Monday, March 13, 2017

Sixteen And Oh

TigerBlog stood in Section 209, looked down at the celebration in front of him and couldn't help but smile.

It was a sea of orange on the Palestra floor in front of him. The net was being cut down. It was a party unlike any other in the history of Ivy League basketball, being celebrated by a team that had been asked to do something that no other team ever had to face.

It can be summed up simply.

Sixteen and oh.

Are the 2017 Princeton Tigers the best team in the history of Ivy League basketball? Probably not. Can they put their toughness up there with any team that has ever played basketball in this league? Yes.

Maybe another team will put up another 16-0 run someday. Hey, maybe it'll happen next year.

The 2017 Princeton men, though, will always be the first.

This was Year 1 of the Ivy League basketball tournaments. It was Year 1 of knowing that, unlike in every year that came before it, the 14-game regular season would not be the ticket to the NCAA tournament. No matter what a team did from January through early March, it would have to win two games in 24 hours at the Palestra to get the league's automatic NCAA bid.

It was going to be especially hard for the Tigers, who had to first beat a surging Penn team on Penn's fabled home court. Then it had to come back the next day and beat the defending league champ, who was coming off a win over its own biggest rival and who, in fairness, was also playing on less than 24 hours rest.

This wasn't easy.

Princeton first beat Penn 72-64 in overtime Saturday. Then it came back to beat Yale 71-59 yesterday. Those scores don't tell the story at all of what it took to pull this off.

Between the two games, Princeton would trail for just about 50 full minutes. It wouldn't be until late in the first half yesterday that Princeton would have a possession in regulation in which it had the lead and the ball.

Princeton was pushed hard Saturday in what was unquestionably the best of the six games that TB saw at his alma mater this weekend. Penn led almost all the way, and it took incredible team desire - and some good fortune - to get that game to overtime.

Yale looked like a confident, hungry, determined team for most of the first half and threatened to sprint away. Princeton, again, dug in. When it got to intermission, the Tigers led 31-29.

Would it be another down-to-the-wire, possession-by-possession stress-fest? For some reason, this didn't seem like a game that was destined for that. Not to TB anyway.

TigerBlog was on the radio with Derek Jones at halftime, in the unfamiliar role of guest, rather than interviewer. It was fun, and TB was happy to sit in for Noah Savage for a few minutes at the break.

What did TB see for the second half, Derek asked him?

One team will take control, TigerBlog said. He added that he'd be surprised if the final margin was closer than 10, one way or another.

As he said last week, he's been right a lot lately. And he was right again. Princeton clicked in the second half, and, finally, built the lead to double figures after seven minutes of the second half.

There would be no hairy moments down the stretch for this one, only the build-up to the celebration, one that allowed a team that clinched at least a tie for the Ivy title 15 days earlier and the outright title nine days earlier to know for sure that it was heading to the NCAA tournament.

As the Tigers would find out a few hours later, that would mean a trip to Buffalo to take on Notre Dame out of the ACC Thursday.

Before looking ahead to that, though, let TigerBlog make a few other points.

* first, the tournament was a celebration of the wondrous talent that is sophomore Myles Stephens, whose basketball resume this week swelled to include all of these: first-team All-Ivy League, Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year and now the first-ever Ivy League tournament Most Valuable Player. As he took his turn to cut down the net, the crowd on the court chanted "MVP, MVP." Stephens had 21 points against Penn and then 23 more against Yale, but it's not how many he had, it's how unstoppable he was when Princeton needed him to be and how he did all this within the normal flow of the game.

* if you need someone to make a foul shot for you, have Devin Cannady take it for you. Cannady, also a sophomore, went 14 for 14 from the foul line in the tournament, with all of those foul shots either late in the second half or in OT. Princeton does a great job of getting the ball to Cannady when the other team is in foul mode.

* to TigerBlog, the concept of "team leadership" can be overstated. Usually teams with the best players do the best. This Princeton team, though, clearly has great leadership, especially from Spencer Weisz and Stephen Cook.

* and then there's the head coach, Mitch Henderson. If TigerBlog is correct, he's now the third person to win an Ivy League championship as both a player and a head coach, along with his former Princeton teammate Sydney Johnson and Penn's Craig Littlepage (let him know if he's leaving anyone out; Butch van Breda Kolff doesn't count, because the Ivy League hadn't been formed yet). Going one better than that, Henderson is the only person who can say he's played for and been the head coach of an Ivy League team that went 14-0 in the regular season. Henderson and TigerBlog go back to Henderson's earliest days at Princeton, back when he was a kid from Indiana who was always upbeat and seemingly a little shy - and yet with a burning competitive desire that was obvious from Day 1 as a player and which still is just as obvious today. In many ways, he reminds TB of Bill Carmody, for whom he played at Princeton for his final two seasons and with whom he spent a decade coaching at Northwestern before coming to Princeton. As TB listened to Henderson talk to his team in the locker room after both games this weekend, he couldn't help but think of Carmody, who probably would have said most of what Henderson was saying. This championship is a tribute to the players, of course, but Henderson has had to guide his team through a gauntlet that no other coach has ever had to, with the regular season and the tournament. He had to have his team ready to go all season to get to 14-0 and then he had to have the ready to win the make-or-break games in the Ivy tournament to get to the real prize, the NCAAs. And he had to do this with no precedent. That he succeeded is obvious.

And that's it for the first Ivy tournament.

There are those who loved and those who never wanted it. To the loved it crowd, they can point out that half the league got to participate in a postseason format and that the two regular season champs - Princeton's men, Penn's women, who also were the preseason favorites - are going to the NCAA tourament.

The anti-crowd can point out that Princeton's men and Penn's women are going to the tournament, so what was the point of having a league tournament.

This debate can go on and on, and that's fine. TigerBlog can tell you that, whatever your take, there's no denying that the tournament format was new, fresh and exciting.

It was also a different hurdle, one that no league champ has ever been asked to clear before.

Princeton's men? The 2017 Princeton men went 16-0.

Sixteen and oh.

It sounds pretty good, right?

1 comment:

Tiger Fan said...

While watching the game on TV with the sound off, I was listening to Derek Jones and Noah Savage on WPRB. You halftime interview was, to say the least, spot on. It's always a pleasure to read you blog, to which I look forward each morning. David Bennet h'30