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How Harvard went from a laughing stock to a Cinderella

Mar 22, 2013, 11:00 AM EDT

Harvard guard Saunders takes a shot while defended by New Mexico center Kirk during the second half of their second round NCAA tournament basketball game in Salt Lake City, Utah

On Thursday night, Harvard won their first-ever NCAA tournament game in their second NCAA tournament appearance since 1946. That’s impressive, especially when you consider the fact that, when head coach Tommy Amaker took over the program, Harvard basketball was a joke. They had never won a conference title or 20 games in a season. In fact, they had only won more than 10 Ivy League games twice.

Now consider this: Harvard won the Ivy League and knocked off New Mexico in the opening round of the NCAA tournament despite the fact that a) two starters from last year’s team graduated, and b) two more starters from last season, and arguably their two most important players heading into this season, were suspended for the year due to an academic scandal at the school.

In other words, Harvard just won their first NCAA tournament game despite the fact that they lost their four best players off of last year’s team.

So what happened?

It’s simple, really. Harvard has been able to recruit at an unprecedented level for an Ivy League program. They are bringing in kids that are on top 100 lists. They are beating out Big Ten and Big East schools for recruits. And they’re doing it, believe it or not, by selling a Harvard degree.

Back in the summer of 2011, I wrote a fairly in-depth feature for my old site about Harvard’s recruiting and how they were have been able to reel in so much high-major caliber talent. The short version is this: Harvard goes out and identifies all of the talented recruits that they know a) have the grades to get into an Ivy League school and b) care enough about an education that they will consider a school like Harvard over someone in the ACC or the Pac-12. And then the Crimson sell their pitch as well as any program you’ll come across: come here and you can play in NCAA tournaments (see: the last two years) and make the NBA (see: Jeremy Lin), and when you graduate, you’ll have the single most valuable degree that money can buy.

To quote assistant coach Yanni Hufnagel, “Harvard’s not a four year decision, it’s a 40 year decision.”

Obviously, it’s worked. According to his Rivals page, freshman point guard Siyani Chambers was being recruited by Nebraska, Georgia Tech, St. Louis and Washington State. Wesley Saunders, a sophomore leading the team in scoring, was a top 100 recruit with offers from Colorado, USC and San Diego State, per Rivals. 2013 commit Zena Edosomwan was recruited by every school in the Pac-12, including the likes of UCLA, Arizona and Gonzaga.

How do you survive the loss of four starters? Have an absurd amount of talent stockpiled on your roster.

Harvard’s emergence is not without controversy, however.

Ivy League schools aren’t enthralled about the idea that the Crimson are able to recruit at this level. They believe that Harvard has reduced their standards for admission. They aren’t breaking any rules doing so — any recruit enrolling at an Ivy League school needs a minimum score on the Academic Index to enroll — but the thinking is that instead of requiring their basketball players to adhere to a higher standard, Harvard is letting hoopers with the minimum AI into their program.

Regardless of whether or not you take issue with it, that’s how the Crimson were able to go from the laughing stock of the Ivy League to the NCAA tournament’s Cinderella story in just five short years.

You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.

  1. ray1950 - Mar 22, 2013 at 12:57 PM

    Any recruit who has to be sold on the value of an Ivy League degree is a recruit who isn’t really worthy of that degree. Come on, virtually every high school student knows the importance of graduating from a Princeton, Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, etc.

    I think it’s safe to say most of the athletes playing in an Ivy League program, whether it be basketball or football, aren’t there for the one-in-a-million shot at the professional level. They enroll in those prestigious schools for the degree.

  2. bball1950 - Mar 22, 2013 at 2:56 PM

    If I’m not mistaken, Ivy League athletes do not receive athletic scholarships as well.

  3. chicago240 - Mar 22, 2013 at 4:13 PM

    Several years back, Harvard decided to use its crazy $32 Billion endowment ($10B more than #2) to increase tremendously their scholarships (both academic and need based). While Ivy league still don’t provide athletics scholarships, Harvard changed the landscape of athletic competition and can provide financial aid no one else can provide. Sooooo they have the best of both worlds in their sell…..you can go here free, get a Harvard degree, and because we’re doing it with so many other gifted athletes, our programs will just get better and better. No surprise that suddenly they’re winning the Ivies just in the last 3 years and now competing at NCAA level.

  4. raysfan1 - Mar 22, 2013 at 4:34 PM

    Boo hoo to the other Ivy League universities. The kids qualify to get in, as a minimally acceptable AI is still an acceptable AI. They then have to pass their classes and earn that degree. As long as Harvard isn’t breaking any rules, everyone else can quit whining. Go Crimson!

    • chicago240 - Mar 22, 2013 at 5:18 PM

      Didn’t say they were breaking any rules. Just clarifying for those that think that Harvard doesn’t have the ability to draw top athletes with scholarships. $32 Billion goes a long way. 10 years from now, they could be dominating A LOT of sports since most athletes wouldn’t mind a Harvard degree over, say, a Kentucky degree. (sorry Kentucky, but it’s true)

  5. sportsavvy - Mar 24, 2013 at 2:10 PM

    Interesting when ppl post boohoo to the other ivies. doubt if you were an ath or loyal supporter to your college you would be on board w a conference rival making an unlevel playing field.

    Egregious cheating at Harvard is being committed by the men’s basketball team and its flagrant violation of Ivy League rules concerning the Academic Index. This past recruiting cycle, Harvard recruited and enrolled (in September 2012) a prep school player who had not even made his high school varsity team. Harvard matriculated a high school JV player just to add his sky-high SAT scores to the team average. That speaks to how low the AI scores of the Crimson’s other players are — you know, the ones who are asked to actually touch the ball. He graduated from Harvard-Westlake School, the prestigious prep school in Los Angeles. When he was being recruited by Crimson head coach Tommy Amaker during his junior year of high school (2010-11), he was still on his high school junior varsity team. He may well be the first high school JV player ever recruited by a college program which at the time was flirting with a national Top 25 ranking. His senior year, he made the varsity squad but rarely saw court time, averaging 1.7 points per game and scoring a total of 46 points all season. Nevertheless, he was admitted to Harvard and announced as part of the six-player recruiting class of 2012 in a standard press release dated August 1, 2012 under the headline, “Men’s Basketball Adds Six Newcomers to the Fold for 2012-13 Season.” Shortly after arriving on campus in September, coach Amaker informed the young man that his services would no longer be welcome and he was asked to leave the team. He remains a freshman at Harvard. Interestingly, Amaker’s attention to detail extends to going back to the archives of the team’s press releases. Today, if you search back to August 1, 2012, you will find a boilerplate press release with the headline, “Men’s Basketball Adds Five Newcomers to the Fold for 2012-13 Season.” The young man has been officially erased from his brief history on the Harvard varsity basketball team. However, based upon the original six-player press release and the young man’s public commitment to Harvard and subsequent enrollment, his name appears on the Crimson squad roster on the dozen or so websites which track college basketball statistics by player.

    the other 7 may find roundabout ways to get recruits wout athletic scholarships in our league but harvard and amaker take it to a whole new level. i wish the coach would leave our conference.

    • sportsavvy - Mar 24, 2013 at 2:17 PM

      Not to mention if you dont think all 8 schools use the degree as their primary recruiting pitch and how it is a 40 yr not 4 decision to attend then you are kidding yourself. Common sense would say that it just doesnt add up that all of a sudden they can get multiple 3-5 star recruits who were considering the likes of uconn and put together nationally ranked classes. This was never the case if you checked any ivy recruiting class in the past.

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