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Harvard gets ready for encore vs. Arizona

Friday - 3/22/2013, 8:26pm  ET

Harvard coach Tommy Amaker makes remarks during a news conference after practice for a third-round game of the NCAA men's college basketball tournament, Friday, March 22, 2013, in Salt Lake City. Harvard is scheduled to play Arizona on Saturday. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

EDDIE PELLS
AP National Writer

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Harvard has John Kennedy, Henry Kissinger and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Arizona has Bob Dole, Barry Goldwater and a Kardashian sister.

So, yes, if their alumni were taping episodes of "This is Your Life," it might not be a fair fight.

But this is March Madness -- the tournament that sets pedigrees and grade-point averages aside and occasionally sticks two schools from completely different places onto a basketball court, throws the ball up and finds out who's better.

"It's kind of nice to break the stereotype that we're the nerdy kids and show people that we can play basketball as well," said sophomore Wesley Saunders, an L.A. kid who bypassed chances to play at Southern California and Colorado to head to Harvard.

The day after 14th-seeded Harvard (20-9) recorded its first NCAA tournament win in 102 years of basketball, the Crimson started preparing for their next game in the West Region. Saturday's opponent: No. 6 seed Arizona, a program that sends players to the NBA regularly and has been to the tournament 30 times, the Final Four four times and won it all once.

Late Thursday and into Friday, Harvard's win was still reverberating from coast to coast -- in Salt Lake City, where vanquished New Mexico shuffled off to the airport in shock; in Harvard Square, where it's spring break but Facebook and Twitter accounts have been lighting up, talking, of all things, hoops; even in Kentucky, where Rick Pitino, coach of the top-seeded Louisville Cardinals, said he wasn't all that surprised to see the 14 beat the 3.

"We're the No. 1 of No. 1 seeds," Pitino said. "We play Harvard 10 times, we might win six, they might win four."

This, however, is the world of one-and-done, and if the Wildcats (26-7), established as a 10-point favorite, have any thoughts about coasting into this one, coach Sean Miller is doing his best to drum it out of them.

"I believe our team is mature enough to understand that Harvard is really good," Miller said. "The team they have on the court, what they just did to beat a team as talented as New Mexico, that speaks for itself."

Though it's tempting to get lost in Harvard's "Geeks-to-Glory" story line, there is a pretty compelling basketball tale going down on the Cambridge campus, as well.

A school with no basketball history to speak of upped the ante in 2007 when it hired Tommy Amaker, a Duke graduate with a long resume in big-program coaching. Amaker started looking for a different kind of player to fit in at a school with its world-renowned academic standards.

"The reason I chose Harvard was a vision Coach Amaker had for the program, and Harvard being a world-class institution," senior Christian Webster said.

Amaker's 2008-09 recruiting class was listed as one of the 25 best in the nation by ESPN -- something no Ivy League school had ever accomplished.

Jeremy Lin came to Harvard and though he didn't gather all that much attention while he was there, his later success in the NBA put the term "Linsanity" into the popular dictionary and also made people take a second look at the Crimson's burgeoning hoops program.

Meantime, Amaker kept bringing in good players. In 2011, Harvard shared the Ivy League title with Princeton but lost a playoff game on a last-second shot with the league's sole bid to the NCAAs on the line. Last year, the Crimson broke through, making the tournament for the first time since 1946.

This season, Harvard won the Ivy League again despite losing its captains -- Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry -- to an academic scandal that involved more than just sports programs.

It put a chink in the feel-good story, but only for a moment.

"The facts are what they are," Amaker said. "And it wasn't anything that any of us would prefer to have happen at our school. ... But I think our guys have been able to adjust just like I would expect most young kids to do. They've done it exceptionally well."

On Thursday against New Mexico, Amaker constructed a brilliant game plan, going small against New Mexico's big lineup, shutting down its most potent player, Tony Snell, playing a perimeter offense that produced lots of open looks from 3-point range and reminding his players to be unafraid to take the ball to the hoop when the situations presented themselves.

"They're a program on the rise and they're making steps in the right direction," Arizona forward Solomon Hill said. "You have to note that two of their best players are not playing this year. If those two players were here, they would probably be a higher seed and playing somewhere else."

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