But instead of leading a Big East or Big Ten program against those major-conference heavyweights, Amaker has sent Harvard into that meat grinder. And the Crimson are coming out of it better than anyone could have reasonably expected.
Coming off a two-week break, the Crimson lost, 86-70, Wednesday afternoon at Georgetown. But the last time Harvard took the floor, it stunned Boston College 74-67, marking the second consecutive season the Crimson beat their local rival. Three days earlier, Harvard gave Connecticut everything it could handle before falling 79-73.
"They were better than I even thought they would be," Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said. "They're very well-coached. ... They're a very good basketball team."
Those encouraging non-conference results have led to speculation that Harvard might win its first Ivy League men's basketball title in school history. A league championship would send Harvard to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1946.
Harvard might not be used to going toe-to-toe with ACC and Big East foes, but its coach certainly is familiar with competing at this level.
Amaker, 44, started on Duke's 1986 Final Four team and served as an assistant on the Blue Devils' 1991 and '92 national championship teams before beginning his head-coaching career at Seton Hall, where he led the Pirates to one Sweet 16 berth and three NIT invitations in his four-year tenure.
When he was fired after a six-year stint at Michigan that included three 20-win seasons and an NIT title but no NCAA tournament appearances, Amaker raised plenty of eyebrows by landing at Harvard. Why would a coach who had spent his entire playing and coaching career in major conferences leave that behind for the Ivy League?
"I just thought of the potential magic that could happen with a brand name like Harvard," Amaker said. "We'd never won the Ivy League in men's basketball. That in itself was enticing as well. We're the oldest school in the country. To say something's never been done here is quite a statement."
Harvard hasn't even posted a winning record in Ivy League competition since tying for second in 1996-97. The Crimson haven't finished above .500 overall since going 14-12 in 2001-02. And in March 2008, a New York Times article talked about possible improper recruiting practices by Amaker and assistant Kenny Blakeney. The Ivy League investigated, found no rules violations and cleared the coaches.
Now, on the court, things gradually are turning around under Amaker.
Stuck in the middle
Harvard hasn't won an Ivy League title in men's basketball and hasn't posted a winning record in conference play since tying for second in the league in 1996-97. Here is how Harvard has fared since.
After going 8-22 in Amaker's first season, Harvard improved to 14-14 last season. The Crimson are 7-3 this season and were 34th in the RPI before facing Georgetown, though that measuring stick can be a bit misleading this early in the season.
The Crimson beat Boston College, and they also have a triple-overtime victory over a William & Mary team that has since gone on an eight-game winning streak that includes triumphs over Richmond, Wake Forest and Virginia Commonwealth.
This marks Harvard's fastest start since the 1984-85 team won its first eight games on its way to a 15-9 finish. But that team beat two Division II programs and one Division III school during its eight-game winning streak, while this season's Harvard squad is dealing with a far tougher schedule.
"They're a much better team than they were a year ago," Boston College coach Al Skinner said. "They've gone out and played some good competition."
Harvard also has one of the nation's best guards - regardless of conference - in Jeremy Lin, a 6-foot-3 senior from Palo Alto, Calif. He was the only player in the nation last season to rank among the top 10 in his conference in every major statistical category (steals, assists, scoring, free-throw percentage, free throws, free-throw attempts, rebounds, blocks, field-goal percentage and 3-point percentage).
Lin arguably has been even better this season while leading the Crimson in scoring (18.2 points per game), rebounds (5.2), assists (4.5), steals (2.2) and three-pointers (1.4 per game).
"He's one of the better players in college basketball," Amaker said. "When people have gotten a chance to see him, they've come away incredibly impressed. We're thrilled with him. He's unselfish to a fault sometimes, and he's a winner. You evaluate him by the points he's responsible for as much as the points he scores. He's responsible for so much."
Lin has delivered his biggest performances in Harvard's biggest games. He scored 30 points against Connecticut and followed that up with a 25-point effort against BC. Lin also sank a 30-footer at the buzzer to give Harvard its 87-85 triple-overtime victory over William & Mary.
"He knows how to play," Calhoun said. "He's one of the better kids - including Big East guards - who have come in here in quite some time."
Lin certainly is the best player on Harvard's roster, but he isn't carrying the load by himself. In the first nine games this season, Harvard's bench accounted for 39.8 percent of its points and outscored the opponent's reserves in every game.
Heading into the Georgetown game, Harvard's depth helped the Crimson lead the Ivy League in scoring margin (plus-9.2), field-goal percentage (.483), field-goal percentage defense (.390), 3-point percentage defense (.295) and blocks (5.9). Harvard and Columbia were tied for the league lead in rebound margin (plus-2.7).
The Crimson are living up to the mission Amaker established for this program upon his arrival.
"We feel like our vision for Harvard basketball would be, 'Why not?' " Amaker said. "We're representing arguably the No. 1 school in the world. We're proud of what we think is a special brand here. We're not the only special brand in the world or in the country, but we do realize we're one of the very select few. We want to have a program that we're all proud of and that we want to identify with. Those things are incredibly motivating for me."
Amaker has built a basketball program that can live up to the Harvard name, but that doesn't mean an Ivy title is inevitable. Harvard was picked to finish fourth in the league in a preseason media poll. Two-time defending champion Cornell was the unanimous preseason pick and remains the favorite after winning nine of its first 11 games. Cornell owns road wins over Alabama, Massachusetts and St. John's; the Big Red's only losses have come against Seton Hall and Syracuse.
"They've been the best team in our league,'' Amaker said. "They've shown it, proven it and earned it. The majority of their key players are returning. It was an obvious choice. I still think they're the team to beat in our league. We're just hopeful as we continue on our journey to become a first-class winning program, that we're gaining ground and putting ourselves in position to be a contender."
Amaker loves building programs. Whether he's in the Big East, Big Ten or Ivy League really doesn't matter. At all three places, Amaker considered himself primarily a teacher who was teaching players how to mature into young men. Now he's getting the chance to do that at one of the world's premier academic institutions.
"The majority of our games aren't going to be nationally televised or in a 15,000- or 16,000-seat arena," Amaker said. "Some games on our schedule will have those dynamics, but the majority won't be like that. We don't give out scholarships. Some of the obvious things are different. But the similarities outweigh any differences that are meaningful to me.
"I'm not in it for those other things. I'm in it to help be part of a great institution and to see if we can make a difference in the lives of players we coach and teach, and to hope they become productive people."
Along the way, he has helped Harvard's program make plenty of history.
In his first year on the job, Harvard beat Michigan for its first-ever win over a team from one of the six major conferences. Last season, the Crimson picked up their first win over a ranked team (an 82-70 triumph over No. 17 Boston College), their first victory at Penn since 1989-90 and their first win at Yale since 1998-99.
Amaker's hoping that first Ivy League title will come next.