No. 12 seed just fine with Harvard

Kyle Casey and Andrew Van Nest react to seeing Harvard's name announced in the NCAA field. AP Photo/The Boston Globe/Bill Greene

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Tommy Amaker stood in the back of the room, behind three rows of seats cordoned off with velvet ropes, and watched. But his eyes weren't on the two flat screen TVs as much as on the players he’s seen grow up with his program.

As the names of the NCAA tournament participants were called off, one by one, and his team wasn’t called, the tension seemingly built. Players slouched and slumped in their seats, subjected to commercial breaks. Some, like cocaptain Oliver McNally, put their heads in their hands.

Legs tap, tap, tapped on the floor.

Though the Harvard Crimson had known for days they were in the Big Dance, the wait still took its toll on Selection Sunday.

So when their name was finally called, just after 6:30 p.m., the Crimson leapt to their feet and celebrated with the crowd that had gathered to watch along with them. Harvard had been awarded a No. 12 seed, and will play 5-seed Vanderbilt in Albuquerque, N.M., on Thursday.

“Obviously a big day for us. An incredibly exciting day, an incredibly exciting moment,” Amaker said. “It was so neat to see these guys jump for joy.

“Their reaction was priceless.”

“It was surreal,” Keith Wright said of the moment when the seven letters he’s worn on his chest the past four seasons flashed onto the screen. “You know, it was hard work paying off. We’ve been through so many things, ups and downs, this season, and to be able to celebrate and seeing our name up there on the screen is priceless. You can’t really explain it.

“There aren’t really words [for] it, for the feeling that I had.”

“It was a really incredible moment,” Brandyn Curry said.

But for Curry, the experience also brought back memories. Specifically memories of last year, when the team gathered privately to watch the selection show wishing, praying, to be picked. The Crimson had just lost a one-game playoff to Princeton for the Ivy League’s automatic bid, but held out hope for an at-large berth.

That whole show came and went, and Harvard’s name wasn’t called.

“Knowing that and then [having the Harvard name] up there this year just made it even more special,” the junior point guard said.

Amaker said he doesn’t get caught up in seeding or matchups, and that he knows the Crimson will have their hands full with Vanderbilt. The Commodores upset overall No. 1 seed Kentucky earlier Sunday afternoon to win the SEC tournament title.

For the fifth-year Crimson coach, Sunday was all about being in the moment. About watching his players celebrate a hard-won honor, the first for Harvard since 1946.

“We knew our name was going to come up,” McNally said. “But it’s just one of those things you can’t prepare for. And so you can say, ‘It’s going to be awesome,’ but seeing it?”

That’s a whole ‘nother thing.

In the days following the Crimson’s bid being clinched by Princeton’s win over Penn in the Ivy regular-season finale, McNally, Wright and other Crimson players have talked about what the berth means to them and to the university they represent. The biggest thing for most of them is the difference they see from then, when they arrived on campus three or four seasons ago, to now.

They’ve gone from sparsely filled gyms to packed houses, from anonymity on campus to receiving high fives from random fellow students as they go about their days.

Curry said he’s had people tell him that when they’ve gone to office hours to talk to professors, seeking help on a paper, all the faculty members seem to want to do is talk Harvard basketball.

Maybe that explains the pained expressions on some of the players’ faces as they waited in the Hall of History, as the Murr Center room Harvard hosted its watch party in is called, for the moment they all knew was coming.

It was at once about them and about something larger. It was history.

“The whole day was pretty special for me,” McNally said. “Especially getting there and seeing how many people took the time to come out and be there when our name was called. Just the transition in this program and where we came from a few years ago when I got here and the year before when Coach got here and to where we are now is the best part of everything for me.”

And while it was fun to celebrate, and it’s something the Crimson aren’t likely to forget, it’s not the end goal.

“This is the reason why all of us came here,” Kyle Casey said. “It’s nice to see all the hard work paying off.

“I think we’ve been practicing well all year and especially this week. And we have a drive and motivation to continue to achieve our goals. We’re going to go in confident and play our game and the outcome will take care of itself.”

“I think our kids, we’re going to be ready to go to work tomorrow,” Amaker said.

As the coach spoke, his point guard, Curry, nodded his head.

“I just think we need to take business as usual in a lot of ways -- our preparation, our identity,” Amaker said. “But also remember to have some fun with it, which is always a part of everything we try to do here.

“It’s important that we enjoy the process and enjoy the journey, but obviously we’re going to do the best we can and give it our all.”

And maybe, just maybe, if they do that, there will be more historic moments to stand back and watch.

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