Harvard was stocked up and ready to make a run at its third consecutive Ivy League title. Then came a cheating scandal that cost the Crimson two of its top seniors and, probably, their chances at an NCAA tournament berth.
Co-captains Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry have been scratched from the roster in the wake of a school-wide investigation into whether as many as 125 students shared answers or plagiarized on a take-home, open-book final exam in a single course. Although potential punishments could range from an admonishment to a year away from school, the two seniors reportedly withdrew from school rather than endanger their final season of eligibility.
Now the two-time defending Ivy champions — Harvard shared the title with Princeton in 2011 — have come back to the pack and restored Princeton to its usual spot as a favorite to earn the conference's automatic NCAA berth.
"With the nature of college sports, you're going to have instability," Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said in a conference call with reporters. "You learn to adjust, and that's what we're doing. And those things can bring out magical moments or interesting times, or growth moments. And those are the things we have our sights set on, to think of it in that regard: as an opportunity."
So far, Harvard's roster shuffle is mostly an opportunity for Princeton: In a poll of Ivy League media, the Tigers were installed as the preseason favorite to win to win their 27th conference title. Princeton was ranked first on 16 of 17 ballots in the poll taken in October, after the Harvard players had withdrawn.
"I don't enjoy seeing it, and I don't think anyone does," Princeton coach Mitch Henderson said. "Despite losing some important pieces, Harvard's still going to be very good. Things remain the same here: The expectations are fairly high, and we're excited to get going."
Princeton is led by preseason player of the year pick Ian Hummer, who had 16.1 points and 7.3 rebounds per game last year, when the Tigers finished third to Harvard and Penn. Forward Mack Darrow and center Brendan Connolly will provide Princeton with an experienced frontcourt.
The Tigers tied Harvard atop the conference in 2011 — Harvard's first-ever Ivy title — but Princeton earned the automatic berth for the NCAA tournament in a one-game tiebreaker. Last season, the Crimson broke into The Associated Press Top 25 for the first time ever and won the championship outright to make the tournament for the first time since 1946; they lost to Vanderbilt in their opening game.
With Curry and Casey expected to return, along with junior guard Laurent Rivard, Harvard was the favorite to return to the NCAAs. But the investigation forced Amaker to shuffle his lineups just a couple of months before the season opener.
"This is what this time of year is about: seeing the younger kids come in, and seeing if they can adjust and adapt, the capacity that they have for learning," Amaker said. "We're hopeful that everybody we have will be able to contribute, and certainly with our team this year we may look to different lineups and different combinations that will include younger players."
Harvard was picked second in the preseason poll, receiving the other first-place vote.
"It's hard for anyone to overcome losing two seniors," said Columbia coach Kyle Smith, whose team was third in the poll a year after finishing sixth in the eight-team conference. "I think people know there's a lot of talent in a lot of these programs. The league will be good, obviously. It wasn't easy for them to dominate the league last year — and they didn't: It came down to the last weekend."
Columbia broke into the top half of the preseason poll for just the fourth time in school history. The Lions are followed by Cornell, Penn, Yale, Brown and Dartmouth.
Cornell returns 10 of its top 12 scorers from a year ago, including reigning Ivy League rookie of the year Shonn Miller, a sophomore guard. Penn is hoping junior Miles Cartwright can help fill in for the loss of Zack Rosen, who averaged 18 points and 5.2 assists for the Quakers last year.
"I'm not asking Miles to step up and be Zack; I'm asking Miles to step up and be Miles Cartwright," Penn coach Jerome Allen said. "I'm not going to allow (him), and he doesn't allow himself, to be caught up in trying to be someone else."
Amaker stressed that the Harvard team that made it to the NCAA tournament last year was "a number of years in the making" — a result of a system he installed that began to emerge with the development of NBA star Jeremy Lin and led to the school's co-Ivy championship in 2011.
He isn't going to change things just because he lost two key players.
"We believe in our system, our philosophy and our approach," Amaker said.
"When you think of moments of exceptional growth or surprises, those are neat stories. We've been a part of some really, really neat stories before, and maybe this is another one that's in our favor."