"I am not afraid. I'm actually rather curious. Usually in life, you know how things are going to happen. You can imagine even in great detail what the dentist is going to do to you, what you're going to eat at your aunt's house...But this is different: it's a kind of an abyss, the perfect enigma." -Julio Cortazar
The above quotation comes from Julio Cortazar's excellent novel Final Exam, which tells the story of four friends on a night out before their University's doctorate exam. As I stood in the Harvard fan section at The Pit, waiting for the Crimson to start their Final Exam, I understood Cortazar's sentiments exactly.
At that moment, all avenues remained possible. We stood on the edge of an event foreign to us; as much as we might claim it was just another game, the setting, the stakes, and the opponent were different from those this team has faced before. They had put in the work, the countless hours preparing for this moment. What would it bring?
Harvard basketball had reached previously unexplored heights this season, winning their first outright Ivy League title and the accompanying tournament berth. For their troubles, they received a lower seed than expected, a trip of over 2,300 miles, and an opponent who had just handed the best team in the country its second loss.
While the distance and location limited the student contingent, the Crimson section was full of generations of Harvard basketball players past. From Don Swegan, who played on the 1946 team that last made the tournament, to much more recent alumni, over 35 former Harvard players made the trip to see their dreams of NCAA tournament participation consummated by the 2012 squad. These men, all extremely successful in their own fields outside of basketball, were transported back to their playing days by the achievements of the current Crimson team.
The game began slowly, with both teams missing shots and committing turnovers. Harvard successfully slowed the pace, forcing a much bigger Vanderbilt team to work on offense. But then Commodore marksman and leading SEC scorer John Jenkins started to go off. He hit two contested jumpers in succession, then was fouled on a three point attempt. Still, Harvard fought back, taking a 20-17 lead late in the half on a Christian Webster three-pointer.
Then, with four minutes to go in the first half, the game turned. Harvard star Kyle Casey, who has been plagued by foul trouble all season, picked up his second foul 90 feet from the Crimson's basket on a silly reach-in. Coach Tommy Amaker sat Casey down for the rest of the half, and without their most athletic player, Harvard sputtered. Two turnovers led to Vanderbilt fast break layups, and a Brad Tinsley three at the first half buzzer had the Crimson trailing 33-23 at the half.
The mood among the Harvard basketball alumni at the half was hopeful. Harvard had played well for 16 minutes, and had shown that despite giving up size at every position - Vandy never played a player shorter than 6-3 -they could play with the Commodores. Harvard got the stop they needed at the start of the second half, but then the game turned again. Casey got free for an uncontested dunk, a play he has made successfully over 40 times this season. Except this time, he missed. At the other end, he was late on a close-out and fouled Jenkins, who made the shot and the free throw. Instead of being down eight, Harvard was down 14.
To his credit, Casey proceeded to score on the next two Harvard possessions, but the Crimson were unable to get any defensive stops. Vanderbilt made nine of their first ten shots in the half, yet Harvard played well enough on offense to remain in contact. Then, with six minutes to go, Vandy senior Jeff Taylor hit a corner three, then stole the ball at midcourt and threw down a thunderous dunk. The Dores were up 18.
The future of Harvard basketball is bright, yet uncertain. Amaker has created an unprecedented level of engagement from not only the student body, but also from an alumni base that had been neglected for a long time. Harvard is nothing if not traditional, and that focus on tradition extended to the Athletic Department. The sports of old at Harvard are and always will be football and hockey. For most of its history, basketball was the forgotten "revenue sport" on campus.
It has only been in the last five years that the Athletic Department has formalized its commitment to basketball. Donors have helped to expand the aging facilities, and the Admissions Department has been more lenient in its admissions decisions. This latter point is often misunderstood: yes, Harvard has lowered its standards, but it has only lowered them from their previously extremely stringent levels towards the level that the Ivy League sets. Harvard has leveled the playing field with its Ivy rivals, nothing more. I can say with full confidence that the players on this Harvard team are a credit to the University, both on the court and in the college.
The question remains however: how much of this success is sustainable if or when Amaker takes a higher profile job? He turned down Miami last season, but Ivy administrators are loath to pay coaches more than the tenured professors at the school, so pay disparities will always be an issue. Additionally, Ivy coaches can face opposition from traditionalists in school administrations who look at athletic success with skepticism or even disdain. Finally, there is the issue of Lavietes Pavilion. Lavietes is a cozy place to watch a game that can get very loud, but it is smaller and less well-appointed than many high school gyms.
Harvard basketball has the potential to build on recent success and become a perennially successful program, but it faces substantial challenges. At Harvard, lasting success requires the building of support networks and the changing of attitudes toward athletics. That process is well underway, but it is a long way from completion.
With six minutes to go, Harvard was in the process of flunking its difficult final exam. But this team has built a resilience and determination that does not allow it to fail. Laurent Rivard, the sophomore from Quebec, hit two extremely difficult three-pointers to cut the lead to 11. Harvard dug in on defense, getting three straight stops, and foul shots from Casey and Keith Wright cut the Vandy lead to seven. After another stop, point guard Brandyn Curry hit a floater in the lane to cut the lead to five. Harvard was on a 16-3 run. Kevin Stallings called time.
The Commodores got the ball to their senior star Jeff Taylor, who drove the lane and picked drew a foul. But Taylor hit one of two free throws, and Harvard was only down six. On the other end, the Crimson offense stalled and Oliver McNally lost the ball in the corner. He was able to spike it off a Vanderbilt player who was clearly standing out of bounds, but the referee standing five feet away missed the call, and the Dores picked up the loose ball. Two Jenkins free throws sealed the game, and Harvard's season ended in a loss.
All in all, I saw 15 Harvard games in person this season. Vanderbilt was without a doubt the best team the Crimson played all season. While I can look back at what-ifs, Harvard put forth a very, very good effort and simply came up short against a more talented team.
It has been an absolute pleasure to watch the growth of this team for the last two years. Seniors Oliver McNally and Keith Wright provided inestimable leadership, and they will be missed by Crimson fans next year. The freshman class stepped up in key situations. I will never forget Corbin Miller's 17 points in the face of the loudest basketball crowd I have ever experienced at the Palestra in February. Juniors Brandyn Curry and Kyle Casey have become leaders, too. This is their team next year, and I have faith that it is in good hands.
As the alumni of Harvard basketball filed out of The Pit, there was disappointment, but also pride. The Crimson had lost the game, but passed their final exam: they proved themselves worthy representatives of the Ivy League and worthy inheritors of all of the hours and years of hard work that had led to this day.
As basketball fans, we make large investments in the teams we follow. This year's Harvard team has more than repaid my investment, with generous interest. What more can I ask than that?
VANDERBILT 79, HARVARD 70 03/15/2012
HARVARD 26-5 (12-2) -- B. Curry 5-13 1-2 12; O. McNally 2-5 0-0 4; K. Wright 3-8 2-2 8; K. Casey 3-8 6-6 13; L. Rivard 6-7 2-4 20; C. Webster 2-7 0-0 5; W. Saunders 1-4 0-0 2; C. Miller 0-0 0-0 0; S. Moundou-Missi 2-2 0-0 4; J. Travis 1-1 0-0 2; M. Brown 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 25-56 11-14 70. VANDERBILT 25-10 (10-5) -- J. Taylor 6-13 1-4 15; J. Jenkins 7-12 10-13 27; R. Odom 2-4 0-0 5; F. Ezeli 2-3 4-6 8; B. Tinsley 5-6 4-4 16; K. Johnson 2-5 0-1 4; S. Tchiengang 0-1 0-0 0; L. Goulbourne 1-2 2-2 4; D. Parker 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 25-46 21-30 79.
Three-point goals: HARV 9-24 (O. McNally 0-3; K. Casey 1-3; B. Curry 1-5; C. Webster 1-6; L. Rivard 6-7), VAND 8-18 (B. Tinsley 2-2; J. Taylor 2-5; J. Jenkins 3-8; R. Odom 1-2; K. Johnson 0-1); Rebounds: HARV 22 (K. Wright 9), VAND 35 (F. Ezeli 11); Assists: HARV 14 (O. McNally 7), VAND 13 (B. Tinsley 4); Total Fouls -- HARV 21, VAND 18; Fouled Out: HARV-K. Casey; VAND-L. Goulbourne.