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What a journey for Harvard

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- It all depends on perspective.

Is five years a long time, or is it no time at all? Have the years dragged on, or have they darted by in the blink of an eye?

For Tommy Amaker, the latter seems more likely than the former. For long-suffering Harvard men's basketball fans, it's understandable if the former seems more likely than the latter.

It's been five years since Amaker came to Cambridge after being canned in Ann Arbor, Mich. And in that time, a seemingly miraculous transformation has taken place along the Charles River.

Harvard hoops has gone from sparsely populated gyms to packed houses, from Ancient Eight also-ran to Ivy titlist, from irrelevant to relevant in Boston and across the country.

It's been 66 years since the Crimson last took the floor for the Big Dance. On Thursday, they will do so again.

To understand how that destination was reached, it's necessary to examine the vision that has guided the program on its journey.

Stocking the shelves

Nothing is possible without talent, dedication and, yes, a little luck.

Every coach who's ever tried to turn around a flagging program knows that getting that first key recruit -- the one who takes a chance, who picks the road less traveled and who believes the reward hard won is worth more than the one that comes easily -- can be the difference between success and failure.

Amaker understands that, and he's grateful that Oliver McNally took the chance on him.

The 6-foot-3, 180-pound senior guard was a two-time California Division V Player of the Year, as a prep junior and a senior, and helped the Branson School to three straight league and Division V titles.

His team was 129-12 in his four seasons.

McNally was a winner -- exactly the kind of player Amaker wanted, needed, to add to his rebuilding roster.

But at first, McNally was reluctant to even consider going to the East Coast for school. He's a San Francisco kid, loved the WCC and wanted to go to a school nearby so that his friends and family could see him play easily.

To please his parents, McNally agreed to look at a few Ivy League schools, including Harvard. He's glad he did.

"Coaches sell you on everything when they're recruiting you," McNally said recently. "Like, 'Oh, we're gonna do this, we're gonna do all that.' But it's all about the people you trust. I met with Coach Amaker and the rest of the staff and it was by far the best meeting I had, and I believed everything he said and it's all coming true now."

McNally committed soon after his visit to Cambridge, he was so sold on what Amaker had said.

"We've talked about having a vision and having a plan," Amaker said. "To do something that's never been done before. That's been the calling card with a lot of our players. They've embraced that. They've loved it, actually."

The coach, in turn, loves that the players were willing to take his challenge, to buy into his vision and work to make it come true.

Soon after McNally committed, Keith Wright did, too. And while McNally's commitment didn't entirely sway the big man, a top recruit out of Norfolk Collegiate School in Norfolk, Va., it didn't exactly hurt, either.

"Oliver definitely had a little bit of influence on my decision," Wright said.

But it was the overall package Harvard could offer that did the trick.

While there was no way to know it then, Amaker had just secured the players who would become co-captains, leaders of a Crimson team that would break record after record and bring titles to Lavietes Pavilion.

Now all he had to do was help them get there.

Filling the stands

"I keep going back to this," McNally said the day after the Crimson clinched their NCAA berth. "The last 24 hours I've just been thinking about where we were -- where I was when I was a senior in high school and had already committed and the team was 8-22.

"It was like, 'Oh, you've got a lot of work to do.'"

Progress came in fits and starts. Jeremy Lin, who Amaker inherited that first season in 2007-08, became a star. Under Lin's leadership, the Crimson began to blossom. Their record went from 8-22 to 14-14 to 21-8. And last season, after Lin had graduated, Harvard went 23-7.

The 12-2 mark in the Ivy in 2010-11 was the best in Harvard history, and resulted in a share of the Ancient Eight (Ivy League) title -- the first in the team's 100-year run. The Crimson were 2.8 seconds away from their first NCAA berth since 1946, before losing a one-game playoff to Princeton on a buzzer-beater.

It was a gut-wrenching loss. It was also fantastic entertainment, and when every player on the Harvard roster returned for 2011-12, the excitement only built.

For the first time, Harvard was the favorite in the Ivy League -- picked to win the conference and represent it in the Big Dance.

All of a sudden, there was a buzz around Crimson basketball. There were crowds at Lavietes, more fans than there were seats.

The Crimson sold out 10 of their 12 home games, including every Ivy contest.

"To be on this campus, to have our basketball program become relevant from a national perspective," Amaker said. "For these kids to play the way they've played. To have our students be engaged, to have a spirit and an energy on campus about our basketball team and our games, that's worth its weight in gold to me."

People not only wanted to be at the Crimson's games, they wanted to be right next to the action.

"The courtside seating has been incredibly popular," the coach said. "There's a waiting list. … On this campus, I find that to be mind-boggling."

To increase the availability of courtside seating -- and to more easily accommodate the growing media attention -- Harvard built special press seating behind one of the grandstands. To reach the new seats, the displaced media members would walk past the collapsible baskets, the ball racks and the unused Gatorade containers, and climb a wooden staircase behind the bleachers, ducking under a pipe in the process.
A white towel usually hangs on the pipe as a warning to be careful.

The excitement isn't limited to the gym, either.

Junior guard Brandyn Curry said people have told him about professors talking Harvard hoops when students come to them for help on papers. Wright said he's been congratulated for the team's success everywhere from a Target store to a men's room.

"You're walking to go get a snack in between study sessions and you see students, and they're giving you high-fives and telling you good luck and congratulations," Wright said. "And these are people that you've never talked to before, never seen before. The culture that I've seen grow here is just absolutely phenomenal."

Building on the foundation

Amaker has many sayings that he's fond of. So many, in fact, that his players give him a hard time for it.

"Coach always has a coachism," McNally said with a laugh, "for pretty much every situation."

One of the coachisms regards the ubiquitous highlight package.

Everyone likes to watch the "SportsCenter" Top 10 -- the flashy play, the big dunk -- the saying goes, but what happened to get to that point?

"How did you get there?" Amaker said. "It was probably somebody blocking out or somebody on the other team maybe didn't get back on defense. And we're trying to get our kids to focus on how do we get there. We know what things are supposed to look like at the end, but how are we gonna get there?"

The Crimson got where they are (26-4 overall this season) because of a stingy defense -- fourth in the country in points allowed (54.8 per game) -- and a selfless attitude on offense. Only two Harvard players are in double figures in scoring (junior Kyle Casey at 11.3 and Wright at 10.7), but three others score more than seven points a game.

They got there because McNally decided to take a chance on them, and became the school's career leader in games played at 117.

"We call him the heart and soul of our team," Amaker said. "Every good team, every championship team has to have a heart and soul. He is that for us. He came here as a guy who won a lot.

"That was very important for us to create this kind of culture, to expect to compete and win at a high level. You can't do that without guys like Oliver."

And though his statistics don't jump off the page, the senior has been a vocal leader, a frequent late-game shot-maker and, perhaps most importantly, a consistent presence.

It's not surprising, then, that he's been steadfast in his answers to the are-you-happy-to-be-here questions. He's proud of what the Crimson have accomplished, but he's not satisfied yet.

"The goal of outside -- of media and people who followed our team -- was to make the tournament," he said. "But a goal of our team was never that. It was to get there and then make a run.

"We're not gonna be satisfied with just getting there and laying an egg. We've put too much -- especially Keith and I and Andrew Van Nest, who've been here for four years -- we've put too much into the program just to get to this point and just give up and not show what a talented and good basketball team we are."

How did we get here -- to a point in time when Harvard basketball plays in sold-out gyms, when just making it to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 66 years isn't enough?

"It's been an incredibly rewarding journey," Amaker said. "Five years can be considered a long time, but when you think how far we've come …"

Suddenly it doesn't seem like such a long time. It's all about perspective -- something McNally & Co. have helped provide, and something that Curry, Casey and the other young players on the Crimson roster will attempt to preserve in future seasons.

"We're very happy and thrilled," Amaker said, "with where we are and where this thing can go."

Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com.