Wednesday, March 9, 2011

On To New Haven

TigerBlog walked into Jadwin Gym this morning from Lot 21 and saw an unusual sight as soon as he came in the side door, under Gary Walters' office.

It was a line. An actual line of people, waiting outside the ticket office, waiting to buy tickets for the Princeton-Harvard men's basketball playoff game, which Princeton forced with a huge second half last night at Penn that turned an eight-point deficit into a 70-58 win.

The result is that Princeton and Harvard both finished 12-2 in the league, and as such they are co-champions of the Ivy League. The playoff game Saturday - at 4 p.m. at Yale - decides who will represent the league in the NCAA tournament.

As TigerBlog looks around the landscape of college basketball the last few days, he sees conference tournaments that 1) bounced the best team in the a particular league from representing that league in the NCAA tournament or 2) in the bigger conferences mean next to nothing.

And once again he is convinced that the last thing in the world the Ivy League should do is go to a conference tournament and that in fact traditional one-bid leagues should abandon theirs.

Fairfield? Won the MAAC title by two games over the field and by four over a St. Peter's team that beat the Stags in the semifinals and then took out Iona in the final. The result is that St. Peter's, a team that went 17-13 in the regular-season, will now take the league's bid over a team that was 23-6.

Which won would have a better chance of getting a win and making the MAAC a big story next week?

Want an even better example? In the America East, Vermont won the regular season at 13-3, one game ahead of Boston University and five games ahead of fifth-place Stony Brook. So what happens? Stony Brook gets to the semis and beats Vermont, sending a 23-8 team home and a 15-16 team to within a game of the NCAA tournament (Stony Brook meets BU for the bid Saturday at noon).

There's no way a league should risk lowering its NCAA seed - and destroy its chances for a win that the entire sporting country will notice - to have a conference tournament.

In the Ivy League, Princeton and Harvard have spent the last 14 games establishing 1) that they are by far the best teams in the league and 2) on a given night, either could lose to another team in the league (Princeton lost to Brown; Harvard lost to Yale).

What if there was an Ivy tournament, and the same thing happened again? Where would the sense be in that?

And TB said the same thing each of the last three years, when it was Cornell that won the regular-season title.

Again, the Ivy League knows that the winner of Saturday's game is giving the league its best chance to win next week in the tournament. And that's how it should be.

For you history buffs out there, this will be the eighth playoff since the formation of the Ivy League, and Princeton will have been involved in all eight.

Of the previous seven, Penn has been in four, Yale two and Dartmouth and Columbia one each. If you noticed that that adds up to eight, it's because the most recent playoff, in 2002, came after a three-way tie between Princeton, Penn and Yale.

If you're expecting a great, down-to-the-wire game Saturday, you might not get one, if the past is an indication.

There have been eight Ivy League men's basketball playoff games all-time, beginning with Princeton-Dartmouth in 1959. That year, the teams were both 10-0 in the league and then, in a weird bit of scheduling, played a game Saturday and then again the following Friday, as each team won once. They won out from there, going 13-1, and then Dartmouth beat Princeton 69-68 on Rudy LaRusso's buzzer-beater.

In 1980, Penn beat Princeton 50-49 in the only other playoff game to be decided by a point.

Of the remaining six games, five were decided by at least 12 points (Princeton over Yale in 1963). The others in that group: Columbia by 18 over Princeton in 1968, Princeton by 14 over Penn in 1981, Yale over Princeton by 16 in 2002 and then Penn by 19 over Yale that same year.

The remaining game? Well, that was the classic of all classics, Princeton's 63-56 overtime win over Penn in the 1996 game at Lehigh. As every Princeton fan knows, that was the night that Princeton finally beat Penn after losing eight straight, including one by 14 four days earlier at the Palestra, and then the night that Pete Carril announced the end of his 29-year coaching career at Princeton.

Princeton then beat UCLA in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

The main man that night for Princeton was Sydney Johnson, who made every big play in the overtime (none bigger than his corner three to beat the shot clock with just under a minute to play). Johnson will be New Haven Saturday, this time as the Tigers' head coach. In fact, Johnson will attempt to become the first person to win an Ivy playoff game as both a player and head coach.

Both Princeton and Harvard took great pride - rightfully so - in earning their share of the league championship. For Harvard, it was the first one ever.

For Princeton, it was the 26th, and first since 2004. Johnson has already coached his team to a 24-6 record in just his fourth season, a career that began when his team went 6-23 three years ago.

And hey, it's possible that the loser of the playoff game Saturday could end up in the NIT and make a real run, while the winner of the playoff gets bounced quickly in the NCAA tournament.

But it's also possible that Saturday's winner does something magical next week, something akin to Princeton in 1996 or Cornell a year ago, something that people will talk about reverently forever.


CAZ said...

Good luck and GO TIGGERS!

Anonymous said...

Why are we the designated home team for the playoff? Because we didn't commit an NCAA violation to recruit our best player?

Princeton OAC said...

Princeton was the designated home team because it swept Yale, the third-place Ivy team, and Harvard split with Yale. This is a common tiebreaker used in most Ivy sport and in many conferences.

Anonymous said...

"TigerBlog was sort watching the game in his office, with the TV behind him, so he as only paying attention".