Coach Tommy Amaker says he couldn’t have predicted the success of the first-place Harvard men’s basketball team. On the other hand, he’s not surprised by it either.“We’re building a program based on a sound structure, vision, and style of play,” he said. “It’s hard to say what we thought our record would be after losing the best player in the Ivy League, but we did believe that we had a chance to continue to grow.”Last year, Amaker’s squad won 21 games, the most in the history of Harvard’s men’s basketball program, and was in the hunt for the Ivy League championship through the final weeks of the season. This year, the Crimson are better. At 21-5, the team has already equaled last year’s win total and, entering the final weekend of the season, has a chance to clinch its first Ivy crown and NCAA tournament berth.Most fans probably wouldn’t have predicted such improvement after the graduation of star guard Jeremy Lin ’10, the first player in the history of the league to record at least 1,450 points, 450 rebounds, 400 assists, and 200 steals. Lin is now playing in the NBA for the Golden State Warriors. To make matters worse, junior forward Keith Wright sprained his knee in June, an injury that required extensive rehabilitation and kept him off the court for months.“The doctor thought I had torn my anterior cruciate ligament,” Wright said. “I was prepared to sit out the season. Fortunately, it was just a sprain and stress fracture.”The team welcomed Wright back to action weeks before the start of the season, only to experience another setback. Kyle Casey, last year’s Ivy League Rookie of the Year, broke his foot, sidelining him for training camp and the first month of the regular season.“It was devastating when Kyle got hurt,” Amaker said. “We didn’t have him for the first four or five games. Then he had to get his conditioning and timing back. It’s only in the last month that he’s rounded into the player he was last year.”Instead of folding, the Crimson made overcoming adversity their defining characteristic. On a team with no seniors and only three juniors, freshman and sophomore players made big contributions. Amaker said the efforts of lesser-known players such as junior Oliver McNally and sophomores Christian Webster and Brandyn Curry kept the team afloat early in the season.“McNally is our vocal leader,” he said. “Webster is quiet and efficient. He hit the game-winning shot against Bryant, then scored a career high at Mercer. These were big road wins for us early on. And Brandyn not only sets the tone for us defensively, but he’s also leading the conference in assists. He makes everyone around him better.”Wright even turned his injury into a positive. Unable to prepare for the season by playing basketball, he embraced the team’s strength and conditioning programs. As a result, Wright’s scoring and rebounding numbers have nearly doubled, from 8.9 points per game (PPG) and 4.6 rebounds per game (RPG) in 2009-10, to 15.3 PPG and 8.4 RPG this year.“I felt extra motivation to work hard in the weight room,” Wright said. “I felt like I just owed it to the guys. I wanted to have a big year and to be part of the team’s success.”The team lost the first game of the season to Colonial Athletic Association powerhouse George Mason, then ripped off five straight wins. Casey returned, and the team went on a 10-2 run, losing only to perennial NCAA heavyweights Michigan and Connecticut. Then came an away game against Ivy League nemesis Princeton, a 65-61 loss.“We had mental lapses and didn’t finish some plays, some passes, and some of our possessions,” said Casey, lamenting an early lead that slipped away and a comeback that fell short.The Crimson bounced back strongly on Feb. 12 with its most uplifting win of the season at home against a surprisingly strong Brown squad. Down by as much as 24 points early in the second half, Harvard rallied and won going away, 85-78. The victory was the team’s 15th straight win at home, and tied a team record.“We talked about how much fun it could be to come back and make this win a part of our story,” Amaker said of the conversation he had with his team at halftime. “So we inched our way back. We played in three- to four-minute segments, and then stuck our heads up to see where we were. We cut their lead to 16, then to 10. You could see our confidence growing. It was really the defining moment of the season.”Now, another defining moment is on the horizon. Harvard ends the season at home on Saturday (March 5). The opponent? It’s Princeton, currently a half game ahead in the Ivy League standings. With a win, the Crimson would tie the Tigers for first place and force a one game playoff to determine which team goes to the NCAA tournament.Casey said he and his teammates know what a league title would mean for Harvard fans and for the basketball program, but are staying focused and taking things in stride.“We came here to do something very special, something that’s never been done,” he said. “We’ve been working hard as a team. If we stay focused on what we need to do, we’ll reach the destination. We don’t look at it as expectations. We look at it as destiny.”In one of the most anticipated men’s basketball games in Harvard history, the Crimson game against Princeton will be broadcast live from Lavietes Pavilion on March 5 at 7 p.m on ESPN3.com.
1 Gary Neville has said the opportunity of becoming the manager of Valencia was too good to pass up, while also confirming his brother, Phil, will be among his coaches at the La Liga club.The former Manchester United defender was presented to the world’s media on Thursday afternoon after agreeing to take charge until the end of the campaign.Neville is determined to make the most of his short-term role, and insists he will dive headfirst into the Spanish culture in order to make a success of his stint.The coach, who said he will continue his roll at England despite taking the job aboard, told a press conference: “When I received the call on Sunday evening I thought ‘what a football club’ and ‘what a challenge’.“I think, from my point of view, sitting on television these last few years talking about coaches, the time has come for me to stand up. If I’d turned down this job is to have said goodbye to my credibility.“I’m incredibly excited to be here. I understand and respect the huge responsibilities that I’ve been given.“I understand from playing here at this very stadium years ago the passion and the pride of the fans. The atmosphere and intimidation is something I want to harness. I’m very aware of the traditions at Valencia and how they play.”Like brother Phil, who has been coaching at the side since June, the England coach plans to dive into the culture.He added: “When I went to the training ground Philip’s Spanish was excellent with the players and I have to have that same level of commitment. I don’t speak the language. I have to immerse myself. I will take lessons every day.“My family will move over here permanently. My girls will finish school in Manchester in two weeks. Then they will move over to Valencia with my wife.“When I was a player I always wanted foreign players to come over and immerse themselves in the culture and that is what I plan to do.”Neville is famed for his ‘no holds barred’ style and opinions as a TV pundit.And, when asked how he would have reacted if a Premier League side had hired an inexperienced Spanish manager, he replied: “I would question it and I would be sceptical and want to be proven otherwise.“I understand over here I have to prove myself to the Valencia fans, the players and anyone who has doubts and concerns will only be convinced by winning football matches.“I’m not going to shy away from the direct approach I had on television.”Neville also addressed fears he would be distracted by trying to combine the Valencia role with assisting England manager Roy Hodgson in the run-up to Euro 2016.“Roy was incredibly supportive, positive and enthusiastic for me,” he said.“I was inspired by the conversation I had with him. He understood completely the opportunity for myself and was supportive 100 per cent.“[England] have got the two games in March when Valencia don’t play and most of the players are away. From my point of view I wanted to complete my job, certainly through to the European Championship.“Everyone’s understanding is Valencia are my priority other than the two games in March. It doesn’t stop me having phone conversations with Roy and the other coaches. I have a lot of hours in my day.” New Valencia boss Gary Neville