Matthew J. Lee, AP Photo
SALT LAKE CITY — When Harvard and New Mexico meet in Thursday’s NCAA Tournament game at EnergySolutions Arena, there seems little doubt which team will win.
On one side, there’s the No. 3-seeded Lobos, which Harvard coach Tommy Amaker considers dark horses to win, well, the whole enchilada. On the other hand there’s Harvard. It’s a team that has never won in the postseason.
Just don’t meet the Crimson in the Math Olympics.
Thus, the nation will be reintroduced to the famous school with the not-so-famous basketball team, this week. By winning the Ivy League title, Harvard earned its second consecutive NCAA Tournament berth. The only other time the Crimson played in the tourney was in 1946.
Since then, Harvard has set about convincing the world that it’s not just for eggheads anymore. With former Crimson star Jeremy Lin drawing crowds in the NBA, the plan seems to be working.
Talk about attitude. Harvard already owns the academic world, now it wants its share of the basketball world, too.
Harvard hosted a conference call on Monday to get the word out. That’s one thing about the school from Cambridge, Mass. — it’s serious about its image. That aspect has taken a hit in recent months. Last fall, two of the team’s top players, Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry, withdrew from school after being implicated in a cheating scandal that rocked the university. In so doing, they retained the chance of being eligible for next season.
Yet without those two — both preseason all-Ivy League picks — and the graduation of last year’s co-captains Oliver McNally and Keith Wright, Harvard still returned to the NCAA Tournament.
It had its issues but aced the final, regardless.
Asked about rising expectations for his program, Amaker said, “We are very much committed to the standard we set, and never worry about what the expectations may be. We have a theory in our philosophy that expectation is an external word, and the only thing we worry about is an internal word. That word is ‘standard.’ And what we find out most of the time is that our standards are going to be higher most of the time than anybody’s expectation, anyway.”
OK, maybe you have to go to Harvard to understand that stuff.
“This is an incredible institution that ranks among the best in the world — if not the best in the world — and we’re proud of it and always try to have our basketball program live up to the standard of our institution,” he continued. “And, as I mentioned, I’m not sure that it can get any higher than that.”
So there you have it. Harvard figures it has the best academics on earth and intends to hold up its end on the basketball floor, too. If it can’t beat you at the rim, it might just beat you with the geometrics of the game.
Either way, it’s hard to argue with Amaker. Harvard had 65 academic all-Americas in 12 programs through the 2011-12 academic year — more than any Ivy League school. Including Harvard in the NCAA bracket is like inviting the valedictorian to your graduation party: He may not be the coolest kid in the group, but it looks smart having him around.
So Harvard is back for a second try. Amaker handled media questions with ease as he turned the conversation back to the university’s mission and standards. He called New Mexico “one of the better teams in the country” and its fan base “terrific.” He praised Lobo coach Steve Alford.
The 25-minute question-and-answer period included remarks by captains Christian Webster and Laurent Rivard, too. Although they did well — sounding a lot like their coach — Amaker did the heavy lifting, including almost all the talk about New Mexico, and most of the talk about Harvard.
Somehow he even managed to mention overcoming obstacles, yet never directly discussed the cheating scandal. Maybe he felt it was old news. Either way, he and his players came across as forthright, earnest and confident.
Harvard came across as Harvard.
How smart is that?
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