The Harvard men’s basketball team started out the 2019-20 season in the same way it has for the last three years: projected to win the Ivy League Championship.
In recent years, Harvard being picked to win the Ancient Eight has become an annual October pastime that rivals that of drinking a pumpkin-spice latte or watching the World Series. However, the month of March has not been as kind to head coach Tommy Amaker and the Crimson as of late.
Harvard is nearly five years removed from its last NCAA tournament appearance and is coming off two straight defeats in the Ivy Madness final. While advancing to the conference championship tilt is no small feat, it can be labeled as nothing less than a failure for a program that enjoys an embarrassment of recruiting riches relative to the rest of the league.
From 2016–2019, Amaker roped in the Ivy League’s No. 1 recruiting class three separate times and convinced four different four-star recruits to take their talents to Cambridge. The rest of the conference by comparison? Just one combined four-star over that span. Harvard’s senior class even made national headlines after it was ranked the No. 25 overall class in the country coming out of high school in 2016.
However, Amaker’s elite recruiting efforts have yielded little fruit. Since the 2016-17 season, Harvard has had to watch the NCAA Selection Show knowing it wouldn’t see its name appear in the bracket while the likes of Princeton, Penn and Yale have all put on their dancing shoes and advanced to March Madness.
The furthest the Crimson have gone into March includes a first-round exit from the National Invitational Tournament in 2018 before the Crimson made a deep run to the second round of the NIT a season later only to be knocked out again. Despite all of the preseason hype and all of the talent accrued by Amaker over the last three years, Harvard’s best postseason result remains a 71–68 win over a reeling Georgetown program in a consolation tournament.
But this year was supposed to be different. Harvard brought back Seth Towns, the 2018 Ivy League Player of the Year, in addition to its top nine scorers from last season. Pegged as the preseason favorite yet again, the Crimson even received votes in the first AP Top 25 poll but quickly fell out of the rankings after dropping two of its first five contests.
While some of Harvard’s mediocrity can be chalked up to injuries (Towns will miss the entire season again due to a knee injury and electrifying guard Bryce Aiken has been sidelined due to a sprained foot), the Crimson still boast significantly more collective talent than anyone else in the Ivy League.
While Amaker, who previously served as head coach at Michigan and Seton Hall, can undoubtedly recruit at an elite level in a mid-major conference, his knack for player identification and development has seemed to wane in recent years. His peers such as Penn’s Steve Donahue or Yale’s own James Jones consistently outperform Amaker despite signing recruiting classes full of low three-stars and unranked players that significantly develop over the course of four years.
Despite the frustrating losses (both on and off the court), the Crimson’s deep rotation of seasoned veterans and talented newcomers is undoubtedly formidable — and even captivating to watch — on any given night. Harvard took No. 7 Maryland down to the wire in November in an agonizing defeat and went on an eight-game winning streak over winter break before Amaker’s squad proceeded to commence Ancient Eight play with a 2–2 mark.
A week ago, Harvard was just 3–3 in conference play and on the outside looking in for one of the four berths to Ivy Madness. In what was a proverbial circle-the-wagons weekend for Tommy Amaker’s crew, the Crimson trounced Cornell at home before eking out a double-overtime victory against last-place Columbia. With six regular season games remaining, Harvard sits at 5–3 and is locked in a dead heat for third-place.
But for Amaker, having his team simply finish in the top-half of the Ancient Eight may be enough to put the Crimson in the driver’s seat for an automatic NCAA tournament bid. After losing in two straight Ivy Madness finals at Penn in 2018 and at Yale in 2019, the Ivy League tournament finally comes to Lavietes Pavilion where Harvard would enjoy a fortuitous home-court advantage should it qualify (much as the Bulldogs did last year).
It remains to be seen whether Harvard’s heralded senior class will have the storybook ending that many college basketball pundits predicted it would when those recruits put pen to paper back in 2016. A lot of that depends on Aiken and whether he’ll return to the hardwood in 2020. Nonetheless, one thing remains true: no team wants to face Harvard on its home floor with an NCAA tournament appearance hanging in the balance come March.
But no matter, the Crimson won’t even make it that far. Go Bulldogs.
Joey Kamm | firstname.lastname@example.org