Tuesday, November 17, 2009

We're In

There's nothing quite like an NCAA tournament selection show, at least from an anticipation standpoint. There's a helplessness to watching, since there's absolutely no pre-show warning or knowledge of what's going to happen.

TigerBlog remembers back to 1991, when he watched the men's basketball selection show in Kit Mueller's room with the great Princeton center and the rest of the team. The team was so wound up for the show that it collectively booed a human interest story that ended the network news, which preceded the selections themselves.

For awhile (and maybe still, TigerBlog isn't sure), the NCAA tournament men's basketball selection show received higher ratings than the games themselves that followed. And, of course, the TV people noticed, as selection shows across many sports now are all over television, many with the same basic format of some general banter between the announcers (which nobody cares about) followed by brackets that are slowly revealed, to build the drama. There are often cutaways to teams who joyously react at being selected (the reaction is always the same, regardless of the seed, draw or probability that the team would get a bid; the players, coaches, staff and friends all gather in a room, peer nervously at the screen and then leap to their feet, raise their arms and scream when their school's name comes up on the line) or "bubble" teams that haven't been picked yet.

Of course, the words "Princeton" and "bubble team" rarely go together. For the most part, Princeton teams know if they're in or out before the selection show, either because they hold an automatic bid, they are a shoo-in for the tournament or they obviously have no chance.

Largely, this is because the Ivy League is a one-bid league in basketball and some other sports (field hockey, which Princeton dominates), and, in the sports where there are multiple bids to be had, it's often obvious what's going to happen. In men's and women's lacrosse last year, for instance, neither Princeton team won the automatic bid but both knew they were locks for the tournament.

In fact, TigerBlog can only think of one time when a Princeton team could be considered a bubble team, and that was in men's basketball in 1998-99, when Princeton defeated teams like UNC Charlotte, Texas, Florida State and UAB but had some other tough losses, especially in overtime to Harvard and Yale, that ultimately sent the Tigers to the NIT, where they would beat Georgetown and North Carolina State before falling to Xavier. TigerBlog watched that year's selection show thinking that Princeton had at least a small chance.

All of this brings us to Monday's men's soccer selection show, at 5:30 on ESPNEWS. Princeton's men's team finished its regular season in style, blasting Penn and Yale to finish 9-5-3 with a strong RPI. It seemed like Princeton had a pretty good shot at a bid – but not a 100% lock. In other words, a genuine bubble team.

When ESPNEWS has a selection show, it doesn't go to the picks right away. Instead, it starts out with its normal programming and fits the selections in during the course of the half-hour.

When 5:30 rolled around, the first story was about how the Bengals were thinking of signing Larry Johnson and then mentioned how two guys TigerBlog had never heard of were named the baseball Rookies of the Year.

After that was news that Stephen Jackson had been traded from the Warriors to the Bobcats, which left TigerBlog wondering why teams continually take chances on proven malcontents like Johnson and Jackson. Next was a 10-minute discussion of the NFL, specifically Bill Belichick's decision to go for it on 4th-and-2 from his 28 against the Colts Sunday night (a move TigerBlog defended Monday and continues to believe was a great call).

Then, finally, it was time for the soccer selections. The bad part of selections on ESPNEWS is that they make you wait for 15-20 minutes (or longer) to start the picks; the good part is that they fly through them.

And so it started, with the first group of 12 teams (men's soccer is a 48-team draw; the women's tournament is 64 teams), followed quickly by the next. By this time, Brown and Dartmouth were in the field, and neither one of them had the Ivy League's automatic bid, which belonged to Harvard and meant that three Ivy teams were already in.

TigerBlog remembers full well Gary Walters' time on the men's basketball committee, including his year as chair, and Gary always said that the committee never considers how many teams from a league are in the field. TB has also heard other members of committees for other sports say the same thing, time and again. Still, when Brown and Dartmouth were in and Harvard was still not on the board, TB couldn't help but think "uh-oh."

The third group of 12 didn't include Princeton or Harvard, which made the drama build even more. Finally, the last group was flashed, and Princeton was the last school listed, all the way on the bottom. Princeton vs. Bucknell here Thursday, with the winner to play at Virginia Sunday.

It was torturous for TigerBlog to watch; it had to be twice as excruciating for the team. It had to be a helpless feeling of not having any way of knowing what was going to happen, to pure elation at finding out they were in. And at home, to boot.

Hey, it's what selection shows are all about.

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