SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) When Tommy Amaker started at Harvard, his goal was to build a basketball program worthy of the school name.
”We’re very hopeful that has happened,” Amaker said.
Harvard, the No. 12 seed in the East, gets another chance at bringing attention to its improving program when it faces No. 5 seed Cincinnati in the second round of the NCAA tournament Thursday. Between Harvard’s first tournament win in school history last year, when it upset New Mexico as a No. 14 seed, and a third straight Ivy League title this season, the Crimson (26-4) are getting plenty of time in the spotlight.
Cincinnati (27-6) appears forgotten with the attention being heaped on Harvard. Sean Kilpatrick was one of the top scorers in the country, leading Cincinnati to a share of the American Athletic Conference regular-season title. Yet, the Bearcats continue to hear how they are the popular choice for the seemingly annual upset pulled by a No. 12 seed.
Even President Barack Obama has thrown his support behind Harvard.
”It’s nothing new. We’re used to it. We’re so used to being counted out throughout the regular season that now it’s second nature,” Kilpatrick said. ”We don’t take it (any) type of way. That’s their opinions. We just focus on what matters with us.”
Here are five other things to watch in Thursday’s matchup:
AVOIDING RUMORS: A side effect of being a rising program is the rumors that follow. Moments after Boston College fired Steve Donahue on Tuesday, Amaker’s name emerged as a possible replacement. It’s an understandable correlation considering the proximity between Harvard and BC and the success Amaker has enjoyed with the Crimson.
Harvard players said they had not heard chatter about Amaker, who did not plan on talking to his team about the rumors.
”There’s nothing to address. There’s nothing for me to talk about, to comment on. I can’t address speculation about so many things all the time,” Amaker said. ”But I understand the question and I certainly appreciate obviously, again, for the Boston and greater Boston area to want some type of comment from me. But my comment is exactly what I mentioned before, that I don’t like to comment on other situations or jobs.”
SUPER SEAN: Kilpatrick will leave Cincinnati trailing only one name on the all-time scorers list: Oscar Robertson. That’s rare and dignified company Kilpatrick is sharing.
”He’s a ball player. When it gets down to it he’s going to it, he’s going to do what it takes to win the game,” Cincinnati teammate Justin Jackson said.
Kilpatrick enters the NCAAs as one of only 26 players in the country to average more than 20 points per game during the season. His 20.7 points per game were nearly double anyone else on the Bearcats roster. Compared to his junior season, Kilpatrick became markedly better as a free-throw and 3-pointer shooter, all while still playing close to 34 minutes per game.
”I think the most improved part of his game is his leadership,” Cincinnati forward Titus Rubles said. ”Last year he got buckets, of course, but he was a little more silent. But this year he’s more of a leader and he takes a leadership role. When we get down, he keeps people composed.”
ZERO TO 60: Getting to 60 points will be a benchmark with two of the best defenses in the country meeting. The physicality of the Bearcats is matched by the stubborn man-to-man the Crimson play. Cincinnati entered the tournament with the sixth-best scoring defense in the country, giving up 58.3 points. Harvard is right behind, No. 13 overall, allowing just 60.5 points.
And the number 60 is an important barometer for both schools. Harvard is 14-0 when holding its opponents to 60 points or less; Cincinnati is 18-3. Harvard is 2-2 when scoring less than 60, while the Bearcats are 2-6.
The more important defensive principle for Cincinnati is forcing deflections leading either to turnovers or at least disrupting the offenses. In the past two seasons, Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said the Bearcats are undefeated when getting at least 40 deflections in a game.
BALANCE BEAM: Wesley Saunders was the Ivy League player of the year, but Harvard has rarely seen balance. All five starters averaged at least 10 points per game. Saunders was the overall scoring leader, but eight different players led Harvard in scoring during at least one game this season.
PRESIDENTAL ENDORSEMENT: Harvard was already getting a lot of support as the annual No. 12 seed favored to upset a No. 5 seed even before Obama revealed his bracket.
”That’s pretty cool that he picked us,” Harvard’s Laurent Rivard said. ”He probably took notice last year. He probably didn’t pick us last year.”
For the record, Obama picked New Mexico to beat the Crimson in last year’s tournament.