Ivy League basketball story lines are usually predictable. The “last true student-athletes” earning their education and still finding time to play basketball. The reality, however, is much more nuanced.
Beyond the obvious challenges balancing of schoolwork and sports, the Ivy League basketball experience is far from typical. Conference play is hosted almost exclusively on consecutive Fridays and Saturdays, and fan support ebbs and flows. Even successful Ivy teams often play in front of apathetic fan bases who only get excited at the sniff of the NCAA Tournament promised land. What’s a player to do to get some love?
The answer, at Harvard at least, is simple: Recruit the other athletes. Harvard offers the most varsity sports of any Division I school, and athletes thus make up a surprisingly large and important part of a student body more well-known for its brains than its brawn. The student section at most Harvard games is dominated by student-athletes. The most vocal and noticeable are the football team, ever in the front rows, leading the cheers.
And it certainly helps that over the last two years Harvard has had quite a bit to cheer about on the basketball court. Fourth-year head coach Tommy Amaker has turned around the program, leading it to more than 20 wins last season and non-conference triumphs over Colorado and Boston College this year. Even with the departure of Jeremy Lin to the NBA, the Crimson have hardly missed a beat. Despite not having a senior on the roster (Harvard is 297th in D-I in experience this year), Harvard has played like a veteran team behind a tandem of sure-handed distributors, junior Oliver McNally and sophomore Brandyn Curry.
Entering this past weekend, despite Harvard’s gaudy 12-3 (2-0 Ivy) mark, it seemed that the rest of the campus needed some convincing. And while they were favored to win both games against Columbia and Cornell, nothing is for certain in the Fourteen Game Tournament that is the Ivy League slate.
On Friday night, in front of a less-than-capacity crowd at Lavietes Pavillion, the Crimson put down a very solid Columbia squad 77-66 behind a breakout performance from sophomore forward Kyle Casey. Casey, last season’s Ivy League Rookie of the Year, has been hampered by injury this season, his renowned athleticism rarely on display. On Friday, however, Casey put up 17 points and 13 crucial rebounds, punctuated by two enormous slam dunks.
It might be that the win over the Lions was the tipping point. Saturday, against Cornell, Lavietes was sold out, and the student section was rocking. Now, the football players in the front rows nodded in approval as they looked up at a sea of students all the way to the rafters. The team did not disappoint its fans, routing Cornell 78-57 behind a three-point shooting barrage and a double-double from junior big man Keith Wright.
With the clock ticking down and victory in hand, the jubilant football squad led fellow students in a rousing cheer that encompassed more than a single victory in its scope.
“I believe!” they shouted.
“I believe,” the students responded.
A lot may happen over the next six weeks. Harvard may get its first NCAA Tournament berth in school history… Or it may not. What is certain, however, is that a basketball team full of student-athletes, in the truest sense of the term, is finally playing in front of the audience it deserves.