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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.

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