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

Leave a comment
source: AP
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.”

Bubbles brewing with season on horizon

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
4 Comments

INDIANAPOLIS — With the coronavirus pandemic already forcing changes for college basketball, a bubble may be brewing in Indianapolis.

Indiana Sports Corp. released a 16-page proposal Friday that calls for turning the city convention center’s exhibition halls and meeting rooms into basketball courts and locker rooms. There would be expansive safety measures and daily COVID-19 testing.

The all-inclusive price starts at $90,000 per team and would cover 20 hotel rooms per traveling party, testing, daily food vouchers ranging from $30-$50 and the cost of game officials. Sports Corp. President Ryan Vaughn said the price depends on what offerings teams or leagues choose.

“The interest has been high,” Vaughn said. “I think as conferences figure out what conference and non-conference schedules are going to look like, we’re we’re a very good option for folks. I would tell you we’ve had conversations with the power six conferences, mid-majors, it’s really kind of all over the Division I spectrum.”

Small wonder: The NCAA this week announced teams could start ramping up workouts Monday, with preseason practices set to begin Oct. 14. Season openers, however, were pushed back to Nov. 25 amid wide-ranging uncertainty about campus safety and team travel in the pandemic.

There is already scrambling going on and some of the marquee early-season tournaments have already been impacted.

The Maui Invitational will be moved from Hawaii to Asheville, North Carolina, with dates still to be determined and organizers clear that everyone involved “will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.” The Batttle 4 Atlantis has been canceled. The Cancun Challenge will be held in Melbourne, Florida, not Mexico.

More changes almost certainly will be coming, including what to do with the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

“I think we’re past the guesswork on whether we play 20 conference games or more than that,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said Friday. “We’re trying to get everybody set like in terms of MTEs (multi-team events), figuring out when to play the ACC-Big Ten challenge.”

Painter, who was part of the NCAA committee that recommended how to start the season, noted part of the uncertainty stems from differing protocols imposed by campus, city and state officials.

In Indianapolis, Vaughn believes the convention center, nearby hotels, restaurants and downtown businesses, many within walking distance of the venue, could safely accommodate up to 24 teams. The 745,000-square foot facility would feature six basketball courts and two competition courts.

Anyone entering the convention center would undergo saliva-based rapid response testing, which would be sent to a third-party lab for results. Others venues could be added, too, potentially with more fans, if the case numbers decline.

If there is a taker, the event also could serve as a dry run for the 2021 Final Four, also slated for Indy.

“It’s not going to hurt,” Vaughn said. “I can tell you all the planning we’re doing right now is the same for a Final Four that’s been scheduled here for any other year. But it would be nice to have this experience under our belt to see if it can be done.”

Maui Invitational moving to North Carolina during pandemic

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
1 Comment

ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The Maui Invitational is moving to the mainland during the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the premier preseason tournaments on the college basketball schedule, the Maui Invitational will be played at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in downtown Asheville, North Carolina.

Dates for the tournament announced Friday have yet to be finalized. The NCAA announced Wednesday that the college basketball season will begin Nov. 25.

This year’s Maui Invitational field includes Alabama, Davidson, Indiana, North Carolina, Providence, Stanford, Texas and UNLV.

All teams, staff, officials, and personnel will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.

Burton eligible at Texas Tech after 2 seasons at Wichita State

Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports
7 Comments

LUBBOCK, Texas — Junior guard Jamarius Burton has been granted a waiver from the NCAA that makes him eligible to play this season for Texas Tech after starting 52 games the past two seasons for Wichita State.

Texas Tech coach Chris Beard announced the waiver Thursday, which came five months after Burton signed with the Big 12 team.

Burton has two seasons of eligibility remaining, as well as a redshirt season he could utilize. He averaged 10.3 points and 3.4 assists per game as a sophomore at Wichita State, where he played 67 games overall.

Burton is from Charlotte. He helped lead Independence High School to a 31-1 record and the North Carolina Class 4A state championship as a senior there.

NCAA season set to open day before Thanksgiving

Getty Images
4 Comments

The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball season will begin on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.

The Division I Council voted Wednesday to push the start date back from the originally scheduled Nov. 10 as one of several precautions against the spread of coronavirus.

The later start date coincides with the decision most schools made to send students home from Thanksgiving until January out of concern about a potential late-fall and early-winter flareup of COVID-19. Closed campuses could serve as a quasi bubble for players and provide a window for non-conference games.

The maximum number of regular-season games has been reduced from 31 to 27. The minimum number of games for consideration for the NCAA Tournament was cut from 25 to 13.

Teams can start preseason practices Oct. 14 but will be allowed to work out 12 hours per week beginning Monday.

No scrimmages against other teams or exhibitions are allowed.

In other action, the council voted to extend the recruiting dead period for all sports through Dec. 31. In-person recruiting is not allowed during a dead period, though phone calls and other correspondence are allowed.

The men’s and women’s basketball oversight committees had jointly recommended a start date of Nov. 21, which would have allowed for games to be played on the weekend before Thanksgiving. The council opted not to do that to avoid a conflict with regular-season football games.

The council is scheduled to meet again Oct. 13-14 and could delay the start date and change other pieces of the basketball framework if circumstances surrounding the virus warrant.

UConn’s Tyrese Martin granted waiver to play this season

David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports
4 Comments

STORRS, Conn. — UConn swingman Tyrese Martin, who transferred from Rhode Island in April, has been granted a waiver that will allow him to play for the Huskies this season.

The 6-foot-6 junior averaged 12.8 points and 7.1 rebounds and started every game last season for URI, where he was recruited by current UConn coach Dan Hurley.

NCAA rules require undergraduate transfers to sit out a season, but the organization has been more lenient in granting waivers during the pandemic.

Martin, 21, is expected to compete for playing time at UConn on the wing as both a guard and small forward.