Last season, Harvard was a Princeton buzzer-beater away from winning the first Ivy League title -- and earning the first NCAA tournament bid -- in school history. That didn't happen, and dramatically so. But there's no denying the momentum Harvard coach Tommy Amaker has created at the once bereft basketball program. Amaker's teams are competitive with any in the Ivy League. The Crimson schedule quality opponents in the nonconference, and unlike many Ivies, they occasionally expect to win. In 2011-12, Amaker's team will be picked by many to win the Ivy League outright.
If it does so, it will be for one simple reason: Harvard's talent level is higher than it's ever been. That trend continued Monday, when the school landed the No. 19- ranked center in the class of 2012, Georgia native Mike Hall. (Not to be confused with former ESPN "Dream Job" champion Mike Hall. Remember that show? Halcyon days.) On its face, Hall's commitment doesn't feel like a huge deal; ESPN's recruiting analysts see him as a three-star prospect. But Hall isn't Amaker's first. In 2011, the Crimson will welcome two such players -- center Kenyatta Smith and power forward Wesley Saunders -- as the two marquee pieces of a six-man recruiting haul.
In a vacuum, none of these players are stars. But in the context of the Ivy League, three-star prospects are a big deal. In a league that traditionally forbids scholarships, these kind of players are about as good as you're going to get.
There have been some qualms over the idea that Harvard under Amaker has relaxed its standards or been more aggressive on behalf of the basketball team's success. A 2008 New York Times report described a Harvard program that was willing to bend rules, or at least play by the same rules every other college coach in the country. Some rivals accused Harvard of lowering its academic standards to admit talented basketball players. Amaker and the school have denied these charges, and the campus discussion -- should we be less "Harvard" if it means we can win? -- has quieted down in recent years. It's not as if the school is suddenly competing with Kentucky on the recruiting trail. But the cumulative effect is obvious: This Harvard program could be the dominant force in the Ivy League for years to come. Recruits like Hall are the reason why.