Amaker: Harvard's 'possibilities are endless'

"We may not have what we had, but we have enough," Tommy Amaker told his team from the start. Harry How/Getty Images

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Their season's final buzzer having sounded, the sweat from the last game long since washed away, it was finally OK to admit it: the losses hurt.

When Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry were implicated in an academic cheating scandal and chose to withdraw from school in September to protect their eligibility, the Crimson's chances to repeat as Ivy League champions and to return to the NCAA tournament seemed to take a body blow.

But when Tommy Amaker looks back now, he sees that moment differently.

"Really neat, terrific stories generally are created or come about because of something unusual," the Harvard coach said Wednesday at Lavietes Pavilion. "Adversity. Those are the moments that [make] special things happen. And that's what we kinda embraced."

The 2012-13 Crimson had a saying, one that stayed with them as the season unwound, day by day, game by game: "We may not have what we had, but we have enough."

"We emphasized that within our locker room, within our team, there was still enough in here to accomplish everything that we had set out to accomplish," Amaker said. "And boy, did they ever do that."

In 2012-13, Harvard:

  • won its third straight Ivy League title (second straight outright title, after a share in 2010-11)

  • played in its second straight NCAA tournament (after going 65 years between its first and second appearances)

  • won its first NCAA tournament game (beating No. 3 seed New Mexico 68-62)

"To win a game and advance in the tournament was pretty special," Amaker said. "Obviously, the circumstances surrounding our team at the start of the year ... to overcome adversity, to have young guys step into different roles ... I couldn't be prouder of our guys.

"There's no doubt that they made some special moments for our ballclub and our program and hopefully we can grow it and use it as we move forward to get better."

The special moments the Crimson produced in 2012-13 were made possible in large part by huge contributions from two underclassmen, Siyani Chambers (a freshman) and Wesley Saunders (a sophomore).

Chambers, a native of Golden Valley, Minn., was brilliant from the get-go. Forced into the starting lineup from the tip -- thanks to the withdrawals of would-be co-captains Curry and Casey -- Chambers proved mature beyond his 19 years, ending up leading the Ivy League in assists and minutes per game and winning the rookie of the year award.

Before the season began, Amaker called Saunders the Crimson's best player. The Los Angeles native lived up to that billing in his second season in Cambridge, leading the Ivy League in scoring and totaling double digits in points in all but the Crimson's last game (the 74-51 shellacking by No. 6 seed Arizona in the NCAA's round of 32, when he finished with eight).

And while technically Amaker named Laurent Rivard and Christian Webster co-captains, Webster admitted to reporters after the No. 14 seed Crimson upset the Lobos that Chambers led the team this season. Chambers' dazzling debut and the performances of Saunders and fellow sophomores Steve Moundou-Missi and Kenyatta Smith give Harvard high hopes going forward, especially considering that Casey and Curry are expected to be back for next season.

On Wednesday, Amaker said the coaching staff preached the losses of Casey and Curry as an opportunity for other players to step forward.

Then there was that phrase again, "We may not have what we had, but we have enough."

"We used that, we embraced that, we believed in that and we knew that it was an opportunity for us to possibly create something that could be very special," Amaker said.

After a whirlwind few days as Big Dance darlings because of their upset win, the Crimson came back down to earth courtesy of the 74-51 dispatching by the Wildcats. Looking back at the two games now, Amaker admitted that the Crimson needed everything to line up perfectly -- they had to play their best at the same time as their favored opponent faltered -- to win these kinds of games as currently constituted.

But the coach hinted that perhaps that won't always be the case. That perhaps there's room for these Crimson to get to a point where a win in mid-to-late March won't be quite so shocking to the general populace.

"We talk about possibilities are endless, and that's the beauty of being here at Harvard," Amaker said. "We have literally seen here at this place that anything is possible. And that includes basketball. We do play for Harvard, so that includes us.

"So we [try never] to feel like we're putting a cap or ceiling on what is possible. We want to do the best we can and maximize who we are and where we are, and I think live up to our standards and identity, and we can live with it after that. Whatever that is. And sometimes you find, as we found this year, that some of those growth opportunities are enormous."

So, yes, losses hurt. But upon reflection people sometimes find that it's the hardest blows that taught them the biggest lessons in sports, as in life.

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