Monday, March 14, 2011

To The Victors

As the NCAA men's basketball brackets were being announced, the drama ended quickly for Princeton and harshly for Harvard.

Hey, to the victors, as they say, even if the margin for the victors is razor, razor thin.

To say that it was an extraordinary weekend for Princeton men's basketball would be an understatement.

It began with the Ivy League playoff game to determine the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament and continued through the selection show last night. The playoff game itself has already vaulted itself into one of the Top 10 moments in the history of a program that has had more than its share of top moments.

How could it not? With an NCAA bid on the line, Princeton was playing to complete the basketball revival that Sydney Johnson with the men and Courtney Banghart with the women began when they were hired four years ago.

In Princeton's case, getting to the tournament would mean going through a Harvard team that was the brash new kid on the block, one playing to get to the tournament for the first time since 1946, a team led by a high-profile coach who came to Cambridge and has ruffled many a feather since.

TigerBlog was walking up the stairs to the balcony in Jadwin Friday when Dan Mavraides came down the other way. Mavraides scored 11 points as a freshman on a team that went 6-23, and when that season was over, his wildest dreams for his career probably didn't take him to where he was at that moment.

And yet there he was Friday afternoon, a 1,000-point scorer, team captain, member of an Ivy League co-championship team, leader of a team that more-than-reversed that freshman record to 24-6.

Still, with all that, TB couldn't help but think that Mavraides' entire career would be framed by what happened in the playoff game. It's not that a loss would have ruined it all, but TB is sure that it would have left Mavraides - and fellow seniors Kareem Maddox and Bobby Foley - with a nagging feeling that might always be there.

And that's what was at stake Saturday at about 6 p.m., after it appeared Harvard would pull away and after Princeton (with a huge contribution from Brendan Connolly) had made it a tight game and after there had already been three lead changes since the 1:01 mark, including a basket by Harvard with 11 seconds left and then finally a blocked shot, possession to Princeton, with 2.8 to play.

As an aside, somewhat stunningly, neither coach chose to call timeout during the up-and-down flow of the final minute, as both teams kept scoring. In fact, from the under-four media timeout through Princeton's timeout with 2.8 to go, there was only one called timeout by a team, which came from Princeton with 1:41 to go. As a result, the final two minutes of the game took about four minutes to play, rather than 15 or so that it normally might have.

TigerBlog has been following Princeton basketball up close for more than a quarter-century, and he knows a lot about the years before he started covering the team, going all the way back to Year 1 in 1901.

He can cite from memory career statistics of people he's never met, who died long ago. He knows what happened in games from decades ago, let alone from the games he's seen through the years.

With all that background, he can honestly say that there haven't been many moments to eclipse what happened at the end of the game Saturday.

Mavraides inbounded the ball to Douglas Davis
, who as everyone has seen everywhere by now, dribbles right, ducks back to his left and then calmly swishes a shot to ignite a massive celebration with the final score: Princeton 63, Harvard 62.

TB's first thought as he watched the celebration was "what if it didn't leave his fingers on time?" As the refs went to review it, TB couldn't help but think: "What in the world will happen if it's ruled to be no good? Would there ever have been such a reversal of competing emotions in a building split down the middle?"

Thankfully for Princeton, the shot was clearly out his hands before the clock went all zeroes, and it was Princeton who was off to the NCAA tournament.

The selection show, for Princeton fans, didn't last all that long, as the Tigers were in the first group of games shown. For Princeton, it'd be a 13 seed and a date with Kentucky in Tampa Thursday (2:45, CBS).

And Harvard? Well, TigerBlog was convinced that the Crimson would get an at-large bid, what with wins over Colorado and Boston College and an RPI of 35. And TB was more and more convinced that Harvard was in as team after team with RPIs in the 40s, 50s and even 60s got at-large bids.

But no, Harvard would not get the Ivy League's first at-large bid. Instead, the Crimson have to travel to Oklahoma State for the first round of the NIT.

Princeton has no easy task against Kentucky, and clearly the Tigers will be big underdogs. But hey, they were underdogs the last time they went into the tournament after winning an Ivy League playoff.

That was back in 1996, when Sydney Johnson was a player for the Tigers on the team that beat Penn and then UCLA in the first round of the tournament.

This time around, Johnson is the head coach, making him the first Princetonian to play in the NCAA tournament and then coach the Tigers in the tournament as well.

And how fitting is it?

More than anyone else, the Princeton basketball resurrection has been about Sydney Johnson. He came here with a last-place team and with three years experience as an assistant coach at Georgetown.

But more than anything else, he brought with him a love for Princeton basketball, a loyalty to a program that he felt obligated to restore to its glory days.

It's almost like he felt guilty, that here he had this great, championship, NCAA tournament experience at Princeton and how dare he not achieve that for the players who now were on his teams here?

And that's what drove him, drove him hard, and that's what made him so emotional after his team won Saturday.

He hadn't just won a game. He'd lived up to what he thought he owed Princeton.

It was a great weekend for Princeton basketball, especially the game Saturday.

It was a moment that, as Johnson casually said this morning, people will remember for awhile.

Even for a Princeton basketball program, one that has had more than its share of glory, this was something special.


Anonymous said...

Dei sub numine viget.

Anonymous said...

I met Sydney at Reunions just before his first season. I was impressesd by his demeanor, his thoughtfulness, and the passion you could sense under that calm exterior. After four years, all those initial impressions have been confirmed and more.

Let's hoe the eerie parallels with 1996 continue for one more game (we even have a four-seed disgruntled that wasn't placed higher that is clearly looking past us).