SALT LAKE CITY — This time every year, some Ivy League school nudges its way into the NCAA tournament, giving basketball fans a feel-good reminder that success on the hard court and in the classroom really can go hand in hand.
This year at Harvard, however, that story has a twist.
A season after making the tournament for the first time since 1946, the Crimson return — but only after weathering an academic scandal that cost them two key players and made their script read like those of so many others when March Madness rolls around: Program messes up, program pays its penance, program succeeds despite its imperfections.
"It just shows our program is really growing and developing," sophomore swingman Wesley Saunders said.
Harvard (19-9), a 14th seed in the West Region, plays No. 3 New Mexico (29-5) on Thursday, in a meeting between champions of the Ivy League and Mountain West Conference.
Harvard's academic problems came to light last August, when the school said it was investigating similarities in answers that more than 100 students submitted in an open-book, take-home final. Several of the students were athletes, and not much after the news broke, the team's co-captains — Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry — withdrew from school.
At a school such as Harvard, where the line between sports success and failure is more unforgiving than most, that might have signaled the end of any realistic hopes of a good season.
Instead, coach Tommy Amaker — who cleaned things up but eventually got fired at Michigan after its NCAA problems in the 2000s — simply looked to the next guy on the bench, gave the team a series of talks about character and went back to work.
"We were very proud of them for accepting the responsibility and we talked about this being an opportunity for our basketball program and our school in general," Amaker said, "how we're going to handle situations, because we're all going to get faced with moments that are going to be very trying."
Turns out, Curry's departure gave freshman point guard Siyani Chambers — named Mr. Basketball in Minnesota as a high school senior — a lot more time on the court than Amaker had originally planned. It was a good development. Playing almost 38 minutes a game, Chambers has averaged nearly 13 points and six assists a game and has become the first freshman in the Ivy League's long history to land on the conference's all-first team roster.
One of his breakthrough moments came when he made the game-winner with 4 seconds left in a 65-64 victory over Boston University.
"I don't know where we'd be without him," said junior Laurent Rivard, who went 6-for-7 from 3-point range in Harvard's 79-70 loss to Vanderbilt last year in the tournament.
Last year's Harvard squad, like so many Ivy League teams before it, had a short shelf life once the calendar hit March.
New Mexico, a big, brawny, defense-minded team and winners of a conference ranked first in the RPI, doesn't look anything like a team vulnerable for a first-round upset.
Led by Kendall Williams (13.5 points, five assists), Tony Snell (17.7 points and 51 percent shooting at the MWC tournament) and Alex Kirk (11.9 points, 62 blocks on the season), the Lobos are ranked 22nd in the country in field goal percentage allowed (.388) and 30th in assist-turnover ratio (1.27)
Coach Steve Alford is a win away from his second 30-victory season over his six years in Albuquerque. On Wednesday, he received a new contract that runs through 2023 and pays a $125,000 bonus for reaching the Final Four. Some believe he might cash that check this year.
"We have made some steps in the right direction, and I think that's what's fun about this process," Alford said. "When you look at it three, four years ago when we were in the NCAA tournament, I don't think anybody even knew about is and we were 30-5 that year."
The Lobos play in one of the most basketball-crazy outposts in the country. The fan base, which packs The Pit even for exhibition games in October, has been waiting since 1974, when Norm Ellenberger was coach, for a taste of the Sweet 16.
Alford is a contemporary of Amaker's and, like Amaker, has deep roots in the Bob Knight coaching tree. (Amaker played and coached with Mike Krzyzewski, who was once a Knight assistant).
The key to this game?
"Anytime you get in postseason play, it's about being who you are," Alford said. "You don't change things now. ... If we are who we are and it's not good enough, we shake the hands of Harvard and tell them 'Congratulations' and tell them 'Good job.'"