CAMBRIDGE — Harvard coach Tommy Amaker knew it would be difficult to repeat as Ivy League champions, especially since it took the school more than 50 years to win the conference just once.
Then things got a whole lot harder.
The team’s senior co-captains withdrew from school in the wake of an academic cheating scandal, and suddenly Amaker was plugging untested players into new roles. So when the Crimson managed to clinch their third consecutive Ivy title, it was that much more rewarding.
“Every year’s a different year. Even if you have the same players, the kids have different roles and expectations,” Amaker said this week as he waited for Selection Sunday, when he would learn of Harvard’s first-round opponent in the NCAA tournament.
“This year, for me personally, so far to this point it’s been as gratifying a year I’ve been a part of as a coach. This year they had the odds against them, the obstacles they were faced with. For them to do what they’ve done, it’s been as gratifying as any.”
A 375-year-old institution that has produced U.S. presidents and Nobel Laureates and even won a Rose Bowl, Harvard had never claimed an Ivy League championship in men’s basketball before tying Princeton for the conference title in 2011.
But because the Ancient Eight is the only conference that awards its NCAA tournament bid to the regular-season champion, the schools played a one-game tiebreaker for the right to play in the tournament. Princeton won.
Last year, the Crimson won the league title outright and returned to the NCAAs for the first time since 1946. They were the favorites to return before captains Brandyn Curry and Kyle Casey were forced to with draw from school in an academic cheating scandal that involved as many as 125 students in a single class.
That left Amaker scrambling just weeks before the start of the season. And for freshman Siyani Chambers, it was an opportunity.
“I came into the year thinking, ‘Where can I find some playing time,’ but also hoping to learn the system,” Chambers said. “When I was thrown into the mix right away. I was definitely nervous. I gained confidence in myself, basically.”
Chambers averaged 13 points and 5.7 assists per game and was named the Ivy League’s rookie of the year. Even as he was learning on the job, he said, Amaker remained consistent and helped him get comfortable with his new role.
“He knew we had all the pieces. We just needed to make a run,” Chambers said. “His steadiness instilled in us the confidence to keep going.”
As he heads to his first NCAA tournament, Chambers said he will look to the upperclassmen for tips on how to handle the excitement. Christian Webster, the only senior on the roster, said having one game of experience could help with some of the jitters.
“This year we kind of feel like we know how it’s going to be,” Webster said. “That’s going to help us.”
Webster said having an open practice in front of a big crowd was a little nerve-racking, and so was the thrill of walking onto the court and seeing the big blue “NCAA” logo. The game’s the same, he said, but “All the things that go along with it caught us off guard.”
Laurent Rivard, the leading returning scorer from the 2012 NCAA team, said his team will need to call upon that experience.
“A bunch of the guys that were on the team went last year, so it won’t be new for us,” he said. “Every year you watch (the tournament) and every single basketball player dreams of playing on one of those courts someday.”
Amaker said he was hoping for a friendlier matchup than last year, when Harvard lost to senior-heavy Vanderbilt. Having some experience in the NCAA tournament could help when the selection committee decides on seeds and opponents, too.
“The hope we have going into it is a draw that you feel like you’ve got a chance. Last year was a very tough draw for us,” he said. “We’re excited to be a part of it again, as you can imagine. We’re incredibly young, but these kids have had a sensational year.”
And Amaker, who played for the Duke team that went to the national championship game in 1986, said they even have a chance to keep it going.
“Crazier things have happened in this great tournament we’re participating in,” he said.