Why Harvard Will Win/Lose

Our favorite cranky Cantab-hating commenter sent us the following essay yesterday. The author of this piece is not affiliated with Ivy Hoops Online, but we always welcome and encourage commenters, outside contributors, and readers to share their opinions and thoughts. 

The Ancient Quaker is sick of all the talk about 2012 Harvard being the best Ivy team ever. How about Penn's 1979 Final Four team? (Photo Credit: blogs.dailypennsylvanian.com)

By The Ancient Quaker

Now that the preliminaries are finally out of the way, at last comes the make or break weekend for the Crimson. The hyperbole surrounding this team is insufferable. The sporting press has already crowned them champions since early September. Some have even dared to call this year’s Crimson the best Ivy team of all time. (No, that would be the third ranked (that’s 3) Quakers of 1970. If you don’t agree, there are plenty of other possibilities: Bill Bradley’s Tigers, Penn’s 1979 Final Four team or even the sixth-ranked 1967 Columbia Lions with Jim McMillan.) What’s more, earlier this week ESPN was trying to determine Harvard’s likely tournament seed. As amusing as these possibilities may be, to this I say not so fast. With the P’s coming to Boston in a few days anything can happen. As I have already made clear in a prior article, I am no fan of Harvard Basketball or of their unctuous coach Tommy Amaker. Nevertheless (for fun), I will posit why I believe the Crimson will win their first outright title. Then to be fair (and hopeful), I will suggest why they will fail.


Why The Crimson Will Win

Home Court Advantage

Let’s dispense with the obvious first. It is always a plus to be the home team in the Ivy League. Although it’s a bit high schoolish looking for such an august institution, Lavietes has nevertheless been kind to the local tenants. The Crimson possess the second longest home winning streak in D-1 ball. The fact that this is also the longest Ivy road trip for the P’s and it comes toward the end of the season increases the fatigue factor for the visitors.

The Defense

At present, Harvard is ranked third (that’s 3) in the nation in team defense. I will admit that that is a pretty impressive statistic. This title is usually held by Princeton but the Tigers are having an off year defensively (56th). Yale looked terrible in both games against Harvard because they couldn’t handle the defensive pressure. As the roundball sage of Philadelphia, Coach Jerome Allen, is fond of saying, defense “is the ability to impose your will on the opponent.” Defense wins ball games. Penn’s defense is ranked a miserable 161.


Experience is probably the biggest single factor in winning Ivy League Championships. There have never been any Fab 5’s in the Ancient Eight. Conference Champions tend to be stocked with juniors and seniors who know the Friday-Saturday horror shows the schedule can dish out. Witness the Penn and Princeton teams of yore

and, as of late, Cornell. The 2010 Big Red reached the Sweet Sixteen because they were loaded with seniors and, above all, experienced. These teams rarely lost their poise.

The core of the Crimson are all upperclassman. Overall the team is 23-3 and they didn’t get that way by accident. It also doesn’t hurt to have a bunch of blue chip freshman sitting on the bench. Therefore, one can assume that the P’s are in for a long night as wave after wave of talented players hit the hardwood.

(So far things are looking bleak for the visitors.)

Harvard Cheats

Although Amaker received a veritable (pun intended) slap on his Sydney Johnson for the program’s alleged misdeeds, the specter of recruiting violations still hovers over this team. Busted or not, Amaker has still reaped the spoils. He has qualitatively and quantitatively better players than the rest of the league. Yes I’m sure he knows how to work the living room (“Ummm, this onion dip is yummy for my tummy”) and is a good recruiter in his own right, but I can’t help but wonder who really belongs on the team and who doesn’t. Regardless, the program has been exonerated and it is a talent gap that unfortunately everyone must deal with.

In conclusion, the Crimson have constructed a formidable combination for winning: defense, experience and cheating. In fact I’m getting depressed just thinking about it. So without further ado, it’s time to explain why I think the Crimson will fail.


Why The Crimson will Lose

The Offense

I will admit they are defensively solid, but I have seen the Crimson play several times this year and for a top 25 program, they play terrible team basketball. Their offense is erratic and streaky. For example, their defense kept them in the game against Florida State. A defensive struggle and no offense led to a 14-14 tie at halftime. No one could get the ball in the hoop. Consider this as opposed to the 2010 Cornell team that seemed to flow with the ball even when they were a little out of sync. Look, anyone can have a bad shooting night and Harvard is due. Disrupt their offensive sets and they appear panicky and hence extremely vulnerable. I may be completely wrong, but for all their experience, the Crimson does not strike me as a mentally tough team and talent only goes so far. I should also note that Columbia has the 19th ranked defense in the nation and they’re at the bottom of the league. So defense isn’t everything. 

Princeton Will Wear Them Out

Having already lost to the Tigers, it will be payback time. It will be an emotional game and a defensive struggle. However, Princeton is peaking at the right time and is arguably playing the best ball of anyone in the League over the last month. If Harvard loses, they will be drained and defeated. If they win, they will be drained anyway. This is the same scenario that occurred when the Crimson arrived in New Jersey after a death match with the Quakers a few weeks ago. By the time Penn shows up, they will have their hands full with Zack ”Man on a Mission” Rosen. Of course, if Tyler Bernardini is injured and can’t play effectively or at all, Penn will simply not be able to keep up. The title might finally move to Cambridge. However, if Harvard loses to either of the P’s, the Crimson must then go to New York and play a dangerous and motivated Columbia team. Except for one game, all of the Lions’ Ivy losses have been by eleven points or less. They could have also very easily beaten Penn at The Cathedral last weekend if the defense didn’t decide to take a night-night when The Quakers inbounded the ball.

Harvard Cheats

One could say that Douglas Davis” dagger of last year was comeuppance enough but I say no. The stain of unfair advantage never goes away. Look at Bill Belichick. What have they Patriots won since Spygate? Zero playoff games since their embarrassing debacle versus the Giants in 2008 until another playoff run led to a lost Superbowl this year. What happened to the dynasty? Look at all the baseball players not in the Hall of Fame because of PEDs?

I do not believe in Karma (otherwise I’d be sitting here in thatched wheat underpants and sipping tepid Oolong tea right now), but I do believe that it is hard to respect a program of this nature where the leadership has set such a poor example.



My gut feeling, unfortunately, is that Harvard will eventually win the whole thing. Nevertheless, I think they are and have been extremely overrated. Even if they make the tournament, I can’t see them getting out of the first round. Normally, I root for the Ivy representative in the NCAA tournament whoever it is. A win of any kind brings honor to the League. This year may be the exception.


11 thoughts on “Why Harvard Will Win/Lose”

  1. This article must have been written by the Cornell Basketball Blog. It has all of the same talking points and venom.

  2. Dude, the article is about basketball, not the international monetary crisis. There are only so many talking points to be had. I assure you my work is original. Any similarities are purely coincidental.

    Besides, I know not of the Cornell Blog. I don’t read D-III literature.

    The AQ

  3. I’m curious why you say that Harvard’s “program has been exonerated.” The program absolutely has not been exonerated — just the opposite, in fact.

    It is highly likely that you are confused because, after the March 2008 article by the New York Times, the Ivy League office was forced by the negative publicity to conduct an investigation of the allegations made by the Times. After a six-month investigation, the Ivy office announced in September that it had found no violations of Ivy or NCAA policies, essentially clearing Harvard of all charges.

    However, then the NCAA issued a stunning rebuke of the League office, announcing that it would dispense with its usual practice of accepting the results of a conference investigation. Instead, the NCAA would conduct its own investigation, which ultimately took almost two years.

    In July 2010, the NCAA announced that Harvard and Coach Amaker had indeed committed a recruiting violation. The finding by the NCAA was a further embarrassment for the Ivy League as the NCAA had reached a conclusion wholly contradictory to that which was reached by the Ivy office.

    In a plea-bargaining exercise of sorts, Harvard admitted to having committed a secondary violation and accepted restrictions on future recruiting as a penalty.

    Many observers are confused about the final outcome from the New York Times article because the Ivy League office initially cleared Harvard entirely. But if you are acquitted by a District Court but then later found guilty by the Supreme Court, you are guilty, not exonerated.

    • The AQ does indeed get confused on occasion due to old age. (Otherwise I’d be the “Youthful Quaker.”) However progeria aside, I cannot say that I knew of the NCAA ruling, only the Ivy League conclusion. Naturally, this new information only serves to heighten my disdain for the Crimson even more.

      Thank you (I think) for clearing this up.

  4. Oh Boy! The AQ weighs in…I was on the road yesterday and missed this. My coach seats were far more comfortable than the Lavietes bleachers for last night’s game. I thought I was back at Rider for a moment. For all their success the Crimson of Keith Wright and Oliver McNally have not established clear superiority over the Tigers in four years. This season’s series came down to the home team getting, and making, more FT’s than the visitor.(See AQ, supra, “Home Court Advantage”)I shall be happy to congratulate either the Quakers or the Crimson as Ivy champion this season. The Tigers may have something more to say on the subject at Jadwin on March 6.

  5. The NCAA humiliated the Ivy League in 2010 when it overturned the League’s carefully considered conclusion on Coach Amaker’s recruiting of Max Kenyi and reigning conference player of the year Keith Wright.

    But as important a contributor as Wright has been to the Crimson, Amaker’s biggest advantage relative to his Ivy coaching peers is actually something completely different. His biggest discrepancy in resources comes from the fact that Harvard (more specifically, athletic director Scalise) has granted him almost a total carte blanche to recruit as many low AI players as he can find.

    The way that the Academic Index system is structured, that is not cheating per se. Any of the Ivies could decide to allocate low AI admission preferences away from, say, the hockey and lacrosse teams toward the basketball team. It’s more of a loophole in the rules than it is cheating.

    But it’s a loophole which the other Ivies have resisted exploiting over the three-decade history of the AI in an informal gentlemen’s agreement. Now, Harvard and Amaker are driving a truck through the loophole and the results are showing up on the court.

    I imagine that soon the other seven schools will vote to close the loophole by moving men’s basketball to a banding system as football is treated. That will bring Harvard and Amaker back to something approximating a level playing field.

  6. The banding thing is an interesting thought. However, I doubt it will happen unless there’s another scandal of some sort (recruiting violation, falsification of test scores or HS GPA, academic cheating, player misconduct, something like that).

    Another possibility is that BCCDP will decide that, regardless of HYP’s objections, they are going to start preemptively matching HYP financial aid offers for recruited athletes. That would certainly upset the apple cart.

  7. To NCAA RECRUITING VIOLATION: If the basketball team receives preference in the allocation of lower AI slots, should we not expect blowback from the coaches whose teams are no longer getting these slots? I’m no great fan of “Bain Capital” Bob, but if admissions were a function of the AD’s office, Princeton and Penn might have driven the truck years ago. Gary Walters and Steve Bilsky possess impressive basketball credentials. Your conclusion may be valid, but, if so, must reflect an institutional commitment to basketball, not just the Athletic Department’s. Is the issue even on the League’s radar screen at this point? If Penn wins out the Harvard juggernaut will have shared two titles with two different teams and might not get to the tournament. The Wright-McNally teams have gone 2-7 against Princeton in four years, winning twice at home. No one was shouting “Break Up The Big Red” when Cornell had its great run in the recent past. This discussion may be moot when Amaker takes the job as Coach K’s successor.

    • George, thank you for your reply. Boy, you covered a lot of ground in your message.

      When you ask whether there might be “blowback” from other Harvard “coaches whose teams are no longer getting these [lower AI] slots,” a good analogy would be whether a divisional vice president might complain when his CEO allocates more resources to another division. Depending upon the personalities of the actors involved, complaining might work or it might get the vice president fired.

      Harvard men’s hockey, for example, seems significantly weaker now than its historical position as one of the dominant ECAC teams. Baseball has lost its membership in the duopoly with Dartmouth at the top of the Rolfe Division. Lacrosse was never a top program, but seems to be mostly treading water on the periphery of a top four finish to qualify for the Ivy tournament.

      Is the weakness in the other three of the four major non-football sports due to allocation of low AI slots to basketball? Who knows, but the timing certainly fits.

      I think that the most conspicuous “blowback” from what Coach Amaker is doing in Allston was the rather abrupt and otherwise remarkable departure of your coach Sydney “I love love love Princeton basketball” Johnson while your Tiger players were still running off the court after the Kentucky game.

      The final horn was still echoing in the Tampa-St. Pete Forum when Johnson showed up at Fairfield. Johnson correctly surmised that he could never compete on an even footing with Amaker and decided that discretion was the better part of valor. Namely, get a job outside the conference before the opportunities stop being available.

      In terms of the allocation of low AI slots, the athletic department proposes and the admissions department approves. I doubt that many admissions departments would care too much whether the “dumbest” athletes on campus are on the basketball team or the hockey team. As long as the total number of dumb recruits is kept under an acceptable ceiling, it’s really the prerogative of the athletic department to use those recruits as efficiently as possible.

      If Bob Scalise would rather have a winning men’s basketball team whose name pops up on Selection Sunday at the expense of a top hockey or baseball team, who can tell the CEO that his widget division should not be prioritized over the guns and butter divisions?

      Nobody was shouting “Break Up The Big Red” because nobody thought that Coach Donahue had built his success through superior recruits. Player of the year Ryan Wittman was recruited by legitimate programs, the likes of Air Force, Bradley and Eastern Kentucky. Lou Dale was hardly recruited at all and basically marketed himself to schools where his excellent academic credentials would be well received. The final member of the Cornell class of 2010’s Big Three, Jeff Foote, was completely overlooked as a high school player and only fell into Donahue’s lap via a transfer because his mother worked in a hospital where a Cornell player was getting medical treatment.

      I doubt that Penn will win out to keep Harvard from going to the tournament but you can keep hoping.

      Congratulations to your Tigers for keeping the Wright-McNally teams to 2-7 over the last four years. You will not be able to do that over the next four years.

      Coach Amaker will not succeed Coach Krzyzewski at Duke. You can bet all the money you have on that one, my friend.

  8. Many thanks for such a lively discussion from those who would prefer to see the Crimson fall. Such talk warms the AQ’s hypertrophied heart. And my apologies to Mr Thomas ” Amaker “Welch who actually used the word “venom” to describe an article in which such vituperous terms as “yummy for my tummy” and ” night-night” were used. Sorry to rattle your obviously gentle constitution.

    The AQ

  9. To NCAAV: Amaker to Duke is more of a wish than a prediction. Sydney Johnson was “shown the money,” literally. One can love Tiger basketball but nevertheless desire to make an imprint on the world of basketball beyond the Ivy League. Its limitations, financial and competitive, are rather immutable. A tournament seed is more a reward than a goal. I believe Sydney’s priorities are different. I have no direct knowledge of what Harvard is, or is not, doing. If the Harvard hockey coach resigns because he concludes that his program has been downgraded by his employers I shall draw an appropriate conclusion, as will, I should hope, the League’s administrators. I wish I had access to the actual data relating to the application of the AI by the member institutions, but I do not. On the court, Harvard is having a nice, but hardly dominant, run. Wright and McNally will not be easy to replace, however talented the roster will be next season. As of this writing, Penn can claim a share of the title and represent the League in the tournament. Ironic that a Princeton win on March 6 might give Harvard the outright title. My dislike for the Harvard program is not as visceral as yours; mine is more of a “GO Tigers” thing. Princeton returns a team next year with fewer question marks than we faced going into this season. I think we will compete at a high level in the League.

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