By JIMMY GOLEN
AP Sports Writer
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Jeremy Lin’s jersey hangs in the lounge overlooking the Lavietes Pavilion, and dangling above Harvard’s home court are the banners for the 2011 and ‘12 Ivy League championships.
And yet, to hear Tommy Amaker tell it, the school’s best days are ahead.
“I think the building blocks are in our program now,” the Harvard coach said after practice this week. “We’ve built up some things. Maybe last year was a year of pushing it to the point of making the tournament, (but) I do think we have a program we can lean on and say: ‘There’s something here in Harvard basketball.’”
Despite a cheating scandal that cost them their senior co-captains, the Crimson were in first place in the Ivy League after completing their first trip through the conference last weekend with victories over Penn and Princeton. Harvard (15-7, 7-1) still has games at Penn and Princeton remaining.
“We’re in first place, so we’re loving that,” Amaker said after practice this week. “But we also know that it’s a long horse race.”
The program that tutored Lin has experienced unprecedented success in the past three years, sending him to the NBA in 2010, sharing the Ivy crown the next year and then winning it outright last year for its first NCAA tournament berth since 1946. Last year’s team also set a Harvard record with 26 wins and reached The Associated Press Top 25 for the first time in school history.
And, with three of its top players returning, the Crimson were expected to win another conference title in 2013.
“At the end-of-the-year banquet, Coach started talking about trying to get a dynasty going,” said guard Christian Webster, the only senior on the roster. “We tried to enjoy it, but we didn’t have much time to just sit and soak in the success.”
Then, in September, the school announced that it was investigating as many as 125 students in a single course for plagiarism on an open-book, take-home final exam. Although officials would not confirm who was involved, co-captains Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry withdrew from school rather than endanger their final year of eligibility.
Amaker insisted that the losses would not devastate his team, saying they created an opportunity for others on the roster to inherit playing time and show they deserved it. There were other leaders who would replace the departed captains in the locker room, as well.
“We may not have what we had, but we have enough,” Amaker told his players.
“I believed it,” he said. “I think our kids, more importantly, believed it. They believed in us. We believed in them.”
The hastily retooled team lost its presumed status as the favorites to win the Ivy crown; Princeton was first in a preseason poll taken after the co-captains withdrew. But midway through the conference season, it’s Harvard atop the league standings, thanks largely to a 69-57 victory over Princeton on Saturday that left the Tigers 1½ games back.
Among the keys to Harvard’s success have been Webster, who with 85 wins in four years is now the winningest player in Harvard history, and guard Laurent Rivard, the leading scorer returning from last year’s team. Sophomore Wesley Saunders is the leading scorer, with 16.7 points per game, followed by freshman Siyani Chambers (13 points per game), and forward Kenyatta Smith is averaging 1.8 blocks.
“We all know where we fit in,” Webster said. “That’s what’s made us successful.”
Harvard is on the road this weekend against Brown, a conference also-ran that went to double-overtime against the Crimson in Cambridge, and Yale. The following weekend is the crucial trip to Princeton and Penn; a victory in New Jersey could all-but clinch another Ivy title.
And, if not, Amaker will surely be confident again about next year, when Curry and Casey are expected to return and Chambers, who’s emerging as one of the top freshmen in the conference, will have a year of experience.
“I know a lot of neat things occurred last year, but two and three years prior to last year, things have been getting to this point,” Amaker said. “I don’t think it was just last year that was ‘The Year of Harvard basketball.’”