Bigtime schools like UConn typically dot their schedules with easy "cupcake games" against small-conference teams like the Crimson before heading into tougher conference play. But Harvard was no longer anyone’s cupcake, playing its first game ever as a nationally ranked team. The Crimson trailed by only two points at halftime before finally succumbing, 67–53. The year before, UConn had beaten Harvard by 29 points. "Last year we didn’t belong on the court with them," Amaker says. "[This year] was different."
The difference between this team and Amaker’s first at Harvard is even greater. Amaker took the job so late in the cycle in 2007 that he had no chance that season to recruit. Using players brought in by his predecessor, he went just 8–22. Making matters worse, the Ivy League cited Harvard for an "unintentional secondary violation" after the New York Times revealed that a future assistant on Amaker’s staff — someone who’d not yet been officially hired — was improperly working out potential recruits. Such violations are deemed by the NCAA to be "routine" at Division I schools, including the Ivy League. The NCAA said it handles 2,000 such incidents a year.
The Times also reported that Harvard had bent its admission guidelines to accept players who wouldn’t have made it prior to Amaker’s taking over the program. The school disputed the story, and the league has said that the academic records of Harvard recruits "complied with all relevant Ivy League obligations." (The league uses a complicated formula called the Academic Index, which basically demands that arecruit have at least a B average and a minimum score of 1140 on the math and verbal portions of the SAT.) There have been no other incidents or allegations since.
What is indisputable is that Amaker regularly goes after players Sullivan, and every other Harvard coach dating back to the late 1960s, would never have approached. After that rocky first season, Harvard improved to 14–14, helped by Amaker’s first recruiting class. The Crimson have gone 44–15 over the past two years, beating ranked teams (including BC) for the first time in the program’s history.
"They’re targeting top-100 guys," Telep, the ESPN.com recruiting analyst, says of the caliber of players Harvard now tries to bring in. "They are the only ones in the Ivy League operating with this model. They’re selling Tommy as a players’ coach and Harvard as Harvard. They’ve had no fear in challenging or competing for [the kind of] player Harvard has never had before."
Amaker is able to cast a wide net in part because of Harvard’s new financial aid guidelines, which happened to change dramatically just before the coach arrived in Cambridge. In 2006 the school announced that families with incomes of $60,000 or less would pay nothing toward the cost of a Harvard education, and that families earning between $60,000 and $180,000 would contribute between zero and 10 percent of their income. The new guidelines, which apply to all students, amount to de facto scholarships for some athletes. And the talent has followed. ESPN ranked two freshmen on this year’s team, Kenyatta Smith and Wesley Saunders, among the top 25 prospects in California. They were reportedly recruited by the likes of Vanderbilt, Northwestern, Stanford, and Southern California. Siyani Chambers, the second-rated player in the state of Minnesota, has committed to Harvard for next season, as has Mike Hall, one of the top prospects in Georgia.
"Why should we settle for less?" Amaker says. "We feel there are enough of those kids out there who are talented and bright."
While the Crimson’s November and December victories this season, especially their triumph over Florida State, have been critical, they pale in importance to the Ivy League wins that must come in the next two months. Those are the ones that will determine whether Harvard makes its first NCAA appearance in 66 years.
"That is the motivation for this season," says Keith Wright, the team’s co-captain and the reigning Ivy League Player of the Year. "We want to get to the Dance. We just missed last season. We want to be the first Harvard team to do it."
Amaker’s success has hardly gone unnoticed at other college programs. Last spring, in fact, he was approached about the head coaching job at the University of Miami. In return for staying put at Harvard, he reportedly secured pay raises for his assistants and guarantees of more improvements at Lavietes Pavilion. Undoubtedly there will be other opportunities following this season, especially if Harvard lives up to its expectations.
Is it possible that, somewhere down the line, he could even wind up as Krzyzewski’s successor at Duke? Amaker simply laughed at the notion.
For his part, Grant Hill called the idea "sacrilegious to even think about. But I get the sense that Tommy’s very happy at Harvard. He’d be on anyone’s shortlist when it comes to that. But it wouldn’t surprise me if he stayed at Harvard for a long time."