Harvard and the Curse of ESPN

Under the tutelage of Tommy Amaker, the profile of Harvard’s basketball program has risen immensely. What was once an Ivy League also-ran became the alma mater of an NBA sensation, a three-team conference champion, a March Cinderella and, above all, a nationally relevant program. Success breeds exposure, and exposure is the hottest commodity in college sports, as evidenced by the dozens of schools who sold their athletic souls to get into TV conferences.

For Harvard, however, that exposure has come with a rocky lining: the Curse of ESPN. Over the last four seasons, the Crimson is 4-13 in games shown on the ESPN family of networks; in all other contests, Harvard is 85-13. (The curse is even stronger for games on the actual TV networks — ESPN, ESPN2 or ESPNU — in which the Crimson is 0-8.)

Of course, selection bias abounds — ESPN is more likely to pick up games featuring a good opponent. Entering tonight’s ESPN3-streamed meeting with Princeton, Harvard has played for the Worldwide Leader just twice this season; it’s no coincidence that those games, at Colorado and at Connecticut, were the Crimson’s two toughest challenges.

Still, it’s hard not to see an ominous trend. The curse started slowly in 2010-11, with understandable losses at UConn and Princeton on the ESPN family, and the Crimson even beat the Tigers on ESPN3 to claim a share of the conference crown. But in the Ivy playoff one week later, Doug Davis hit a buzzer-beater on ESPN3 (and technically on ESPN, which showed the final two minutes or so live), and the curse was born.

The following year, Harvard was knocked out of the top 25 by an ESPNU-broadcasted loss at Princeton. Still, the Crimson was alone in first place until, in a moment of hubris, it arranged for ESPN3 to show its battle with second-place Penn five days before the game. Sure enough, Kyle Casey’s go-ahead basket was waved off for a charge on the final possession, and the Quakers improbably snapped Harvard’s 28-game home win streak.

The curse didn’t wait long to rear its head in 2012-13: Playing at UMass in the ESPN Tip-Off Marathon, the Crimson lost 67-64 on a last-second three-pointer. At St. Mary’s on ESPN2 a month later, Harvard blew an 18-point lead and lost on two Mitchell Young free throws with 1.1 seconds left. And in its annual ESPNU visit to Princeton, the Crimson squandered a chance to ice the Ivy League title in the final minutes. (The curse has even crossed over into other sports — Princeton’s four-touchdown, fourth-quarter comeback in the 2012 football season, which ultimately cost Harvard a share of the Ivy title, was seen on ESPN3.)

It’s not as if Harvard can’t play well in any TV games. On other national networks (CBSSN, NBCSN, FSN and TNT), the Crimson is 12-6 in the last four years; while the overall level of competition wasn’t quite as high in those games, it did include marquee matchups such as the 2012 Battle for Atlantis and, of course, two NCAA tournaments.

But on the ESPN networks, Harvard’s curse comes alive. Tonight, the Crimson will battle that curse in its least favorite location — Jadwin Gymnasium, where Harvard hasn’t won since 1989. Not only were no current players on either side alive for that game, one of the Crimson’s coaches (2013 grad Christian Webster) hadn’t yet been born then.

So if Harvard is going to win tonight and keep pace in the Ivy League, it’ll have to slay a whole lot of demons at once.

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