Harvard in position to end 65-year NCAA tournament drought
Harvard is closing in on its first NCAA tournament appearance since 1946
With Jeremy Lin in the stands, Harvard needed OT to beat Columbia 77-70
The Crimson might have already punched a ticket based on their résumé
NEW YORK -- On a campus filled with future Obamas and Zuckerbergs, the coolest title in Cambridge these days belongs to Brandyn Curry.
He's Harvard's starting point guard.
While the position might not carry the same athletic distinction as Notre Dame quarterback or USC tailback, the player Curry replaced at the position has given it newfound cachet. "And I thank him for it," said Curry, when asked about Jeremy Lin, a three-time, first-team All-Ivy League selection-turned-Knicks superhero guard. "The buzz here about him has been insane as you can imagine."
There was plenty of buzz Friday night at a sold-out Levien Gymnasium on the campus of Columbia University, which sits five miles north of the much larger arena Lin calls home these days. With Lin and Spike Lee seated eight rows behind the Crimson bench, Harvard held on for a 77-70 overtime victory over Columbia, an entertaining game that featured 11 lead changes and four ties.
"I think our league is sensational and this was another example of that," said Harvard coach Tommy Amaker. "What an effort for our team to find a way."
If Harvard wins at Cornell on Saturday night, they are assured of at least one-game playoff to decide who receives the Ivy League's automatic berth in the NCAA tournament. That game would be played on a neutral court.
But the Crimson might have already punched a ticket to the NCAAs based on its résumé. At 25-5 overall and 11-2 in the Ivy League, Harvard is ranked at No. 38 in the RPI, according to collegerpi.com, and SI.com's Andy Glockner has the Crimson slotted as a No. 10 seed in his latest Bracket Watch. Harvard is looking to make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1946 after earning an NIT bid last season.
Asked if his team deserved an NCAA bid regardless of whether they win the conference, Amaker was diplomatic. "We still have games to play and the best thing we can do is play well and win," he said. "Certainly we have won a lot of games this year and had some terrific wins."
Harvard junior forward Kyle Casey, who led the Crimson with 19 points, was willing to go further. "If the season ended right now, I think we would have a strong argument to make the tournament," Casey said. "But hopefully we take care of business."
They did so on Saturday in front of an electric atmosphere that amped up to another level when Lin arrived in the second half with some former Harvard teammates. When the nearly 3,000-strong crowd became aware Lin was in the house, they gave him a standing ovation. He stood up and waved back in appreciation. A minute later, it was back to chants of "Harvard Sucks, Harvard Sucks" for the Columbia student body.
Neither team led by more than six points in the second half and Columbia senior point guard Brian Barbour -- who was sensational with 23 points, five assists and two steals in 45 minutes -- tied the game at 62-62 with 33 seconds remaining in regulation on a driving layup. Harvard senior guard Oliver McNally missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer to send the game to overtime, but in the extra session, Harvard's interior strength helped them pull away. Casey's three-pointer with 1:14 left in overtime gave Harvard a six-point lead, the final dagger against a game Lions squad. It was the seventh consecutive win for Harvard over Columbia in a rivalry that began during Columbia's inaugural 1900-01 season (Harvard won that game as well, an edge-of-your-seat 11-9 victory).
Curry, a nifty, left-handed, pass-first junior guard, finished with seven points (he took only five shots), eight assists and two steals in 37 minutes. A high school basketball star with a 4.6 GPA at Hopewell High in Charlotte, Curry was recruited by George Mason, Virginia Commonwealth, Wright State, and William & Mary, but Harvard's academic reputation and the people Curry met during his recruiting visit swayed him to the school. He said Amaker pitched him on a simple motto: "He said we could make history." said Curry, who leads the Ivy League in assist-to-turnover ratio and is ranked in the Top 20 nationally in the category. "It's not easy to find something at Harvard that has not been done in a long time."
Curry is a sociology major and hopes to work in the business side of professional sports after his athletic career ends. He said he first played against Lin in pickup games prior to his freshman year. "He was unlike anything I had ever seen in basketball," Curry said. "I've never played against a guy with that kind of skill set. His fakes and quickness are a deadly combination. If he gets by you even a little bit, he has great body control and he can finish because he makes layups that you think he has no shot of making. As the years went on, he got better and better. And if you played off of him, he could hit the jump shot. It was so tough to play him but I got so much better as a defender having to guard that every single day."
Curry said one of the joys of Harvard's success in basketball has been attracting new people to the sport. He recalled how his classics professor, Saskia Dirkse, recently told him she attended her first-ever basketball game. Though she was confused by the Harvard players using their hands instead of kicking the ball having grown up on soccer, she was excited by what she saw. Said Curry: "Sure, it's Harvard and people are interested in doing important stuff like politics and science but it's cool when someone comes up to me and says, "Hey, I saw you last night. That was my first-ever basketball game." That's my favorite thing to hear. Even some of our professors who are from different countries and don't know what basketball is are following our team in the newspaper. It's great that people are interested in what we are doing."
Of course, neither Obama (a Harvard Law grad) nor Zuckerberg has made it to a Crimson game this season. Asked which famous alum he'd leave tickets for if he could, Curry said, "I'm hoping Obama comes out to watch us. He's a lefty and he plays basketball. Hopefully, if we make it to the tournament, he'll try to make it. But I'd settle for Zuckerburg. That would be fine with me, too."