Brain strain: Vandy meets Harvard in East regional

It’s one thing to be the Harvard of the South. It’s another

thing to be Harvard.

Although there’s hardly time this week to break down the subtle

and not-so-subtle differences in the classrooms at Vanderbilt and

the school that gave us Jeremy Lin, the gap – if there is one –

between top SEC and Ivy League basketball talent will be on display

Thursday in a second-round East regional game at The Pit.

This is one of those 5 vs. 12 matchups that always intrigues the

office-pool players. But it doesn’t take a 4.0 GPA to know that the

schools playing in this matchup (Vandy’s the 5, Harvard’s the 12)

are a bit different from the rest.

”People keep bringing that up since we got matched up with

them,” Harvard guard Oliver McNally said.

Though the NCAA selection committee steadfastly has denied it

looks for irony when it sets the brackets, this kind of game

certainly has some meaning in a year like this – with big-name

universities across the country seeing their reputations sullied by

sports programs that seem to have little connection to the academic


”There are a number of different terrific programs that do it

in a way that you’re attracting great kids,” Crimson coach Tommy

Amaker said. ”You love being around and teaching and coaching

those kind of individuals.”

Amaker has seen this story from both ends. He played for Mike

Krzyzewski at Duke, where educational standards are high, then went

to Michigan and tried to clean that program up after years of

scandal. He did clean things up but didn’t win enough. After he got

fired, Amaker took the job at Harvard – a school with, well, a

pretty good academic reputation but absolutely no tradition on the

basketball side.

This is the Crimson’s first NCAA appearance since 1946.

”When I committed, I was the first one with coach Amaker in the

program, and they were coming off a pretty mediocre year. They were

8-22,” said McNally, a Bay Area kid who had places such as Santa

Clara and St. Mary’s on his radar. ”I got questions from people.

`Is it D-I?’ Things like that. But I knew what I was getting


Like all Ivy League schools, Harvard (26-4) plays the majority

of its games on Friday nights and Saturday to avoid missed class

time. There’s no conference tournament. ESPN rarely shows up. And

there aren’t a ton of basketweaving classes available on the course


”My top two choices were here and Princeton,” senior forward

Keith Wright said. ”I was recruited to schools like Illinois, UVA,

VCU, great basketball schools. But it came down to the academic

side, because I know that ball is going to stop bouncing


There are exceptions – most notably, that guard who plays for

the New York Knicks by the name of Lin. But Crimsonsanity? Well, a

win over Vanderbilt might get the ball rolling.

”This was my biggest dream going into college,” McNally said.

”I’m a huge college basketball nerd. It’s the best sporting event

in the world. To get here, whether I’m starring or on the bench, I

always wanted to play in this.”

Although nobody raises a stink at Harvard if you go 50, 60 years

without making a dent on the national scene, Vanderbilt walks a

more delicate line: ”They want us to be Harvard Monday through

Friday and beat Alabama on Saturday,” as Vanderbilt coach Kevin

Stallings puts it.

”I think the thing about a job like the one we have is that you

just aren’t allowed to make very many mistakes,” Stallings said.

”If you make a mistake on a player, then it’s more hurtful than if

you’re at a school that can remedy and rectify that mistake more

quickly and more easily.”

In a move that was more symbolic than game-changing, Vanderbilt

actually folded its athletic department into the Division of

Student Life nine years ago.

Though the pros and cons of that move were widely debated, the

results have remained about the same. The football program

struggles, and the basketball program under Stallings is a steady,

if not spectacular, winner. This is the fifth NCAA appearance in

six years for the Commodores (24-10), who deal with many of the

same issues in recruiting players as does Harvard.

”There aren’t any quick fixes at a school like Vanderbilt, and

there certainly aren’t quick fixes at Ivy League schools either,”

Stallings said. ”But Ivy League schools are competing with one

another, and we’re competing with those other guys.”

”Those other guys” include Kentucky – the team the Commodores

beat last Sunday in the SEC tournament final, snapping the 24-game

winning streak of a team that still received the tournament’s

overall No. 1 seed.

Not a bad way for the ”Harvard of the South” to put its name

on the map.

Stallings said he’s not beneath selling his school as such.

”I’ve used that `Harvard of the South’ a few times, and I hope

that the Harvard people don’t take that as a slap in the face,” he

said. ”We obviously feel like we’d be comparing ourselves to