Harvard hopes Dance experience helps

The Crimson have been here before (even if "here" is actually a new arena in a new city in a new state against a new opponent) and they're hoping that helps.

Playing Vanderbilt in the second round of the NCAA tournament in Albuquerque, N.M., last season provided experience that could prove valuable against New Mexico in the second round of the NCAA tournament in Salt Lake City, Utah, this season. At least that's the idea.

"I thought we did a terrific job [in the Big Dance] last year, being the first time in so many years," Tommy Amaker said in a conference call Monday morning.

The Crimson started slowly before rallying in the second half to make it close late against Vanderbilt, getting to within five points of the Commodores before falling 79-70.

But the roster Harvard takes into the tourney in 2013 is vastly different than the one it took into the tourney in 2012. Four-fifths of the starting five is gone: Oliver McNally and Keith Wright both graduated, and Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry both withdrew from school after being implicated in an academic cheating scandal.

Laurent Rivard is the lone remaining starter, one of three current Crimson players who played more than 10 minutes in the loss to the Commodores last season. (Rivard played 25 minutes, Christian Webster played 20 and Wesley Saunders played 11.)

Nine of the 14 players on the Harvard roster were in the program for the trip west last season, but besides Rivard, Webster and Saunders only Steve Moundou-Missi (six minutes) and Jonah Travis (one minute) actually set foot on the floor during the game.

"I think we'll just be a little bit more confident, a little bit more relaxed," Webster said. "When you go into this tournament, it's nerve-wracking when you come to the stadium and you see the big, blue [NCAA] logo and you see the TV cameras and you know that this is what everybody in America is watching. It's a big deal.

"And last year I think we were a little nervous. … I think that will help us just focus on the game and just play ball."

"When you have a point of reference there is a different comfort level that I think players and people adjust to," Amaker said, referring to the past tournament experience. "What does that mean? You're not really sure."

Star point guard Siyani Chambers, a freshman from Golden Valley, Minn., who took the Ivy League by storm on his way to rookie of the year honors, obviously wasn't there for last season's run. It'll all be new for him, and how he reacts to the situation will go a long way toward determining Harvard's chances.

When Chambers plays well, Harvard plays well. When Chambers struggles (as he did in losses at St. Joseph's, at UConn and at Memphis in the nonconference schedule), Harvard struggles.

Will his teammates' time in the tourney in 2011-12 help him on Thursday? That remains to be seen.

"This year knowing what to expect, and [having] kinda been through it once before will certainly allow them to be a little bit more relaxed about the environment and the situation," Amaker said. "Now does that mean we're gonna play perfectly? I doubt that.

"But certainly it gives us a point of reference that we hope will serve us well."

Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter @jack_mccluskey.