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Boston Globe: Quest for Ivy Glory

Pictured: Tommy Amaker has made significant headway in illustrating the unique opportunities of being a student-athlete at Harvard.

-Courtesy Mark Blaudschun, Boston Globe

Jeremy Lin remembers the sequence clearly - even though it was almost three years ago.

It was early March, and the Harvard men’s basketball team was again done for the season - with no Ivy League title (which has never happened) and no NCAA Tournament bid (which hasn’t happened since 1946).

After 16 seasons, Harvard had decided to fire coach Frank Sullivan.

For Lin, who had just finished his freshman season, the uncertainty level increased as candidates for Sullivan’s successor were mentioned.

“But then someone said, ‘Tommy Amaker,’ ’’ said Lin, a 6-foot-3-inch guard who is now the Crimson’s top scorer and the leader of a young and talented squad. “I thought it was a joke. I thought there was no way he was going to come to Harvard.’’

A few weeks later, Lin learned that Amaker, who had been fired by Michigan after six seasons, could indeed be coming east. As part of the interview process, Amaker met with the Harvard players.

“He just blew us away,’’ said Lin. “The vote was unanimous.’’

Lin is now cocaptain (along with Doug Miller) of a Harvard team that is 13-3 following last night’s 62-58 win over Dartmouth and has visions of playing beyond the Ivy League season. And Amaker is the coach of the team, which is feeling better about itself each game, each week.

“You’ve got the name and the brand of Harvard,’’ said Amaker, whose pedigree is pure basketball blue blood: Duke as a player and assistant coach, Seton Hall and Michigan as head coach. “The sky is the limit.

“We start with the premise that so many things are possible. We’re not afraid to dream big. That’s what this place is about. Harvard is a place where you teach, you meet, and you serve.

“We haven’t done it before [won the Ivy title], but we have the key ingredients. There aren’t many things undone at Harvard, maybe this is the only thing.’’

Not that the journey has been totally smooth. Harvard won only eight games in Amaker’s first year. Then he bumped some veterans from the roster and brought in a pair of highly touted recruiting classes, raising some questions as to whether Harvard was lowering its academic standards to increase its athletic success.

Included in the latest group of players is Kyle Casey, a 6-7 forward who was being chased by schools such as Stanford, Vanderbilt, and Providence.

“It was between here and Stanford,’’ said Casey, who says he came to Harvard primarily because of the power of Amaker’s personality. “He’s a winner. I definitely think it starts with him, and it flows through the entire team.’’

Amaker says that even if players don’t succeed in basketball, the safety net the school provides is as strong as there is anywhere.“If everything goes wrong [with basketball], you are still a Harvard graduate,’’ said Amaker.

Amaker still falls into what he calls “coachspeak’’ when he tells his players that the goal is short-sighted: win the next game. But he also does nothing to squash any visions of taking this team where no Harvard team has been: the Ivy League summit.

“We have basketball players who are interested in being different,’’ said Amaker. “They joke of the challenge of doing something different here, something that’s never been done.’’

This season’s success has been somewhat of a surprise, since the Crimson were picked to finish sixth in the Ivy League preseason poll. But they have beaten Boston College, taken Big East powers Georgetown and Connecticut down to the final minutes, and have won the most nonconference games in Harvard history.

Only an early-season loss at Army has caused people to scratch their heads and ask, “What was that about?’’

“They were tougher and scrappier than we were,’’ said Amaker. “And we didn’t play well.’’

Amaker runs his practices with precision and order. No moments are wasted, and the coach seems to be in all places at all times as he prepares his team for the heart of the Ivy League season and a challenge match with defending champion Cornell.

Lin is the clear leader and catalyst of the team, and has bought what Amaker is selling.

“We’re getting more and more comfortable with the system,’’ said Lin. “The first and second year we weren’t sure, it was a transition process. But he is a leader. His résumé speaks for itself. Everybody is believing.’’

Amaker says the mind-set of his players is important.

“We tell them the keys are concentration, composure, and confidence,’’ said Amaker. “This is a confident basketball team and we should be. I think we have earned that. We’re still very young, we have a lot of freshmen and sophomores, but this is a team that meshes well.’’

With exam break over, Harvard has begun what it hopes will be its next surge. The Crimson will find out what they’re made of with a game at Cornell next Saturday and a home game against the Big Red Feb. 19.

“We’re excited about it, about the chance to be something special,’’ said Amaker, who makes it clear he is talking about not just this season but the future, as he attempts to shift the power base of the Ivy League.

“Harvard is something special,’’ he said. “I don’t know where it can go for us this season, but we are on the right track.’’