Friday, February 17, 2017

98 vs. Now, And The Rest Of The Coming Weekend

TigerBlog was broadcasting the Princeton-Cornell men's basketball game on the radio with Patrick McCarthy last Friday night when he remarked about the members of the Princeton team of 1998 who were at the game.

Gabe Lewullis. Darren Hite. Sean Gregory. Mike McDonnell.

It wasn't surprising. The two head coaches in the game, after all, were also members of that team, Mitch Henderson from Princeton and Brian Earl from Cornell.

The 1997-98 Princeton men's basketball team went 27-2 overall and 14-0 in the Ivy League. By season's end, the Tigers were ranked in the top 10 nationally - seventh, actually.

Come NCAA tournament time, Princeton was a fifth seed. The first round matched Princeton and UNLV, and then Runnin' Rebels coach Bill Bayno sat next to TigerBlog at the pre-tournament meeting the day before. When TB introduced himself and said where he was from, Bayno didn't flinch and said "nice to meet you. We have no chance of beating you."

As it turned out, Bayno was right. Princeton won 69-57, behind 21 from Earl and 19 from Henderson. Two days later, that magical season ended with a tough 63-56 to a Michigan State team that two years later would win the NCAA title. Princeton and Michigan State were tied in the final minute before Mateen Cleaves untied it with a long three-pointer that TB can still, sadly, see splashing through the net.

By the way, both Henderson and Earl played all 40 minutes of both of those NCAA games.

Anyway, part of the conversation TigerBlog had with Patrick - who was around three or so back in 1998 - involved what would have happened if that Princeton team, in its prime, played the current Princeton team. These Tigers are 15-6 and 8-0 in the league headed into this weekend's huge trip to Yale and Brown.

TigerBlog asked Mitch the same question yesterday, and Mitch said that TB wasn't the first person to ask him. So what's the answer?

Well, obviously there isn't one. The 1997-98 team was a great one, obviously, one that shot 50 percent from the field and from three-point range. Its center, Steve Goodrich, played in the NBA.

This team isn't ranked nationally, let alone ranked in the top 10. But it's a different world. For starters, would the 1998 team get all the same great shots it got with a 30-second clock? Would that team have been able to slow down this team, which plays at a much faster tempo.

The current team routinely shoots transition three-pointers off a fast break less than 10 seconds into the shot clock. The 1998 team almost never did that.

It's one of those unanswerable questions that people love to debate in sports. For TB, the real answer is this: the fact that it's debatable at all shows you how much better Ivy League men's basketball has gotten across the board since 1998.

That team, by the way, is one of the special teams in Princeton history, certainly in the last 30 years, since TB has been around here. 

The current team is part of a year unlike any other in Ivy history, and that is because of the advent of the Ivy League tournament. Princeton is two games up on both 6-2 Harvard and Yale and four games up on fourth place Columbia.

There's a four-way tie at 2-6 for fifth place. It's possible Princeton has already clinched a spot in the Ivy tournament field, as the best any of the fifth place teams can do is tie Princeton, and Princeton may already have the edge on all of them in the tiebreakers. Even if it hasn't clinched a spot already, it would do by winning any of its remaining six games or by having none of the four fifth-place teams go 6-0 the rest of the way.

Princeton has its sights set higher, though. Goal No. 1 is the championship, which goes to the regular-season winner. Goal No. 2 is the NCAA tournament, which goes to the tournament winner.

On the women's side, Princeton sits in third place at 5-2, just behind 6-2 Harvard. Penn is 7-0. The fourth place team is Brown at 5-3; fifth place would be Cornell at 3-5.

Princeton still has a game with Penn and would love to play for a championship on the final night of the regular-season at the Palestra, which is also the site for the tournament. Presumably, though, there would be a big advantage to finishing second or third, and that would be avoiding Penn on its home court in the opening round.

This is also a rare weekend for Princeton basketball in that both teams are on the road, at Yale tonight and Brown tomorrow. Why? Because final exams scheduling meant that both teams were home with Yale and Brown the first time around, back in January. TigerBlog isn't sure this has ever happened before.

There are still three weekends of Ivy basketball left. The hockey seasons are closer to the finish line.

So here's your women's hockey question: would you rather be a point ahead in the race for home ice in the playoffs heading into the final weekend but have to play the top two teams or a point behind (with the tiebreaker in your favor) but playing two teams below you in the standings?

The top four teams will host best-of-three playoffs next weekend. Right now, Colgate has 27 points and is in fourth place. Princeton has 26 and is in fifth. Quinnipiac has 25 and is in sixth. All three are home this weekend, which is the last of the regular season.

Colgate, though, has to play Clarkson and St. Lawrence, who are in first and second. Princeton and Quinnipiac both host RPI, who is in eighth place (three points up on Harvard for the last playoff spot), and Union, who is in last.

Princeton has the tiebreaker over both Colgate and Quinnipiac, should it come to that. What does it mean? Princeton would get fourth place and home ice unless Colgate gets more points out of the weekend than Princeton does or unless Quinnipiac gets two more points out of the weekend than Princeton does.

As for the men, all 12 teams make the playoffs. Princeton is in eighth with two weekends to go, and the Tigers are 11-5-2 in their last 18 games after an 0-6-1 start to the year. Princeton is clearly in the turnaround stage for the program, and hosting a playoff series this year would mean the Tigers are way ahead of schedule.

Ron Fogarty, the Princeton head coach, said something interesting yesterday. It took them 800 days to win nine games (in his first two-plus years) and now 76 days to win 11 more. That's pretty cool.

There's a lot of other stuff in Princeton sports this weekend. There are 23 events in all. The full schedule is HERE.

The Ivy League women's swimming and diving championships conclude at Brown. Men's squash is in the national team championships.

Hmmm. Is there anything else?

Oh yeah. It's opening day for lacrosse tomorrow, with Princeton women against Temple at noon and the men against NJIT at 3.

And the weather is supposed to be great.

Back at the question of the 1998 team against the current one, TigerBlog thinks there'd be too much Goodrich in the middle, too many made shots - and two guys who would be like head coaches on the court.

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