Harvard finds place on national stage

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Los Angeles native Wesley Saunders is a perplexing act.

The game shouldn't look that simple.

Through his California swagger, every maneuver seems easy. His smile suggests he's in cruise control when everyone else is flying around the court at 100 mph. His fluidity has elevated 13-1 Harvard into a healthy position for its third consecutive NCAA tournament berth.

Saunders and Co. represent a change within an Ivy League program that went from a 66-year absence in the Big Dance to a shot at a three-peat. Last year's second-round upset of New Mexico -- which the Crimson pulled off without stars Brandyn Curry and Kyle Casey, who were absent for the entire season due to academic violations -- confirmed that Harvard's 2012 bid wasn't some fluke.

Tommy Amaker is building something in Cambridge. That's one of the country's most surprising storylines -- except to the contributors involved -- and proof that there's more to Harvard than world-class academics.

"Some people were like 'Why did you want to go over there?" said Saunders, a guard-forward for Harvard, which will face Connecticut on the road Wednesday night (7 ET, ESPNU). "Some people, they didn't even know Harvard had a basketball team at the time. A lot of people were supportive as well. They knew going to Harvard would be really good for my future."

The old burgundy brick is chipped on the exterior of Harvard's Lavietes Pavilion (previously the Briggs Center).

It's the original frame of a building that was completed in 1926. In the 1950s, Ted Williams and his Boston Red Sox teammates would hit balls there when the facility contained batting cages. The school didn't lend the place to its basketball teams until the 1980s, when the track team moved to a new site.

Within the layout of the Harvard campus, there's a blend of nostalgia and freshness.

There's a satellite dish atop the gym. And the floors shine in the modernized basketball complex, enhanced by a multimillion-dollar overhaul in the 1990s.

But Harvard men's basketball was stale for years.

Before Amaker's arrival in 2007, the Crimson hadn't reached the NCAA tournament since 1946. Even NBA standout Jeremy Lin couldn't lead Harvard to the tourney during his time in Cambridge.

Today, Harvard is the best team in the Ivy League and approaching perennial tournament contention.

Last month, Amaker tried to explain the rise as he sat in a lounge above his home floor.

He's relaxed now. He didn't start that way.

In 2007, he'd been dismissed from Michigan following a six-year run that failed to produce an NCAA tournament berth.

He'd inherited a program that had just finished 12-16, its fifth consecutive losing season. And the Ivy League's restrictions magnified the difficulty attached to the reconstruction project he'd agreed to lead.

There are no athletic scholarships in the Ivy League, plus the only team that represents the conference in the NCAA tournament is the regular-season champion. Without a legacy to sell, without full rides to offer, without promises of a nationally televised conference tournament to use as bait, Amaker pitched a lofty vision to athletes and their families.

"We're hopeful we can build a basketball component that measures up to some of the other great things and greatness on this campus and that's hard to do at this point, but we're gaining ground and making traction," he said. "We were saying, it's gonna happen. We looked at it in some way as an undervalued stock. We just thought 'you're going to want to be a part of this when this thing takes off,' and that's what we were able to present."

Saunders and other high-level players bought it.

Saunders, who is averaging a team-high 15.7 points per game, had offers from Pac-12 schools USC and Stanford. But Harvard possessed an appeal that the others couldn't match. The world-class academics. The camaraderie he had with his future teammates when he took his official visit.

And his father's advice.

Ed Saunders had an offer to play for Brown. But he decided to attend Iowa, where he was a defensive back in the 1970s. But, Saunders said, his father isn't certain he'd make the same choice today.

"He always talks about how he had the opportunity to go there, and he just said if he could do it all over, he probably would have chosen to go to Brown," Saunders said. "He wanted me to really weigh my options and make the right decisions for my future. He wants me to think long term and not just in the moment."

Saunders and his teammates signal a shift in the perception of Harvard, especially in the minds of minority families. The diversification of the basketball program in recent years is an extension of an outreach effort that's encompassed the entire institution.

Per the Harvard Gazette, 2,158 students (out of 35,000 applicants) were accepted into Harvard's 2015 class. More than 40 percent of the admitted students were minorities (11.8 percent were African-American), and more than 60 percent of the entire pool of students in that class received need-based financial assistance.

The changes have affected a basketball program that is now more appealing to young men who'd previously assumed Harvard would be a poor fit for athletic and academic reasons.

"At first, I laughed at it," Curry said. "When they first called me, I didn't take it very seriously because I thought 'Harvard? I'm not coming here.' But Coach Amaker did a really good job of portraying his vision he had and really showing me my part in it. He talked about making history at Harvard and, at the same time, getting the best education available."

Amaker said players and their parents are sometimes unaware that Harvard is an option when he speaks to them on the recruiting trail.

"There are some families, when we reach out to them, they're like 'Wow,'" he said. "They hadn't thought of [Harvard]."

Still, college basketball is often unkind. It's far easier to lose momentum than to build it. So although Harvard has certainly climbed the game's hierarchy and blossomed in recent years, it hasn't arrived.

It's more stacked than last year's NCAA tournament team, though. Curry and Casey have returned. Sophomore Siyani Chambers (5.1 APG) is one of the best point guards in America. The Crimson are top 40 in offensive and defensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy, too.

The matchup against a struggling UConn team on Wednesday will present a rare opportunity for Harvard to prove that it's one of America's elite squads.

Simply earning a slot in the conversation, however, is a fascinating turn compared to the program's past.

But Saunders said he expected this when he belied the norm and left the West Coast.

"Everything we're doing now is kind of what we envisioned happening," Saunders said. "Being able to have Harvard gain this presence on the national stage and being mentioned with some of the top schools in the country is something that we dreamed of happening. And this is just a blessing that all of this happened."