Casey relishing NCAA experience

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- The conversation, as Kyle Casey remembers it, went something like this:

“Coach, I’m going to Harvard and we’re going to win the Ivy League and play in the NCAA tournament four straight years,” the then-high school senior said.

“Good luck,” then-Brimmer and May coach Greg Kristof said. “If you do it, that’d be a wonderful thing. But I’ll give you two or three.”

As it turns out, both parties were prescient. Since Casey came to Cambridge to play for Tommy Amaker five years ago, the Crimson have won four straight Ivy League titles -- including three straight outright -- and this season will play in the NCAA tournament for the third straight time.

Considering Harvard hadn’t made it to the NCAA tournament since 1946, Casey’s comments to his former coach demonstrated just how much confidence he has in his current coach.

“That is a lot of confidence, but when you’re around [Amaker] and you’re around someone who really believes in you, who recruits you as hard as he did and for the reasons that he recruited me...” Casey said. “He was there day in and day out, watching me play, at my practices, and just really hounding me to come and be a part of something that he believed could be something special. It makes a lasting impression on you.”

So when Casey sat down with his family to discuss his future, two names kept coming up: Amaker and Harvard.

Five years later, Casey is glad they did. He was the Ivy League Rookie of the Year in 2009-10, averaging 10.4 points (second on the team to Jeremy Lin’s 16.4) and 5.4 rebounds (most on the team) and helping the Crimson to a postseason appearance in the CIT (CollegeInsider.com Tournament).

As a sophomore, Casey averaged 10.7 points and 6.0 rebounds and helped the Crimson clinch a share of the league title -- the program’s first. But Harvard fell short of the Big Dance on a buzzer-beater by Princeton's Douglas Davis in the Ivy playoff game after the teams tied for the regular-season title.

In 2011-12, Casey was even better (a team-high 11.4 points per game) and, along with Keith Wright and Oliver McNally, helped the Crimson win their first outright Ivy title to earn an NCAA berth. Harvard lost to Vanderbilt in Albuquerque, N.M., in the second round, but the core gained valuable experience on the big stage.

Then came the lost season, when Casey was implicated in a campuswide academic cheating scandal (along with teammates Matt Brown, Brandyn Curry and Dee Giger) and chose to withdraw from school and work for a year to preserve his eligibility. While he was away, the Crimson -- led by Ivy Rookie of the Year Siyani Chambers and sophomore sensation Wesley Saunders -- made another brilliant Ivy run and this time won the first postseason game in school history, knocking off No. 3 seed New Mexico in Salt Lake City.

The absent players watched that triumph from afar, celebrating for their teammates instead of with them.

So after the Crimson were awarded a No. 12 seed and a matchup with No. 5 Cincinnati on Thursday (2:10 p.m. ET on TNT) in Spokane, Wash., Casey was asked what it feels like to be part of the mix.

“It’s special. You just kind of cherish moments more,” he said. “Being away from it [last season] was definitely a humbling experience. So coming back you really just try to take advantage of every day, come in and kind of just cherish the moment, enjoy it with your teammates and staff and everybody else who supports us in the Harvard community.

“As much as I was happy for the guys last year, it’s definitely better to be a part of it this year.”

Amaker is glad to have Casey, Curry & Co. back, both for their production on the court -- Casey is averaging 10.0 points and 5.7 rebounds, right around his career averages -- and their influence off of it.

The coach said he believes the year away increased the hunger Casey and Curry felt to get back to work in Cambridge and make one more run at the NCAAs.

“That was one of the areas I was concerned with going into the year for our entire team,” Amaker said. “And I think these two guys in particular addressed that, handled that, displayed that, and I think that was certainly contagious with our team. We’ve been a hungry team all season, and these two guys in particular are responsible for that as much as anyone.”

The path from Brimmer and May to where Casey is today was long, and not without its twists and turns. But now that the Medway, Mass., native is here, he’s planning to savor the experience.

And what would make the experience sweeter than a win over the Bearcats?

“I think we’ve got a strong team,” the senior said. “I think we’ve got a really good rhythm as a program right now. So we’re going in with a lot of confidence. I think we can get there and take care of business, for sure.”

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