Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Jadwin Comes Alive

TigerBlog ran into a longtime Princeton basketball fan Sunday afternoon, and the first words he offered were essentially these: "You should give Noah a multi-year contract."

The "Noah" he was talking about was Noah Savage, the 2008 Princeton basketball alum who has essentially replaced TigerBlog as the color man on the Princeton men's basketball radio broadcasts. TB has heard Savage a few times and thinks he's very, very good, especially considering his experience consists of only a few games.

Ironically, the one Princeton basketball alum who TB is positive would be a great TV/radio man is Ahmed El-Nokali, who was in Jadwin Saturday night and was the halftime guest for Savage and play-by-play man John Sadak.

Because Savage was on the radio, it left TigerBlog in the very rare position of having no official function at the games Friday and Saturday. It made TB's mind wander back to the last game of the 1988 season, when Princeton destroyed Cornell by 21 at Jadwin (in John Thompson's final game as a Princeton player) after the Big Red had already clinched the Ivy League championship.

TigerBlog's neighbor at the time invited him to go to that game, so TB said fine. It was the last time TB was at a Princeton basketball game at Jadwin with no working function, before this past weekend, that is.

It started Friday night against Columbia with a 10-point Princeton win as the Tigers fell behind by double figures and then came back to take down the Lions. It concluded Saturday with a near capacity crowd on hand for a game whose ending was excruciating to Princeton fans.

There were two kinds of people in Jadwin Saturday night. First were the "I've never seen anything like this" types, the ones whose tenure with Princeton basketball doesn't date back that long. Then there were the veterans with their "this is how it used to be" comments.

TigerBlog has seen all but about five Princeton men's basketball home games for the last 21 seasons, and there was a stretch in the late 1990s when Jadwin was nearly filled for every game. It started when Princeton vaulted up the national rankings during the 1997-98 season and ESPN's Dick Vitale chided the local fans for letting that team play in front of "half a house."

The game after Vitale said that was a home game against Manhattan, which ended up being sold out. Princeton got a James Mastaglio dunk off the opening tip and never looked back in a 30-point win. From that point until the end of the next season, basically every game at Jadwin was either sold out or close to it.

For Princeton's big run from 1996 until that Manhattan game, TigerBlog remembers crowds that were probably in the 3,000-4,000 range, except for sellouts against Penn and when a major non-league opponent came by. For the dominant teams from 1989-1992, Princeton used to be a big draw on the road, as everyone wanted to see how this team almost beat Georgetown and how it was the only team that ran its style of offense, but crowds at home were somewhat smaller than they'd get to be a few years later. Except for Penn, of course.

Since then, attendance has not matched those levels, due to any number of issues (explosion of games on television, proliferation of the Princeton offense, success of the team). In fact, it had been years since Princeton had a crowd like it had Saturday night.

Going back one night earlier, the updates of the Penn-Cornell score that were announced on the PA showed TigerBlog clearly how things are different now. Back when TB was the men's basketball contact and not doing radio, the telephone to get out-of-town scores was located on the side of the court opposite the benches (this is a process that has been rendered obsolete by the web or by the average cell phone). When the student-worker (at one time, the person who answered the phones in Jadwin Gym was Marc Ross, now the Director of College Scouting for the New York Giants) got the other Ivy scores, TB would walk them around the court to the PA announcer.

Anyway, the entire crowd would hang on whether or not whichever opponent was playing at the Palestra that night could beat Penn, which is usually what Princeton needed. Friday night, of course, it was the complete opposite, as the entire Jadwin crowd was rooting for Penn to beat Cornell and reacting positively as Penn pulled away.

The crowd Friday night was a little below 2,000; Saturday night saw nearly a complete sell-out of the building. The building rocked like it had many times in the past (usually when Penn was the opponent), and there was a great turnout of students.

What did we learn? Well, when you have a glamour matchup of the league's heavyweight (Cornell) and an up-and-coming team that's easy to root for (Princeton) who are playing a huge game with championship and postseason implications, people will come out. In every sport at Princeton other than football (more of a planned event, though 2006 numbers indicate that championship contention is a big determinant), it's TigerBlog's belief that that is the No. 1 driving factor for attendance, which means that even the best marketing efforts don't operate independently from other factors.

As for the Cornell game itself, it was obvious that this was destined to be a tight game, and really what it came down to was some huge plays down the stretch made by the best player in the league, the Big Red's Ryan Wittman, who scored seven of his 13 points in the last 2:14 of the game. The biggest plays were a really tough three-pointer to make it a six-point game with 1:38 to play and then two foul shots to make it a three-point game with eight seconds to go.

Cornell has a nice team, and they come across as they have during this run as a classy group with a classy coach. They're also led by a deep senior class that has played together for four years, which is a huge advantage.

As for Princeton, Douglas Davis had a great game against the Big Red, with seven of his 20 in the final minute as he nearly brought Princeton back. Davis, with more than 600 points already, has the most points by a Princeton player by the end of his sophomore season since Chris Young had 801, and barring injury figures to be the next Princeton player to reach 1,000.

Better than that, he has shown himself to have some courage to his game, with a willingness to take big shots and the skill to make them. Add to that freshman center Ian Hummer (TB thinks of him as Princeton's answer to Georgetown's Greg Monroe as a lefthanded big man who can score and dribble but whose best skill might be passing), junior scorer Dan Mavraides and the rest of the fairly young Princeton team, and clearly this is a group that is maturing now as it is built for the future.

And so it was the older team that came away with the win Saturday night, leaving Princeton (who is at Penn tonight) and Cornell even with one league loss and Harvard (who hosts Cornell Friday) with two league losses. Clearly there is a long way to go, and clearly Cornell remains the favorite.

Still, for Jadwin Gym to have a weekend like it did this past weekend was great to see. It makes TigerBlog think of what the near future can be in the building, and it brought back so many memories of great crowds, of great nights from the past.

It's a unique spot to see basketball, a cavernous interior with its indoor track, temporary seats in the lower bowl and permanent seats in the balcony.

It was great to see it born again this weekend. From the perspective of a fan, no less.


Anonymous said...

Do you have a good excuse for missing those five home games since 1989?

R.W. said...

I never thought I'd say "Go Quakers" until I did Friday night.

5775 is a great number, but does seem conservative given I saw very few empty seats by the start of the 2nd half and there was substantial student overflow.

Here's to more packed Jadwin games in the near future.