CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Missing the NCAA tournament despite winning a share of its first-ever Ivy League championship last year left Harvard with an odd mixture of emotions that lingered through the summer.
It wasn't as if they failed their final exam. It was more like an incomplete.
The Crimson are back this year, and almost intact, to try to win the conference championship outright and earn their first NCAA berth since 1946. They came close last season, tying Princeton for the Ivy title but losing a one-game tiebreaker on a last-second shot that instead relegated them to the NIT.
"Unless you make the tournament, you're not recognized on that level. So I think that's a frustration for everybody," coach Tommy Amaker said last week as he prepared for the season opener against MIT. "We look back at the end of it and we're very disappointed. But you've got to look at the whole thing. We're happy about what's in front of us and what's possible for our team."
Amaker's goals for the coming season are to remain healthy, happy and hungry.
He'll have no problem with the last one.
After sharing the conference title — the first Ivy basketball championship for the Crimson men — Harvard was forced into a one-game playoff with Princeton for the right to the league's NCAA berth. In the tiebreaker — at a neutral site, the Yale campus in New Haven, Conn. — Princeton's Douglas Davis made a leaner at the buzzer to give the Tigers a 63-62 victory and the automatic NCAA bid.
"Unfortunately, it ended the way it did," Harvard forward Keith Wright said. "When you talk to people on campus about it, they don't remember you won the Ivy League championship. They remember losing to Princeton by one shot."
Harvard could not convince the NCAA selection committee to give the Ivy League its first-ever at-large invitation; it would have been the Crimson's first appearance in the NCAAs since 1946. In the NIT, Harvard lost in the first round to Oklahoma State. Princeton lost by two points to Kentucky, which lost to eventual champion Connecticut in the Final Four.
"As a senior, I know I have one more chance to get to where I want to be," Wright said, "to where we haven't been yet."
To celebrate its first men's conference title, Harvard joined the national "Midnight Madness" hoopla — albeit 16 hours later. Because there was a university-wide celebration of the school's 375th anniversary on the night that the NCAA allowed teams to open practice, Amaker scheduled the first "Crimson Madness" for the following afternoon.
That's when they raised the Ivy League championship banner — the first black-rimmed crimson flag for the men alongside a longer line of white-bordered banners for the women's team.
"It was a way of officially concluding the goodwill for our team for that season," Amaker said. "And now we're on to work."
Wright was the Ivy player of the year and an AP All-America honorable mention last year, when he averaged 15 points and eight rebounds; he's on the Wooden Award preseason list this year. Joining him this year are all five starters from last year, the top eight scorers and 12 players in all from the team that came so close in 2010-11.
Princeton lost coach Sidney Johnson for Fairfield along with leading scorer Kareem Maddox and point guard Dan Mavraides.
That's why Harvard was picked to win the conference this year, receiving 16 of 17 first-place votes in a preseason poll of league media; Yale got the other. The Crimson also received two votes for The Associated Press Top 25.
"Having all the guys coming back from last year is a big advantage for us," Harvard guard Oliver McNally said, conceding that the players are already looking forward to the games at Princeton on Feb. 11 and at Harvard on Feb. 24. "The way they beat us at the end of last year, that's definitely a big game for us."