NCAA March Madness: How Harvard's basketball team became a contender

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- The NCAA tournament begins Tuesday, with 68 schools vying for college basketball's national championship -- including one known for high test scores, not high scores on the court.

In seven years, Harvard basketball coach Tommy Amaker's teams have won four consecutive Ivy League championships, and for the third year in a row, they're in the NCAA tournament -- all for a program that had never won a title in the 60-year history of the Ivy League.

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Tommy Amaker
Harvard Athletics
"To think you can go to Harvard and make history still gives me some chills to think about, and we've achieved that," Amaker says.

Amaker credits a big part of his success to a monthly breakfast club of Harvard alumni, faculty and business leaders who serve as an informal kitchen cabinet, lending wise counsel and a friendly ear.

"We've had confidential discussions here, things that have happened within our team that I wanted to inquire and ask, get feedback from and get ideas, or a shared experience," Amaker says.

Amaker has the bluest of basketball pedigrees. He played for and coached with Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski at Duke and went on to coach at Seton Hall and Michigan.

So in 2007, it was quite a surprise when he came to an institution known more for its Rhodes scholars than pro athletes.

Asked what has made him effective in presenting the program to players, Amaker says, "We talk about the option of Harvard is not a four-year decision, it's a 40-year decision. We believe in that."

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Tommy Amaker and his players.
Harvard Athletics
But Harvard's success has not been without controversy. Two years ago, the team's co-captains were the only students publicly named in a cheating scandal in which 125 Harvard students were investigated.

"I'm proud of our guys for how they've handled this," Amaker says of his team. "They've been the face of certain things on behalf of our whole institution, and how they've handled it with grace and dignity."

Last year, Harvard made school history when it won its its first game in the NCAA tournament. This year, expectations are high.

"We're not focused on the results of what the scoreboard says or winning and losing," Amaker says. "We're trying to become a championship team, as opposed to trying to win a championship."

Teamwork is a destination, he says, and victory happens along the way.

  • James Brown

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