Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Highly Selective

Back in the 1998-99 men's basketball season, Princeton had non-league wins over schools like Florida State, Texas, Charlotte and Alabama-Birmingham, as well as a win over Ivy League champion Penn.

The Tigers finished the regular season at 20-7, 11-3 in the Ivy League after crushing overtime losses at Yale and Harvard kept Princeton from the league championship.

For those who remember, that was the year Princeton had the never-to-be-repeated comeback at Penn, rallying from down 40-13 in the final 15 minutes to win 50-49 on a Tuesday night. That Friday, Princeton was in New Haven, where it lost in double overtime to Yale under very strange circumstances.

Yale led by three in the final 10 seconds or so of the second overtime when Brian Earl hit a shot that one ref signaled was a three and two refs signaled was a two. The scoreboard operator put the three points on the board, which meant that it reflected a tie game.

In reality, Yale was up by one. The Tigers, assuming tie game, didn't immediately foul when Yale inbounded the ball. Yale, equally as confused, called timeout, perhaps assuming it needed to set up a winning play. It was only then that the refs ruled Earl's shot was a two, not a three, and that Yale was up one.

TigerBlog has always wondered what would have happened if Yale ran out the rest of the clock and Princeton didn't foul. Would the refs have ruled game over, or would they have played it back from the point where Yale inbounded the ball?

Yale inbounded, got fouled and made one of two to go up 60-58. The Tigers had just enough time for Gabe Lewullis to put up a shot from around halfcourt that ended up hitting the rim.

Anyway, the point of the story is that Princeton didn't win the league and therefore didn't get an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. That is the only time that TigerBlog has watched the selection show thinking that the Ivy runner-up had a legitimate shot at an at-large bid.

Instead, Princeton ended up in the NIT, which sparked a great run with wins over Georgetown at home (five players played the whole game for Princeton; can you name the five?) and at North Carolina State in the final game in a very rowdy Reynolds Coliseum followed by a loss at Xavier in the quarterfinals. Had Princeton won that game (in which it led by 17 in the first half), it would have been guaranteed two games in Madison Square Garden and Earl would have finished third all-time in scoring at Princeton instead of fifth.

All these years later, and still no Ivy League team has ever gotten an at-large bid in basketball.

Oh, and the five were: Chris Young, Mason Rocca, Ahmed El-Nokali, Earl and Lewullis.

Contrast that with the men's soccer NCAA tournament draw, which was announced yesterday afternoon.

Princeton knew it was going to be in as the league champion, with the first-ever 7-0-0 league mark in program history.

And it figured that there'd be other league representation, what with Penn and Brown having been ranked in the Top 25 much of the season.

So as the field was announced, who was the first league school announced? Dartmouth.

That meant at least two league teams were in, and there was no chance that Brown wouldn't also get in. Penn, who lost to Princeton and Harvard to end the season, was looking less and less likely as the field came up. In fact, it wasn't until the final line of the bracket that the Quakers saw their name.

Eight Ivy League men's soccer teams. Four of them get into the tournament.

The league has had four men's lacrosse teams in the NCAA tournament before, but as much as TB cringes to admit this, lacrosse is still something of a regional sport and Ivy League schools are able to compete strongly with anyone.

There are 60 Division I men's lacrosse teams; there are 200 men's soccer teams spread out all over the country, including in all of the power conferences.

For the Ivy League to place four teams in the soccer tournament is extraordinary. It shows how tough Ivy League men's soccer is top-to-bottom and how the seven-game league schedule is treacherous.

Knowing that, it also means that Princeton's feat of running the table is even more impressive. In fact, it's up there with any athletic accomplishment by a Princeton team in recent years.

Of course, at the same time, it begs the question of why Princeton didn't get a bye in the first round coming from a such a competitive league. The Tigers were ranked 11th in the NSCAA poll last week, but apparently their RPI was slightly lower than the 16 teams who received a bye.

Instead, Princeton will host a very good UMBC team Thursday night at 7 on Myslik Field at Roberts Stadium.

As an aside, when the draw was announced, it said 1 p.m. for the Princeton-UMBC game; how great would that have been?

The winner of the first-round game will play at William & Mary in the second round Sunday. The Tigers had hoped that there'd be no game Thursday and a home game Sunday, but it didn't work out that way.

A year ago, when the selections were announced, Princeton got an at-large bid and home game and was ecstatic. This year, the Tigers might have been disappointed by not being in the top 16, but there's nothing they can do about it now other than go out and play hard and see what happens.

The goal at the beginning of the season might have been an Ivy League championship. With that in the bank, the Tigers' new goal is to be the last of the four Ivy teams who made it into the tournament to still be standing.

And to make the next few weeks something special.

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