New York Knicks guard and Harvard University alumnus Jeremy Lin may be a sudden NBA sensation, but the men's basketball team at his alma mater is making its own mark on the national scene.
Harvard is currently on top of the Ivy League basketball standings. And with a 21-3 overall record and some impressive nonconference wins, the Crimson spent part of the season in the Top 25 in national polls for Division I.
There's a palpable buzz about the team, as well — even a late January road game against the struggling squad from Brown University was a sellout.
To those who follow the Ivy League teams closely, some of that success is attributable to two powerful Ivy League recruiting tools: academic reputation and a big increase in financial aid.
Unlike most Division I college conferences, the Ivy League does not allow athletic scholarships. But over the past several years, member schools have dramatically increased the grants for need-based financial aid for all low and middle-income students. And that aid often allows the students to completely avoid loans.
The Freedom Of A Free Ride
At a news conference at Harvard's home court on Monday, fifth-year head coach Tommy Amaker said eliminating loans has made it easier to compete with other schools for recruits.
"It's money. Educational opportunity here and other places in our league is a wonderful opportunity and a wonderful thing, but it also can be a great deal of expense. And you have other places that can provide something completely free."
According to Harvard, over 60 percent of all of the university's students receive aid, including most of the school's football and basketball players.
Harvard forward Kyle Casey was recruited by several other programs, including Stanford and Vanderbilt. The 6-foot-7-inch junior says financial aid from the Ivys gives academically talented athletes more choices.
"A lot of kids," Casey says, "not just in basketball, but just in general with sports, feel like, 'If I can go to a pretty good school and go for free, I'd rather do that than go to a very good school, and have to pay and put that burden on my parents.' "
Casey says knowing that attending college won't leave you in debt makes Harvard and other Ivy League schools much more attractive.
Pete Thamel, who covers college basketball for The New York Times, says the effect of the Ivy League's efforts is noticeable.
"The recruiting process in the Ivy League has always been competitive, just because there's always been a finite number of kids who have the academic qualifications and who are good enough to play Division I basketball," Thamel says. "I think we've seen a shift in the past four or five years of the caliber of players in the Ivy League. The Ivy League is as good as it's been in this generation."
Money Just One Recruiting Tool
Ivy League Executive Director Robin Harris says no-loan aid has broadened the pool of potential recruits, but that national success is nothing new for the league — including the Cornell men's Sweet Sixteen berth in the 2010 NCAA basketball tournament.
"But we've been competitive for longer than that," Harris says. "And so even if you look at the Cornell team, I don't know if very many — if any — of those players would have benefited from the changes in the financial aid policy. Our lacrosse teams have long been very competitive nationally; ice hockey wrestling, soccer."
Sports Illustrated reporter Pablo Torre, a Harvard alumnus, says graduates playing in the NBA, NFL and other pro leagues provide a critical boost to Ivy recruiting. But in the end, he says, academics will always be the schools' best closing argument for attracting talent.
Ivy League schools will never have the resources that schools like Ohio State and the University of Michigan have, "in terms of all the accouterments that are part and parcel with a big-time program," Torre says. "But they're going to try to make up for it on the back end when they say, 'Even if you don't make it, you're going to have this degree — and that's pretty useful.' "
Right now, the Harvard players are focused on their more immediate future. Ivy League degrees can open a lot of doors, but so can conference victories — and the team that eventually finishes first in the Ivy League gets an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.