Is this the year, finally, for the Crimson?

Zero hour
Harvard is used to being No. 1.

It was the nation's first college and has spent the better part of the last four centuries as its most prestigious. It has the nation's largest endowment and its largest varsity sports program, as well.

So how, exactly, is Harvard basketball still stuck on zero – as in zero Ivy League basketball titles?

To answer that question requires an understanding of the Ivy hoops world.

To a certain extent, each of the league's eight schools plays by the same set of rules – bylaws that are significantly more restrictive than standard NCAA regulations. There are no athletic scholarships. There is no conference tournament. There are limitations on the total number of games you can play and how far away nonleague road games can be on weekdays. There are restrictions on the amount of practice time and on how many players can practice at once in the offseason.

Within that set of rules, though, there are some subtle differences in application and gray areas for interpretation. It is in those differences, in what many around the league like to refer to as "commitment," where program quality tends to differ.

Harvard, in its quest for maximum purity (if that's still possible in Division I basketball), remains as stringently within those rules as any team in the league.

"The sentiment at Harvard is that we want to remain true to the fundamental tenets that the league was formed around," Harvard coach Frank Sullivan said. "We have eight schools and, let's face it, no one [else is] joining. … Each of the schools wants to hold true to those roots, but at the same time wants to stay contemporary. [It's in that evaluation] each school has interpreted how they want to be a part of the bigger picture."

But like NASCAR – where teams essentially start with similar equipment, with the results of the race dictated by small tweaks to the status quo – Harvard's refusal to reach for an occasional prospect or put additional money into the program for staffing or recruiting (even if doing so is within league rules) has compromised its ability to succeed.

"I think the [most] important part of our role is to stay within the fundamental mission statement of Harvard athletics," Sullivan said. "If people looked at the hard data, we've stayed as true to the spirit of the Academic Index as any school [in the league]. We don't take a low AI guy and a high AI guy and get to the middle … [and, as a result] we probably look at the smallest piece of the [recruiting] marketplace of anyone."

The Academic Index requires Ivy recruiting classes to be close to the school's overall class academic profile.

Still, the Crimson have had their share of success, with seven upper-division finishes in the last 10 seasons, proving they are competitive. But in a league dominated by Penn and Princeton – two schools with larger basketball facilities that play national schedules and regularly crack the top 100 in the RPI – competitiveness within self-limitation isn't nearly enough to grab the crown.

And you're left wondering why it has to be that way.

Take Yale, Harvard's arch-rival and about as close to its proxy as there is in the league. The Bulldogs, historically terrible in their own right, have experienced a renaissance under coach James Jones.

Four seasons ago, Yale became the first team other than Penn or Princeton to claim any part of a regular-season championship since 1988. The Bulldogs ultimately fell to Penn in a playoff for the league's automatic NCAA bid before stunning Rutgers on the road in the NIT. The co-championship was Yale's first – shared or otherwise – since 1962.

While the three seasons since that breakthrough have been somewhat disappointing (just two games over .500 in Ivy play), Jones still believes it's possible to balance elite academics and higher-quality basketball.

"I kind of take the approach that there's no reason Yale should be anywhere but in first place," Jones said. "Unless I have that attitude, I don't see how we can get there. … Coming in second place [stinks]. We're one of the four best teams every year, but I want more than that. I want to finish in the top two every year. I'm not crazy enough to think we can win it every year, but I want to be in the top two."

That attitude says a lot, given Penn or Princeton has won each of the last 17 Ivy crowns and 35 of the last 37. And it's an attitude shared by other league members such as Cornell (second place last season) and Brown (which came within a hair of unseating Penn in 2003), who have built their programs while taking aim at the league's big two. They believe they can win the league.

Does Harvard? Hard to say. Sullivan says yes, but the program also looks at more modest goals as measures of success.

"We shoot for the [league] championship every year, and in the process of doing that, every game over .500 [overall] is good as well. Within that, if we get a couple of players some individual recognition, that's important, too," Sullivan said.

"We're realistic. If you look historically, there are a lot of teams playing under .500 in this league. The only coaches to leave the league with a winning record are the ones at Penn and Princeton. … We all know that our place in D-I basketball is difficult. … [so we focus on the] championship of the league, winning a few games outside the league and getting a couple of players some recognition."

Still, it's not like Sullivan hasn't had a number of quality players to work with. In just the past few seasons, Harvard has had dynamic scoring guard Patrick Harvey (dubbed "Ivyrson" by league insiders for his style of play), point guard Elliot Prasse-Freeman (who set a league record for career assists) and Andrew Gellert (the all-time league leader in steals). Next season, Harvard will have two players in its frontcourt – forward Matt Stehle and center Brian Cusworth – who could play for any team in the league.

The problem, as far as making a legitimate run for a title, has been getting that talent together at the same time.

"We often joke … if we ever could do an all-star team, we'd have a good one," Sullivan remarked. "Because of our philosophy, sometimes there are good surprises and [several good players] are in the same class, and sometimes you need guys to improve – and they come in cycles."

Not being able to recruit some of the same players as other league members isn't frustrating, Sullivan said, "because we go into the process with our eyes open."

If Harvard ever does win that elusive first league title, that certainly would be an eye-opener.

Summer indicators
Good sign: Competitive balance definitely has improved in the Ivy. Since the 2002 season, both Yale and Brown have earned postseason NIT berths. Also, while Penn won last year's title by a remarkable five games, only two of the league's eight teams ended the season in the bottom 100 of the RPI, signalling a rise in the league's floor. The Ivy was one of only five conferences last season to have every team record double-digit wins.

Red flag: The league has lost a lot of senior talent, especially at guard. Penn loses do-it-all linchpin Tim Begley, Princeton is without the slick Will Venable and standout center Judson Wallace, Brown lost lead guard Jason Forte, Yale lost four-year starters Edwin Draughan and Alex Gamboa, Cornell is without sharpshooter Cody Toppert, Columbia lost 3-point specialist Jeremiah Boswell and forward Matt Preston, the team's leading scorer, and Harvard lost its whole starting backcourt. Early season play might be ragged as teams adjust to new ball handlers.

Safe bet: The Ivy champ will get a double-digit seed. Not since Princeton in 1998 (No. 5) has the Ivy received a seed of better than 11, nor has it won a tournament game since those Tigers downed UNLV.

In their own words
"No question, we have underachieved and we've been mediocre the last several years. That being said, being mediocre is a lot better than Yale [historically] has been, but that's not good enough for me."
– Jones, on his team's decline since the league co-championship in 2002

It's hard to pick against a team that went 13-1 in league play last season and returns four starters … and Joe Lunardi hasn't.

In his early (early, early) look at the 2006 NCAA Tournament field, our resident bracketologist has Penn repeating as Ivy champs and landing a 13 seed.

2006 Bracketology

Penn snatched the crown back from arch-rival Princeton last season as the Tigers unexpectedly finished under .500 in league play for the first time ever. The bigger development might have been Cornell's second-place finish, the Big Red's best showing since winning the title under Mike Dement in 1988.

* – NCAA Tournament

There's reason for Crimson optimism – Harvard returns the two top scorers in the league next season.

Andy Glockner is the men's college basketball editor for ESPN.com. E-mail him here.