Unheard-of hoop glory within Harvard’s grasp

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By Shira Springer
Globe Staff / March 11, 2011

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CAMBRIDGE — In its 100th season, the Harvard men’s basketball team, finally, is on the cusp of true hoop history — the kind that establishes big-time credentials outside ivy-covered walls.

In a first for the program, Harvard finished the regular season with a share of the Ivy League title. If it defeats cochampion Princeton in a playoff game tomorrow, Harvard will earn an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

“The reason why every player on this team came to this school was the opportunity to make history, to do what we’re doing right now,’’ said point guard Brandyn Curry. “We’re just going to continue to break new records and make Harvard basketball known.’’

Last Saturday, students packed into Lavietes Pavilion to watch Harvard defeat Princeton in its regular-season finale, then rushed onto the court in celebration. It did not matter that Harvard had captured only a share of the title; the prospect of its first tournament berth since 1946 has the campus buzzing, at least as much as it can during midterm exams.

“I bet three years ago, the kids who were storming the court didn’t know where the gym was,’’ said Carmen Scarpa, who played for Harvard in the mid-1980s. “Or, if they did know where the gym was, they didn’t know the name of it.’’

In addition to the school band and cheerleaders, Harvard plans to send three busloads of students to tomorrow’s playoff game at Yale in New Haven, the neutral site selected by the Ivy League. Harvard gave away its allotment of 150 student tickets in less than four hours Wednesday. The nonstudent allotment (1,000) sold out shortly after noon that day.

Harvard finished the season 23-5 and undefeated at home (14-0), setting school records for home victories and total victories.

The NCAA Tournament accepts 68 teams, with 31 automatic bids going to league champions.

“I’ve been checking out flights to everywhere from Tulsa to Tampa, so I’m getting ready,’’ said Staples founder Tom Stemberg, a Harvard alumnus, mentioning a pair of first-round sites for the NCAA Tournament. Stemberg has cheered, fund-raised and, when it was permissible, even recruited for the program since the early 1970s.

Harvard is thinking big, beyond this year’s Big Dance to a future filled with Ivy League titles. This season’s success is part of a bigger vision that took shape when coach Tommy Amaker stepped on campus in 2007 and started competing with higher-profile programs for recruits.

Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania have dominated Ivy League basketball for the better part of league history (the league was formed in 1954). Around Harvard, the successful hockey program (1989 NCAA national champions) and football program (Ivy League champions four times in the last decade) were the real big draws.

“Everyone’s been very hungry for this,’’ said Joe Carrabino, Harvard’s all-time leading scorer. “People know we were close in the past and we’ve never been able to get over the hump.’’

Despite talented players like Carrabino, the basketball team struggled to win consistently and generate interest. Some of it was bad luck, some bad timing, some bad chemistry.

Until now. With every player returning next year and a strong recruiting class arriving, Harvard is well-positioned for a stay at the top of the Ivy League.

“The vision we thought of was, ‘Why can’t we have a unique, special basketball program at, arguably, the nation’s and world’s top university?’ ’’ said Amaker. “The possibilities and potential overwhelmed me. Trying to communicate that on a consistent basis to our players, our fans, recruits, anybody that would listen to me, became my calling at that time. We want Harvard basketball to be worthy of the name Harvard.’’

Fired by Michigan four years ago for failing to secure an NCAA Tournament berth in six seasons, Amaker became a candidate for the Harvard job. The search committee wanted someone who could relate to the Harvard student-athlete, who had head coaching experience, and who came from a high-level academic program.

With his Duke degree and success recruiting at previous head coaching stops, Amaker appeared the perfect fit for Harvard. And building the Crimson into perennial league contenders seemed like a chance to put his mixed experience at Michigan behind him.

While Amaker raised eyebrows early with some of his recruiting tactics and raised questions about the academic fitness of some recruits, the program was cleared by the league. Amaker worked hard to win games and win over skeptics. By elevating Harvard’s profile in men’s basketball, he has also improved his reputation. “There are not many people who can say they’ve done something at Harvard that hasn’t been done before,’’ said former Harvard star Ron Mitchell. “Tommy can.’’

But as with any college team eager to enter the big time, it comes down to recruiting — a tricky task with Harvard’s academic standards and the Ivy League prohibition on athletic scholarships. Every player is an Amaker recruit, including key leaders Kyle Casey, Keith Wright, and Curry.

“He did a great job selling us on what this program could be,’’ said Casey. “All the recruits can see it’s genuine when he says he wants to win the Ivy League and advance in the tournament. He is doing what he said he was going to do. And he’s getting players that want to work to be a part of it.’’

Last Saturday against Princeton, 6-foot-7-inch sophomore Casey scored a season-high 24 points and displayed talent and athleticism on a par with players in big-name conferences. Amaker wants Curry to think of himself as a playmaker in the mold of the Celtics’ Rajon Rondo, and Curry embraces the challenge; he ranks first in the Ivy League in assists. And the 6-foot-8 Wright, the Ivy League player of the year, is an ambidextrous big man who leads the team in scoring and rebounding.

“Back even before I played, they used to say Harvard recruited kids who wanted to come to Harvard who could play basketball,’’ said Scarpa. “Tommy’s recruiting basketball players who happened to be able to get into Harvard. He’s competing with Penn, Princeton, Stanford, Northwestern, and Vanderbilt for the same kids.’’

Harvard’s record books are filled with standout players, some even drafted by NBA teams. And in almost every decade, those players thought they would make history with Harvard’s first Ivy League title. In the early 1970s, James Brown believed his team was destined for a championship. Now, colleagues constantly joke with Brown, a CBS sports broadcaster, about the state of Harvard athletics.

“They tell me, ‘When you guys get a team, when you accomplish something, you can join in the conversation,’ ’’ said Brown. “I guess I can join in the conversation now.’’

Current and former Harvard players hope the conversation continues with a win tomorrow, a ticket to the Big Dance, and maybe more. Around the world, Harvard basketball alumni have reconnected through the team’s success, keeping PDAs buzzing. And everyone involved with the program would like more history to talk about.

“There were many years where people asked me, ‘Does Harvard have a basketball team? Do you play in the tournament?’ ’’ said Mitchell. “Every alum was fielding those questions the last 20 years. Not only does Harvard have a team that can go to the tournament, but they can actually win a game.’’

Shira Springer can be reached at