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

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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.”

No. 7 Tennessee beats Eastern Kentucky, win streak hits 7

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tyreke Key scored 10 of the first 12 points of the second half and finished with 17, and No. 7 Tennessee overcame a sluggish first half and beat Eastern Kentucky 84-49 on Wednesday night.

“Tyreke is handling the ball now,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “That’s all new to him. He keeps getting better.”

The Volunteers (8-1) struggled in the first half but still built an 11-point lead over Eastern Kentucky (4-5) on the way to their seventh straight victory.

Key led Tennessee in scoring before leaving with a cramp in his right leg with 6:15 left in the game. Julian Phillips had 16 points and 10 rebounds, and Zakai Zeigler and Uros Plavsic added 13 points apiece. Olivier Nkamhoua scored 10.

“I’m still settling in,” said Key, a transfer from Indiana State who didn’t play last year while recovering from an injury. “This is a new role. I’m taking steps every day and keep learning.”

Eastern Kentucky, which came into the game averaging 83.5 points, was held well below that total due to 17% (6 for 35) shooting from long range and 22% (15 for 68) overall. Leland Walker led the Colonels with 13 points.

It was the seventh time this season Tennessee has held its opponent to 50 or fewer points.

“(Tennessee) is the best defensive team in the country,” Eastern Kentucky coach A.W. Hamilton said. “I think they’re the best team in the country.”

At one point in the first half, Tennessee was shooting 20% and still leading by 10 points. The teams combined to shoot 4 of 32 from 3-point range in the first 20 minutes. The Vols, who shot 24% (8 of 34), led 32-21 at the break.

“If we can’t make shots, can you find a way to win the game?” Barnes said. “When the shot’s not going in, find a way to play. The first thing we talk about is our defense.”

Tennessee shot 41 free throws. Phillips, a true freshman, was 7 of 10.

“(Phillips) has learned the pace of the game,” Barnes said. “I’m not sure there’s been a more effective freshman in the country (this season).”

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Since its early season slip against Colorado, Tennessee has had a steady ascent in the rankings. The Vols’ next two games – neutral site (Brooklyn) against No, 13 Maryland (Dec. 11) and at No. 10 Arizona (Dec. 17) – will go a long way toward justifying the No. 7 ranking.

BIG PICTURE

Eastern Kentucky: The Colonels’ run-and-gun style of offense had them averaging 83.5 points through their first eight games. They ran into a defensive buzz saw in Tennessee, which was yielding just over 51 points.

Tennessee: Santiago Vescovi sat out his second straight game with a shoulder problem. He is expected to be ready to play Sunday against Maryland. . The Vols have won seven in a row since their loss to Colorado.

UP NEXT

Eastern Kentucky: The Colonels host Boyce College on Saturday.

Tennessee: Take on No. 13 Maryland on Sunday at the Hall of Fame Invitational in New York.

Hoggard scores career-high 23, Michigan St snaps 2-game skid

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Matthew OHaren/USA TODAY Sports
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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A.J. Hoggard scored a career-high 23 points, Joey Hauser had 12 points and 15 rebounds and Michigan State beat Penn State 67-58 on Wednesday night to snap a two-game losing streak.

Michigan State (6-4, 1-1 Big Ten) avoided going .500 or worse after 10 games for the first time in 18 seasons.

Hoggard blocked an open layup with less than a minute to play and Hauser grabbed the rebound before being fouled and making two free throws at the other end for a 66-58 lead.

Hoggard, Hauser and Tyson Walker combined for 31 of Michigan State’s 32 second-half points.

The Michigan State defense allowed only one made field goal in the final five minutes. Penn State was just 1 of 9 from 3-point range in the second half after 7 of 18 before halftime.

Walker scored 10 of his 14 points in the second half for Michigan State. Hoggard, who entered third in the conference in assists at 6.3, had six rebounds, two assists and one key block.

Hoggard gave Michigan State 35-33 lead – its first since 4-2 – after back-to-back three-point plays with 59.3 seconds left in the first half. It was tied at 35-all at the break.

Seth Lundy scored 16 points and Jalen Pickett had 13 points, 17 rebounds and eight assists for Penn State (6-3, 0-1)

Michigan State hosts Brown on Saturday. Penn State, which hadn’t played since a double-overtime loss to Clemson on Nov. 29, plays at No. 17 Illinois on Saturday.

No. 7 Virginia Tech posts 9th straight win, beats BC 73-58

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BOSTON — Reigning Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year Elizabeth Kitley had 22 points and 12 rebounds, and Cayla King scored 16 on Wednesday night to lead No. 7 Virginia Tech to a 73-58 victory over Boston College, the Hokies’ ninth straight win.

Taylor Soule, one of two BC transfers on the roster for Virginia Tech (9-0, 1-0 ACC), added nine points and five rebounds. Soule scored more than 1,500 points and grabbed almost 700 rebounds in four seasons at BC, earning All-ACC honors three times.

Andrea Daley scored 15 points and Maria Gakdeng scored 14 for BC (7-4, 0-1). They each grabbed six rebounds.

Virginia Tech scored 17 of the game’s first 21 points and led by as many as 19 in the third quarter before BC cut the deficit to 10 in the fourth. Leading 64-54 with under three minutes left and the shot clock expiring, Kayana Traylor hit a 3-pointer for the Hokies.

Gakdeng missed two free throws for BC, and then Kitley scored from inside to make it a 15-point game.

Clara Ford, who also played four years in Chestnut Hill, pitched in 2 points in 2 minutes against her former team.

BIG PICTURE

At No. 7, the Hokies have the highest ranking in the program’s history. With the victory over BC, a 10th straight win against North Carolina-Asheville on Sunday would leave Virginia Tech in position to move up even higher should a top five team falter.

UP NEXT

Virginia Tech: Hosts North Carolina-Asheville on Sunday.

Boston College: Hosts Albany on Saturday.

Michigan’s Jaelin Llewellyn out for season with knee injury

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan point guard Jaelin Llewellyn is out for the rest of the season with an injured left knee and is expected to have surgery next month.

Wolverines coach Juwan Howard made the announcement three days after Llewellyn was hurt in a loss to Kentucky in London.

Llewellyn transferred to Michigan from Princeton last spring and that seemed to lead to Frankie Collins transferring to Arizona State after a solid freshman season for the Wolverines.

Llewellyn averaged seven points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.8 assists in eight games at Michigan. He was an All-Ivy League player last season and averaged nearly 16 points over three seasons at Princeton.

Miles Kelly leads Georgia Tech to 79-77 win over rival Georgia

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: DEC 02 Northeastern at Georgia Tech
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ATLANTA – Georgia Tech’s Miles Kelly hit another winning shot against a state rival.

Terry Roberts endured a nightmarish final minute for Georgia.

Kelly hit a long 3-pointer and then a drove for the game-winning floater with 23 seconds remaining as the Yellow Jackets rallied to beat Georgia 79-77 on Tuesday night.

Kelly hit the winning shot in similar fashion against Georgia State on Nov. 12. He did it again to beat the Bulldogs, finishing with a team-high 17 points after failing to score in the first half.

“I’m going to continue to keep shooting, no matter how many times I miss,” Kelly said.

Roberts missed a 3-pointer, turned the ball over twice with bad passes, and was called for an offensive foul as he was trying to drive for the basket that would’ve sent the game to overtime.

“A tough finish for us,” Georgia first-year coach Mike White said. “We were in position to steal one on the road.”

A pair of second-chance buckets seemingly put Georgia (7-3) in control with a 77-73 lead.

The Bulldogs wouldn’t score again as Kelly led the comeback for the Yellow Jackets (6-3) – with a big assist from Roberts.

He had a chance to essentially seal it for the Bulldogs, but his jumper beyond the arc clanked off the rim.

Georgia Tech grabbed the rebound and raced down the court, where Kelly swished a 3 from well behind the stripe that brought Georgia Tech within a point with about a minute left.

Trying to work the ball inside, Roberts made an ill-advised entry pass that was deflected and stolen by Deivon Smith, setting up Kelly’s drive for the basket that put the Yellow Jackets back ahead,

Roberts tried a drive of his own, only to have it blocked by Jalon Moore. Georgia retained possession, but Roberts’ inbounds pass was stolen by Moore, who was fouled and made one of two free throws.

Roberts took the ball again and hurriedly dribbled toward the basket, only to be called for an offensive foul when he sent Smith flying.

“Just sacrificing my body for the team,” Smith said.

Georgia stole an inbounds pass around midcourt, giving Karlo Oquendo one last shot to launch a 3 that still would’ve won it for the Bulldogs. It bounced off the rim.

The game was tight throughout. Neither team led by more than eight, and a sequence in the second half showed just how tightly these rivals were matched.

With both squads playing at a frenetic pace and showing little regard for defense, the lead changed hands on eight straight possessions as the teams traded baskets.

Stunningly, they combined to score on 19 straight possessions before Georgia’s Matthew-Alexander Moncrieffe missed a pair of free throws with 5:17 remaining.

FIRING UP THE CROWD

Perhaps the biggest cheer of the night came when Georgia Tech football coach Brent Key addressed the crowd at halftime.

Key, who served as interim coach for the last eight games of the season, was introduced Monday as the full-time choice for job.

He fired up the fans by getting them to chant “To hell with Georgia” over and over again. When a smattering of Bulldogs fans responded with barks, Key smiled and egged on the Yellow Jackets crowd to drown them out.

He also declared Georgia Tech to be the “greatest school in the entire state, the entire country,” following up his vow the previous day to not back down from the defending national champion and top-ranked Bulldogs.

BIG PICTURE

Georgia: This will be a tough one to swallow for Roberts, who led his team with 16 points and seven assists. The Bulldogs lost despite shooting 53.4% from the field.

Georgia Tech: Four players scored in double figures, and two others players finished with eight points. But it was Kelly, as usual, who had the ball in his hands at the end of a tight game.

UP NEXT

Georgia: After a nearly two-week break, the Bulldogs return to Atlanta on Dec. 18 to face Notre Dame at State Farm Arena in the Holiday Hoopsgiving event.

Georgia Tech: Head to North Carolina on Saturday for the Atlantic Coast Conference opener against the struggling Tar Heels.