Sunday, March 1, 2009
March Begins Meaningful for Men's Basketball
The Princeton men's basketball team will be playing meaningful games in March. There are no more "ifs" about that.
Last night's win over Yale, coupled with Cornell's improbable 71-70 loss at Harvard, has made this much true for the Tigers. Keep winning, and the Ivy League championship is theirs.
But before we break down all the "ifs" around this weekend's trip to New York, remember how unexpected it is for the Tigers to be in the Ivy League title chase in college basketball's most sacred month.
Five Ivy League wins between 2007 and 2008, and seven already this season. Picked last in the preseason poll, and alone in second place heading into the final weekend. From a team that went 6-23 overall and 3-11 in the Ivy in 2007-08, 58% of Princeton's scoring from last season wasn't in uniform for this one, leaving the field wide open for someone, and ideally several someones, to step up and fill the gap.
Junior Zach Finley, the leading returning rebounder from last season, leads in that category again. He was also the leading scorer in points per game last season, and thanks to major growth from his teammates, is fifth this season.
Dan Mavraides, who scored 11 points as a freshman, is averaging almost that much (10.5) per game as a sophomore. Douglas Davis (12.4 ppg) leads the team and is an Ivy League Rookie of the Year possibility. Pawel Buczak has had some breakout games in his junior season as he eased into the starting center role, none more impressive than the 15 points he scored to help Princeton to a 20-point win over Cornell February 6.
Speaking of that date, the 61-41 win opened the door to thoughts that this team might somehow challenge for an Ivy League crown much sooner than expected. Princeton followed it the next night with a 28-point win over Columbia. At 4-0, already with a decided victory over a team that went 14-0 in the Ivy last season, who could blame the dreamers?
But those who might have peeked at their mid-March calendars were soon pulled back to earth. There was a 12-point loss at Yale in which the Tigers couldn't match the physicality of the Bulldogs, who outrebounded Princeton by 20. The next night, Princeton lost by 18 at Brown to give the Bears their first Ivy League win of the season and hand the Tigers their worst loss in Providence since Americans were getting ready to choose between Vice President Nixon and a U.S. Senator from Massachusetts named Kennedy to succeed Ike in the White House.
Then came an overtime loss to Penn, and Princeton's 4-3 record seemed much further than 11 days from its 4-0 Ivy start.
But then came a little help. As Princeton was gutting out a win over Harvard Feb. 20, Yale was handling Cornell. The deficit in the Ivy standings was 1 1/2 games and could be made up if Princeton won out, even if Cornell didn't lose again.
Again, the Tigers couldn't keep their fate in their hands. The next night, Princeton led by 13 points in the first half against Dartmouth on an evening when the playing floor at Jadwin Gym was to be renamed for Princeton's 29-season former head coach, Pete Carril. The lead slipped away and eventually so did the game. With it, or so it seemed, was another shot the Ivy title.
Entering Jadwin Gym the following weekend were the Brown team that humiliated the Tigers just two weeks ago, followed by the Yale club that outmuscled a then-Ivy undefeated Princeton team.
With seemingly nothing to play for, at least in terms of the Ivy race, Princeton showed its moxie. It held on for a less-than-pretty win over Brown. It ran out to a 14-0 lead against Yale, lost most of it, and held on once again. And wouldn't you know it, Cornell stumbled.
So here we are, the calendar on March, and a few wins separating the Princeton basketball team from its 26th Ivy title.
In the first 24 games, the Tigers showed they can learn from lessons. They had lost leads, like the 13-point one they had at St. Bonaventure back in December, and lost games. They won when few expected them to, like last month against Cornell, but lost at Brown and Yale after some of those non-believers started to come around. After the Harvard win, what had been lost was at least partially regained, only to be lost again after Dartmouth won in Carril Court's debut.
The loss stung -- head coach Sydney Johnson referenced it Saturday night following the rematch win over Yale -- and the Tigers responded with wins over two teams that knocked them around in their first meeting.
One last time, the Tigers have their Ivy fate in their hands. The task is huge, with three wins on the road likely needed to touch the Ivy crown. It may happen, it may not. But once again, after some too-lean years, Princeton basketball matters again in March.