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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

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And I'm Melissa Block. Harvard University is enjoying a rare turn in the basketball spotlight. Harvard grad Jeremy Lin has become a sudden sensation with the New York Knicks. But Harvard's current men's basketball team is also making its mark thanks to two powerful Ivy League recruiting tools: its academic reputation and a big increase in financial aid. Doug Tribou with the public radio program "Only A Game" reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF BASKETBALL GAME)

DOUG TRIBOU, BYLINE: Harvard is on top of the Ivy League basketball standings, and there's a buzz about the team. Even a late January road game against the struggling squad from Brown University was a sellout. 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. 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, aid that often allows the students to completely avoid loans.

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 for recruits.

TOMMY AMAKER: It's money. And certainly, an opportunity to pay for an education - educational opportunity here and other places in our league is a wonderful opportunity, a wonderful thing, but it also can be, you know, a great deal of expense. And you have other places that can provide something completely free.

TRIBOU: According to Harvard, over 60 percent of all the university students receive aid, including most football and basketball players. Harvard forward Kyle Casey was recruited by a number of programs, including Stanford and Vanderbilt. The 6-foot, 7-inch junior says Ivy financial aid gives academically talented athletes more choices.

KYLE CASEY: A lot of kids, you know, not just in basketball, but just in general with sports, feel like, you know, if I can go to a pretty good school and go for free, I'd rather do that than, you know, go to a very good school and, you know, have to pay and put that burden on my parents.

TRIBOU: Casey says knowing that attending college won't leave you in debt makes Harvard and other Ivy League schools much more attractive. Pete Thamel covers college basketball for The New York Times and says the change is noticeable.

PETE THAMEL: 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. 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.

TRIBOU: Ivy League executive director Robin Harris says no-loan aid has broadened the pool of potential recruits, but national success is nothing new for the league, including the Cornell men's Sweet 16 berth in the 2010 NCAA basketball tournament.

ROBIN HARRIS: But we've been competitive for longer than that. And so even if you look at the Cornell team, I don't know that 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.

TRIBOU: Sports Illustrated reporter and Harvard alum Pablo Torre says grads playing in the NBA, NFL and other pro leagues provide a critical boost to Ivy recruiting, but in the end, academics will always be the schools' best closing argument.

PABLO TORRE: Harvard is never going to have - or Princeton is never going to have - the resources that Ohio State, Michigan, has in terms of, you know, just all of the accoutrements that are part and parcel with a big-time program. But they're going to try to make up for it on the backend when they say, you know, even if you don't make it, you're going to have this degree, and that's pretty useful.

TRIBOU: Right now, the Harvard men are focused on their more immediate future. Ivy League degrees can open a lot of doors, but so can conference victories. The team that eventually finishes first in the Ivy League gets an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. For NPR News, I'm Doug Tribou in Boston.

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