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March 23, 2013
Harvard is no underdog
Harvard University has produced multiple Presidents of the United States, architects of academia and titans of industry. U.S. News and World Report projects its endowment at $32 billion - and yes, that's billion with a letter 'B.' The University of Arizona has an endowment 1/64 of that.
Only in athletic competition could the Crimson ever be considered an underdog. But as its defeat of third-seeded New Mexico on Thursday proves, the label is ill-applied on the hardwood.
"Take them seriously. They're a basketball team that can beat anybody, and they showed that last night," UA senior forward Solomon Hill told reporters Friday.
Hill pointed to a win over California and close calls against Saint Mary's and Memphis. All three are 2013 NCAA tournament teams. Despite the No. 14 alongside its name on TV broadcast graphics, Harvard has proven repeatedly it belongs at this level.
The selection committee likes to shape the bracket in such a way that match-ups have an added layer of intrigue. Take this season, with Roy Williams' North Carolina team seeded opposite his former program at Kansas. Two years ago, UA faced alumnus Josh Pastner and Memphis in the Round of 64.
In this go-around for UA, a showdown with regional rival UNM was readymade. The former Western Athletic Conference counterparts stopped playing in 1999 after a particularly wacky finish in The Pit that prompted Lute Olson to end the series.
Someone forgot to notify the Crimson. Harvard dominated almost wire-to-wire - "at times, it wasn't even close," is how Hill described it.
Rather than the reigniting of a rivalry dormant for a generation, Saturday's match-up is the university radio personality Petros Papadakis once called "the Harvard of the state of Arizona" against the Harvard of…well, Harvard.
"Most teams are probably thinking, 'Oh, it's Harvard. We can get this team, and we will worry about the next game,'" Hill said.
Ivy League programs are not exactly synonymous with March Madness. Sure, legendary Pete Carril and Princeton nearly upset John Thompson's Georgetown squad in 1989, and did upend defending national champion UCLA in 1996. And Cornell is just a few years removed from a Sweet 16.
Still, basketball pundits are unlikely to list the Ivy League alongside other celebrated mid-major conferences like the Missouri Valley and Atlantic 10. But Harvard has something special going in Cambridge, Mass., reminiscent of college sports in yesteryear.
The Ivy League once ruled college sports. To wit, Princeton has more national football championships than any program, no matter how many Alabama might claim. But in the latter 20th century, the Ancient Eight deemphasized sports.
It's not that Ivy League universities can't excel at an athletic level that matches its academics. Consider Stanford, a foil to UA basketball from the late 1980s into the early 2000s and reigning Pac-12 Conference football champion.
The Ivy League made a calculated decision eschewing athletic scholarships, but Harvard head coach Tommy Amaker has succeeded on the recruiting trail despite that.
"If he really wants a player, he goes hard after a player," Crimson guard Laurent Rivard said. "But I think he kind of lets the program and the success of the team talk for the recruiting."
Harvard's incoming, 2013 recruiting class is impressive. The Crimson's success is no aberration, and this team is no underdog.