39 left,” he was told.

“Here we go,” Amaker said.

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With less than 30 seconds in the game, Harvard was up 69-60 when reserve forward Evan Cummins was fouled after corralling a miss from Brown’s Tavon Blackmon. Cummins made his way to the line as the Harvard student section began chanting, “Let’s go Dartmouth!” At that point, it was halftime in Hanover with Yale leading 30-29.

“We were talking a little bit about [the Yale-Dartmouth game] on the bench,” Harvard senior forward Wesley Saunders said.

“Somebody heard the score. I guess someone in the crowd was keeping up with the game. It was like [the game] Telephone … passing the score along.”

Once in the locker room, players were quick to confirm the scores they had heard while on the bench, tracking the Yale-Dartmouth game on their phones. With a senior night reception scheduled at the nearby Murr Center Lounge, many of the players filed out of the gym with their eyes glued to their screens.

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Several players chose to stay, watching the online stream along with two-dozen spectators, a far cry from the 2,195 fans that had packed the arena half an hour earlier.

By now, it’s 8:52 p.m. Yale has extended its lead to 57-52 with 35.2 left in regulation. Dartmouth freshman guard Miles Wright was fouled on the ensuing possession and went to the line shooting two.

“I can’t watch this,” shouts freshman guard Andre Chatfield, who left his spot at the scorer’s table and headed for the locker room.

Wright made both free throws, which cut the Yale lead to 57-54.

Chatfield came back to center court to hear that Dartmouth had forced a jump ball and re-gained possession. The 6-foot-4 freshman wanted to see what’s going on, but superstitious fans prohibited him from watching. Things have turned around since he walked away.

Chatfield and sophomore guard Matt Fraschilla stood together at midcourt, as Dartmouth took a 30-second timeout.

“Where’s my man, [Alex] Mitola?” asks Fraschilla.

“Is that your boy now?” a fan asks Fraschilla.

“I need him to be,” Fraschilla answers.

“Hey, if he can do it to us, why can’t he do it to them?” another fan says.

Mitola, Dartmouth’s leading scorer, went a perfect 10-for-10 from the line in the final two minutes to give the Big Green a 70-61 win over Harvard on Jan. 24. Everyone, in both gyms, knew he’d be the first option for Dartmouth.

Mitola wasn’t open on the flare screen, but Wright was coming off a pindown and tied the game with a 3-pointer.

With only two seconds remaining, Yale’s Javier Duren was fouled. At this point, Travis, one of two Harvard seniors still in the building, went and sat on the opposing team’s bench, by himself, hunched over, eyes glued to the gamecast app on his phone.

Duren split the pair. Yale is up 58-57.

On the ensuing inbound play, Wright, a former Division I quarterback prospect, heaved a two-handed pass, which is knocked out of bounds by Yale’s Justin Sears. The deflection by Sears puts Dartmouth in an ideal spot, under the Yale hoop with 1.9 seconds left.

Travis heard this, but refused to leave his spot, alone, on the bench.

Then this happened:

Gabas Maldunas gave Dartmouth a 59-58 lead with 0.5 seconds to go. Maldunas still had a free throw to shoot, but once Travis realized Dartmouth had taken the lead, he sprinted to half court and jumped into the arms of Chatfield. In that moment of euphoria was a freshman experiencing his first taste of madness with a senior whose hopes of wearing the slipper in March one more time remained alive.

Travis outweighs Chatfield by 40 pounds, so that moment lasted briefly before they both went crashing to the ground. Literally floored by what had just transpired, Travis stared up at the ceiling. Senior forward Charlie Anastasi dove right next to him. Fraschilla jumped on top of him to give him a hug, but Travis’ eyes were still locked on the lights.

“You can only dream about a moment like this coming true,” Travis told NBCSports.com. “If he (Maldunas) wants to come down to Harvard we’ll make sure to throw a big party for him.”

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It had been 62 minutes from the time Harvard had won its game until Dartmouth had completed the comeback against Yale. The coaching staff was out of sight shortly after Amaker’s press conference, and many of the players have been out of the arena for more than 30 minutes.

“Let’s go be with everyone,” said Anastasi, referring the senior night reception.

For the remaining members of the Harvard basketball team inside Lavietes Pavilion, it was officially time to party.

But next Saturday, at The Palestra in Philadelphia, the Crimson will find out if it’s time to dance.

Video courtesy of Maureen Anastasi

Harvard lands fourth commitment in 2015 class

Tommy Amaker
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Tommy Amaker has landed another recruit in the Class of 2015, as three-star sharpshooter Corey Johnson pledged to the Crimson on Tuesday.

Scout.com was the first to report the news.

The Vermont Academy star had taken his official visit to Harvard this weekend. He also took an official to Butler.

Johnson is a 6-foot-6 wing known for his three-point stroke, which is something that Harvard has been targeting in this class. The Crimson have stockpiled plenty of size along their front line, but getting enough consistent perimeter shooting, particularly now that Laurent Rivard is gone, is an issue.

Johnson joins Tommy McCarthy, Weisner Perez and Balsa Dragovic to make up Harvard’s 2015 class.

Unprecedented success hasn’t changed the roots of Harvard’s program

Siyani Chambers (AP Photo)
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Siyani Chambers (AP Photo)

Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we will be previewing the Ivy League.

MORE: 2014-2015 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

The job that Tommy Amaker has done turning Harvard into a nationally relevant — and now, nationally ranked — program is criminally underrated, and the proof can be found simply by putting together a list of the best rebuilding jobs in college coaching.

Because you won’t find the Crimson on that list.

In order for something to be rebuilt there has to be a foundation, something to build on, and prior to Amaker’s arrival in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Crimson weren’t just irrelevant from a national perspective, they were non-existent in the Ivy League’s power structure. When he took the job in the spring of 2007, Harvard had never won 20 games in a season. They were the only member of the conference to have never won a title in men’s basketball, and of the 34 teams that Harvard has on their campus, men’s basketball was the only one that had never brought home an Ivy League championship. Their most recent NCAA tournament trip? 1946, a full decade before the first season of Ivy League basketball.

Things are different these days.

Harvard has won at least 20 games in each of the last five years, reaching the postseason each season. The last three years, the Crimson have won the Ivy’s regular season title and advanced to the NCAA tournament, where they pulled off upsets in 2013 (No. 3 seed New Mexico) and 2014 (No. 5 seed Cincinnati).

RELATED: NBCSports.com’s Ivy League Preview

With yet another crop of high-major recruits joining the fray this year, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that we have Harvard ranked No. 23 in the country in our preseason top 25. There’s even an argument to be made that the Crimson are the best mid-major program in the country right now.

Hear me out.

Gonzaga can no longer be called mid-major despite the fact that they play in the WCC. It’s been that way for years. Wichita State plays in the Missouri Valley, but with the money they have invested in Gregg Marshall’s program and the success they’ve had in recent seasons, it’s fair to wonder if they still qualify as a “mid-major.” Butler and Creighton are in the Big East now. VCU and Davidson will be league foes in the Atlantic 10 this season.

Who’s better? Maybe Belmont? Stephen F. Austin? Wofford? Ohio? Maybe, but the argument isn’t the point. The simple fact that Harvard is very much in that discussion is, and I was curious: did Amaker actually think that was possible at Harvard?

So I asked him.

“Yes, to be very honest,” he said this week in a phone interview with NBCSports.com, and it makes sense. Remember, this is a guy that played and coached at Duke. He reached the Sweet 16 in 2000 and then reeled in an excellent recruiting class that included Eddie Griffin, Andre Barrett and Marcus Toney-El at Seton Hall. He coached at Michigan for six seasons. You don’t get those jobs without having a little bit of confidence in yourself.

And that confidence was easy to see on the recruiting trail, at least in the eyes of Siyani Chambers. Chambers, a junior guard, is one of the best players in the Ivy League. He’s been Harvard’s starting point guard since the day he set foot on campus, picking the Crimson over a handful of high-major programs.

“I was not aware of it,” Chambers said of Harvard’s lack of basketball pedigree in an interview with NBCSports.com this week. “I was just aware of what Coach Amaker was telling me and the future that he saw for us and how I could contribute to the rise of the program.

“When I was looking to come here my senior year in high school, I saw a program on the rise after their first trip to the NCAA tournament and Coach Amaker said, ‘This is what we’re trying to continue to do. So if we work hard and continue to bring in good recruiting classes, this is how we’re supposed to be for a long time.’ I bought into it. So did everyone else that’s come through here.”

And that, more than anything, is the most impressive part of the job that Amaker has done with the Crimson. Not only has he proven that it’s possible to win there, but he’s managed to convince everyone — the school, the coaching staff, the players he recruits — that this is the way it should have been all along.

It hasn’t hurt that he’s been able to bring in a roster full of recruits that had the chance to play at a higher level, but according to Amaker, the key to Harvard’s success has been that the talent in the program has bought into, as he puts it, “our goals, our identity and our standards.”

Case in point: Zena Edsomwan.

Edsomwan was the 82nd-ranked recruit in the Class of 2013, picking Harvard despite holding offers from programs such as Arizona State, USC, California and Colorado. As a freshman, minutes were difficult to come by for Edsomwan despite the fact that he was quite productive when he did get on the court. There were only four games last season where Edsomwan played more than 11 minutes, and in those games he averaged 11.5 points and 4.8 boards per contest. But he didn’t leave the program this offseason. He’s still on the roster, waiting for his opportunity. It’s not hard to see that patience as an example of the faith Amaker’s players have in him.

“We believe in the system that coach puts in front of us,” Chambers said. “We believe that we should be able to win and compete with anyone that plays us.”

It’s Chambers, says Amaker, that helps set that example. It’s why the junior has been named a co-captain on a senior-laden team.

“He knows nothing other than winning,” Amaker said. “His spirit, his presence, his work ethic, he’s ultra-competitive. If any of those aspects change or get pushed to the back, that’s what drives his engine. It’s not so much whether the shot goes in or whether he’s driving to the basket or not, all of that is secondary because of his presence, his way of being. He’s a natural-born leader, and he’s been that way since day one when he’s been with this program.”

Through two years, Chambers and Harvard have been a match made in heaven. But success does breed expectation, however, and at some point, people are going to start wondering when Harvard will have their program-defining tournament run. Winning in the regular season is great. Pulling off opening round upsets are awesome. But, eventually, the question will be asked: will Amaker ever get Harvard out of the NCAA tournament’s first weekend?

“That never crossed my mind,” Amaker said. “I guess, in a lot of ways, if that’s the case, that’s an amazing compliment.”

Top 25 Countdown: No. 23 Harvard Crimson

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Siyani Chambers and Tommy Amaker (AP Photo)

Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package. We continue our countdown today with No. 23 Harvard.

MORE: 2014-2015 Season Preview Coverage | NBCSports Preseason Top 25 | Preview Schedule

Last Season: 27-5, 13-1 Ivy (1st), lost in the Round of 32 to Michigan State

Head Coach: Tommy Amaker

Key Losses: Kyle Casey (9.7 ppg, 5.6 rpg), Brandyn Curry (9.4 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 2.8 apg), Laurent Rivard (9.9 ppg, 43.0% 3PT)

Newcomers: Andre Chatfield, Chris Egi, Zach Yosher

Projected Lineup

G: Siyani Chambers, Jr.
G: Corbin Miller, So.
F: Wesley Saunders, Sr.
F: Kenyatta Smith, Sr.
F: Steve Moundou-Missi, Sr.
Bench: Jonah Travis, Sr.; Zena Edosomwan, So.; Evan Cummins, Jr.; Andre Chatfield, Fr.; Chris Egi, Fr.

They’ll be good because … : They’ve been good enough to advance to the Round of 32 the last two seasons — they upset No. 3 New Mexico in the 2013 NCAA tournament and No. 5 seed Cincinnati last season — and they not only return two players that could legitimately be named Preseason Ivy League Player of the Year, they also have a front line that is as big, deep and talented as any high-major program that they’ll run into.

It all starts with Siyani Chambers (11.1 ppg, 4.6 apg) for the Crimson. The 6-foot lefty is not only a natural born leader and floor general, he’s talented — and confident — enough to take and make big shots. He’ll be joined on the perimeter by Wesley Saunders (14.2 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 3.8 apg), a 6-foot-5 wing that has been the team’s leading scorer the past two seasons. Those two make up one of the best 1-2 punches in the country, not just at the mid-major level.

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Wesley Saunders (AP Photo)

While Chambers and Saunders are Harvard’s star power, their front line is good enough to compete with anyone in the country. Steve Moundou-Missi, the best rebounder on the team, is back for his senior season while Kenyatta Smith, who averaged 2.1 blocks as a sophomore in just 14.5 minutes, should be healthy after playing just two games last season. Senior Jonah Travis is back as well, while sophomore Zena Edosomwan and freshman Chris Egi are both top 150 recruits that will play a role off the bench. How many mid-major programs can claim that?

But they might disappoint because … : There simply is not depth in Harvard’s back court this season. Chambers and Saunders, who would be a bit of a liability playing off-guard, will once again be asked to provide heavy minutes. Both averaged 33 minutes in league play last season, and there will be no Laurent Rivard or Brandyn Curry to lean on this season.

Curry was the team’s backup point guard last season, but he was a fifth-year senior that had started prior to a year-long suspension in what was Chambers’ freshman season. Rivard was another senior guard, a sharp-shooter that helped space the floor. To replace those two this season Harvard will be counting on sophomore Corbin Miller and freshman Andre Chatfield.

Miller, like Rivard is a sniper from beyond the arc. He shot 45.6% from three and averaged 4.7 points as a freshman in limited minutes … but that was in 2011-2012. He’s spent the past two seasons on a Mormon mission. Chatfield is a freshman off-guard that was a three-star recruit with high major offers, but he put together a disappointing senior season and ended the year unranked in HoopSeen.com’s top 30 prospects in Georgia.

Outlook: There’s a lot to love about this Harvard team. They have a veteran point guard that has been through some battles and led his team to a pair of league titles — which is impressive in a tougher-than-you-realize Ivy League — and wins back-to-back NCAA tournaments. They have a big-time scorer on the wing and a myriad of big bodies up front. Tommy Amaker has proven that he can win with this group and that shouldn’t change this season.

But unlike last year, the Crimson won’t be able to survive injuries to their back court this season. One high-ankle sprain to Chambers in league play and all of a sudden the Crimson are in danger of missing the NCAA tournament; the Ivy League doesn’t have a conference tournament.

Assuming that Chambers stays healthy, the key to Harvard’s season will be whether Miller and Chatfield can return to their previous form. If Miller can be a double-digit scorer that shoots 43.0% from three, like Rivard, and if Chatfield can be the guy that was recruited by ACC and SEC schools, Amaker will once again have a team that will be a threat to make the Sweet 16.

Three-star point guard verbally commits to Harvard

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Over the last week the Harvard basketball program has taken steps towards completing its recruiting class for next season. Last week Tommy Amaker and his staff received a commitment from Chicago-area small forward Weisner Perez, and Thursday evening the reigning Ivy League champions picked up a second commitment in the class.

Tommy McCarthy, a 6-foot point guard from Carlsbad, California (La Costa Canyon HS), announced via his Twitter account that he’s decided to attend Harvard next season.

McCarthy, rated a three-star prospect by Rivals.com, averaged 17 points, four assists and just over three rebounds per game as a junior at La Costa Canyon. Like Perez, McCarthy gives Harvard additional depth in a position of need moving forward. With Siyani Chambers, who has played a role in both of Harvard’s last two Ivy League crowns, entering his junior season Harvard need to plan for the future.

Chambers will be a senior when McCarthy arrives on campus, giving the newcomer a good player to learn the Harvard system from as a freshman.

Also of note regarding Harvard’s recruiting for the 2015 class is that they’re one of two schools remaining on the list of four-star stretch forward Aaron Falzon. Falzon, who takes his official visit to Northwestern this weekend, would be a very good addition to the Harvard rotation should they land his commitment.

Harvard lands commitment from 6-foot-7 small forward

Tommy Amaker
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Of the seven seniors on the Harvard roster for the upcoming season four spend time at either the small or power forward position, led by Wesley Saunders, Jonah Travis and Steve Moundou-Missi. With this being the case adding a small forward in the Class of 2015 was something that would benefit head coach Tommy Amaker and his program moving forward, and that goal was accomplished Friday afternoon.

6-foot-7 small forward Weisner Perez, who is from Berwyn, Illinois and attends Morton West HS, announced his decision to join the Harvard program next season. Perez is a very good student, and he chose Harvard over Ivy League foes Brown and Cornell.

So what makes this junior basketball player so in demand? “I’m third in my class,” Perez reveals of his academic success, a statement he follows with a proud smile. He allows no room for scheduling conflicts between basketball and school work because he knows the vital role his academic success plays in the offers he’s receiving, especially the role it will play in his future. “At some point in every player’s life, the ball stops bouncing,” says Perez. At sixteen, the young player knows the reality behind his stellar physical performance and that it will inevitably come to an end one day. “God forbid I get an injury, then what? I can’t put my future solely on basketball.”

 

Perez played for the Mac Irvin Fire program this summer, and he was also able to represent the Dominican Republic in the FIBA Americas Under-18 Championships in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Perez averaged 9.6 points and 7.0 rebounds in five games with the Dominican Republic U18 team, helping lead the squad to a bronze medal at the event.

The bronze was the first medal in the history of the event for the Dominican Republic, which qualified for next summer’s FIBA U19 World Championships as a result.

While Harvard does lose some key pieces at the forward spots at the end of the 2014-15 season, by no means will the Crimson have an empty cupboard next year. Among the returnees are junior Agunwa Okolia, sophomore Zena Edsomwan and freshman Chris Egi. Perez has worked to improve his perimeter skill set throughout the course of his high school career, and he performed well on a Mac Irvin Fire team that included Villanova commit Jalen Brunson and Nebraska commit Ed Morrow.