By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Early in his coaching career, UVa assistant Jason Williford spent five seasons at Boston University, a stretch in which the men’s basketball team at nearby Harvard posted a 56-77 record, including a 1-4 mark against BU.
Those Harvard teams would have had little chance of defeating a top-10 opponent. But that era of Crimson basketball is a fading memory.
Under head coach Tommy Amaker, Harvard has captured four straight Ivy League titles and made three straight trips to the NCAA tournament. The Crimson won 21 games in 2009-10, 23 in 2010-11, 26 in 2011-12, 20 in 2012-13 and 27 last season.
Amaker, who grew up in Falls Church, was a McDonald’s All-American at W.T. Woodson High before starring at Duke.
“It’s a testament to him as a coach,” Williford said Friday at John Paul Jones Arena, “but quite honestly Harvard is the cream of the crop when it comes to the Ivy. Now that they put an emphasis on basketball, [the Crimson’s success] doesn’t surprise me.
“It’s the No. 1 school in the country. Cambridge is an awesome place to live and go to school. And so they’re finally getting [elite players], and the athletic department has put an emphasis on that. Once they decided to do that, it was only going to be a matter of time before they were going to be good, and he’s got those kids playing well.”
Fans can see for themselves Sunday. At noon, at sold-out JPJ, sixth-ranked Virginia (10-0) hosts Harvard (7-1) in a highly anticipated matchup ESPNU will televise.
“That program is really cooking, and Tommy’s done a great job,” UVa head coach Tony Bennett said.
During Bennett’s final two seasons as an assistant at Wisconsin — 2001-02 and 2002-03 — Amaker was head coach at another Big Ten school, Michigan.
“It’s just great to see the job that he’s done [at Harvard],” Bennett said. “They have very good players. They’ve really recruited well. They play well together, and you can see what they’ve established.”
That all holds true, of course, for Bennett’s program as well. His record in six seasons at UVa is 116-60. The Wahoos won 30 games and advanced to the NCAA tournament’s Sweet Sixteen in 2013-14. Their average margin of victory this season is 20.7 points, and they’re off to their best start since 2000-01.
A win over Harvard would make the `Hoos 11-0 for the first time since 1992-93, when their players included Williford, a graduate of John Marshall High School in Richmond.
Rest assured, though, the coaching staff has not mentioned potential milestones to the players this week.
“It’s better not to focus on the records,” sophomore point guard London Perrantes said. “We just want to go out and play our game.”
After practice Friday, Perrantes said he’d read an interesting quote the previous night, about how a team should not aspire to be, say, 37-0 at the end of a season, but rather to “be 1-0 37 times.”
That sounds like something Bennett might say. His boss’ focus, Williford said, is “always the next game, the next opponent. That’s how we approach everything. And quite honestly he’s been on the players. He doesn’t want them getting big heads, believing the press clippings. He keeps them humble and he brings them back down to earth.”
After knocking off VCU in Richmond on Dec. 6, the Cavaliers broke for final exams and didn’t play again until Thursday night, when they defeated Cleveland State 70-54 at JPJ.
Harvard hasn’t played since Dec. 8, when the Crimson defeated Boston University 70-56. Wesley Saunders, a 6-5, 215-pound swingman, scored 15 points against BU — his eighth straight game in double figures this season.
A senior from Los Angeles, Saunders is averaging 20.1 points, 7.1 rebounds and 4.5 assists. He was the Ivy League player of the year in 2013-14.
“He’s a monster,” Perrantes said.
Perrantes, who’s also from L.A., speaks from experience. He and Saunders were rec-league teammates as boys.
When they got older, Perrantes said, “I think we played against each other in high school a couple times. We definitely remember each other, so it’ll be fun to play against him.”
Williford compared Saunders’ game to that of former UVa guard KT Harrell, now a standout at Auburn.
Like Harrell, Saunders “can get to spots on the floor and score over the top,” Williford said. “He’s not overly quick, but just good enough with the ball. Probably slightly better with the ball [than Harrell], and a little bit bigger. He just knows how to score. He’s got that old man’s kind of game. He’s their go-to guy. He does it all for them.”
Harvard’s post players include 6-8, 245-pound senior Kenyatta Smith, a former UVa recruiting target, and 6-7, 225-pound senior Steve Moundou-Missi.
The Cavaliers will have a size advantage in the frontcourt, but Harvard averages 6.5 blocked shots per game.
“They do a good job down there,” Williford said. “They got guys 6-8, but long-armed and with great timing. They come and help. Getting to the paint off the dribble and then scoring from the post won’t be as easy as we think. We’re going to have to make some outside shots, and then stretch them and spread them that way, I think, initially.”
Perrantes said: “It’s not going to be an easy game. We definitely know that.”
One of Perrantes’ teammates, redshirt junior Malcolm Brogdon, seriously considered Harvard before choosing Virginia.
“Just from watching them play in the past and being recruited by Coach Amaker, I know he’s a great coach, and I know they’re very fundamental,” Brogdon said. “I know they focus a lot on defense, and I know they have some talented players. I know they’re going to be a very good challenge for us.”
After Sunday, the `Hoos won’t play again until Dec. 30. One of the Atlantic 10’s best teams, Davidson (9-1), visits JPJ for a 6 o’clock game that night.
Virginia’s players will scatter after the game Sunday. They’d like to leave with a victory.
“Definitely going out on a high note would be good for all of us, so we’re really focused on this one game,” said Perrantes, who’s flying home to California on Sunday night.
Williford said: “It would be good to go into the break with a win, but it’s not going to come easy. [The Crimson are] going to come in here, and they’re not going to be afraid of us. They’ve been ranked, and they know what it’s like to go up against the big boys. We just gotta be ready.”