As Harvard’s Wesley Saunders stood in front of a white board holding a green marker Wednesday, his teammates roared in laughter.
They were playing hangman in the locker room before the 12th-seeded Crimson’s practice in preparation for their first game of the NCAA tournament, Thursday against No. 5 seed Vanderbilt.
The word Saunders had chosen for his teammates to guess was pulchritudinous, except he thought the 15-letter word was spelled “pulchritunous” and did not include the two additional needed letter blanks to spell it correctly.
When Saunders’ teammates realized his error, they hooted and made him stand next to the misspelled word so they could take his photograph with their cell phones.
“It was close,” said Saunders, a freshman guard. “Don’t ask me what it means.”
Saunders’ teammates rightfully laughed off his mistake. But the rest of the Ivy League and former Harvard coaches don’t find it at all funny that coach Tommy Amaker denies the university has lowered its academic standards for basketball recruits during his five-year tenure.
It’s coincided with the Crimson (26-4) making its first NCAA tournament appearance since 1946. And while reaching unprecedented heights this season, including a Top 25 ranking for the first time, they have done so controversially under Amaker, who replaced Frank Sullivan after he was fired in 2007.
“They clearly made things easier for the new staff,” said a former Ivy League assistant coach, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity.
Yet despite a report in The New York Times four years ago in which athletic director Bob Scalise admitted the Crimson were pursuing recruits with lesser academic credentials, Amaker steadfastly denied Wednesday that his program’s academic standards have changed.
“Our standards are incredibly high and challenging as they always have been,” said Amaker, who has a 92-55 record at Harvard. “I can’t imagine that ever changing at Harvard.”
But Harvard has changed its academic standards under Amaker, who came to the Crimson after being fired at Michigan. His hypocrisy is a source of angst in the increasingly high-stakes Ivy League, which since Amaker’s arrival at Harvard has had every other men’s basketball job change except for at Yale.
The eight schools in the conference do not give athletic scholarships. To be admitted, a recruit must meet a minimum on the Academic Index, a tool that provides a score based on grade-point average, class rank and standardized test scores.
Until this past summer, when the AI minimum was raised to 176, the lowest acceptable score had been 171. But during Sullivan’s 16-year tenure, Harvard had more stringent academic standards.
According to The Times, the team’s average AI had to be 202, essentially meaning Sullivan could not recruit a player with an AI less than 195.
Harvard’s change in its academic standards became evident during Amaker’s second season, in which he briefly had a Top 25 recruiting class nationally, the first in the history of the Ivy League.
It ended up not being as highly touted after center Frank Ben-Eze, who did not have the then-AI minimum of 171, changed his mind about his commitment to the Crimson.
Harvard, however, still landed star senior forward Keith Wright and guard Max Kenyi, both of whom had AI scores that were less than the Crimson’s standards under Sullivan, according to The Times. Kenyi left the program in October 2010, while Wright averages 10.7 points and a team-best 8.1 rebounds.
“The new staff was definitely able to recruit a different type player than the old one,” the former Ivy League assistant coach said.
When Andrew Van Nest arrived as part of Amaker’s much-publicized recruiting class four years ago, the injury-plagued senior forward said he thought his AI was in the 215 to 220 range. Back then, he said, there were other Harvard players on the roster who had AI scores in the 235 to 240 range.
“No matter what people say that it slipped, these kids deserve to be here,” Van Nest said of his current teammates.
Van Nest marveled at Harvard now having major college-basketball size and versatility in players such as the 6-foot-5 Saunders, a Top 100 recruit nationally coming out of Los Angeles who can defend almost every position.
“It’s absolutely mind-blowing,” Van Nest said. “It just keeps getting better and better.”
Saunders, who had scholarship offers from USC, Colorado and San Diego State, said he did not know his AI. Nor did starting sophomore guard Laurent Rivard, Harvard’s 3-point specialist and third-leading scorer at 9.7 points per game.
“I don’t even know what that is,” Rivard said.
When asked Wednesday for his team’s AI average, Amaker declined to provide it.
“Oh, we don’t get into that publicly, but ours is as high as anyone because of what it is with Harvard,” he said.
With that, Amaker retreated into his team’s locker room, where earlier his players had still been harassing Saunders about his misspelling of pulchritudinous and him not knowing its meaning.
“Look it up on your phone,” junior guard Dee Giger said. “You’ve got a smart phone for a reason, you dummy.”
Saunders followed Giger’s advice and proudly read the definition of pulchritudinous to his teammates.
“Characterized by or having great physical beauty,” Saunders said.
The definition of Harvard is its pristine academic reputation. But since Amaker’s hiring, that standard has a different meaning for its men’s basketball team.