Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Road To Bridgeport

TigerBlog was in the parking lot last night when women's basketball coach Courtney Banghart and assistant coach Melanie Moore walked by.

They were on their way to Triumph (a proud sponsor of Princeton Athletics; TigerBlog can't recommend the burgers highly enough), where the women's basketball team was to gather to watch the NCAA selection show.

For a coach whose team has clinched the championship of a one-bid league, there is no moment quite like this. You have speculated to no end about your seed, your opponent, your venue - and yet you're helpless, because you have absolutely no control over the final outcome.

A committee has decided it for you, and it's there on a board on a TV network, waiting to be unveiled.

TB has always been amazed by how many people think that the schools know in advance what the outcome is.

There are many times when the participants in something are aware of it before it is made public, and the key then is to have everyone keep it quiet.

Here, for an NCAA tournament draw, that is not the case. Nobody knows. It's all speculation until everyone finds out together.

Oh, and the bracketologists? TB is amazed by how much people buy into what they say, since 1) they change their brackets every five seconds, 2) their brackets mean little and 3) pretty much any nerdy seventh grader can figure out at least 65 or so of the men's teams simply with an active internet connection.

Anyway, the uncertainty of it all is why the excitement is so palpable.

Look at Princeton in 1996, when the Tigers got matched with UCLA in what became an epic tournament classic. What if the committee had tweaked the final lines just a little? History could have been much different.

And of course, when your team is announced, the higher the seed the better, right?

In reality, it's more about matchups than seeds.

Go back to 1996. Princeton was the No. 13 seed. Virginia Commonwealth was the No. 12. UCLA was No. 4; Mississippi State was No. 5.

Except Mississippi State demolished Princeton in the second round on the way to the Final Four. Would Princeton have preferred on Selection Sunday to be a 12 instead of a 13? Probably. Would history remember that tournament the way it does? Probably not.

And so all of this brings us back to Banghart, Moore and the Tigers.

Let's start out with some thoughts about Princeton.

The Tigers are now 41-1 in the Ivy League the last three years.

They are the first Ivy League team ever to be ranked in the Top 25 by either the coaches or media in women's basketball.

They are the only team in Division I - men or women - to go undefeated in its league and win all of its games by double figures.

They are 24-4, and all four losses are to NCAA tournament teams.

They are making their third-straight NCAA tournament appearance for a program that had never played in the NCAAs before that.

Their seeds the last three years are 11, 12 and now 9, which are the three best in Ivy history.

Looking at the resume, it's so easy to forget that Banghart went 7-23 her first year, that she had to convince the current senior class - Lauren Edwards, Devona Allgood, Laura Johnson - to put their faith in a then-28-or-so-year-old coach who had yet to coach her first game.

And now?

Ninth-seeded Princeton heads to Bridgeport to take on No. 8 Kansas State Saturday at 11:20. Looming for the winner will be UConn (assuming a win over Prairie View), the beast of the sport.

Your best case scenario for Princeton? A win over K-State and reaching the 10-minute mark of the second half against UConn being in the game.

Only once has the Ivy League representative won an NCAA women's basketball game, and that was in 1998, when 16th seeded Harvard defeated No. 1 Stanford - albeit after Stanford lost two starters to injuries just before the game.

Princeton's women's basketball team has had the best three-year run in league history and has accomplished things that no other league team has ever done before.

The case can already be made that this is the greatest team in Ivy women's basketball history.

Niveen Rasheed, the unanimous Ivy League Player of the Year, has already established herself as one of the three greatest players in league history, along with Harvard's Allison Feaster (1998?) and Penn's Diana Caramanico (2002?).

A win over K-State would enhance Princeton's status as the greatest Ivy team ever. After two previous NCAA experiences where Princeton was playing catch-up throughout, here is a genuine opportunity against a team with a strong pedigree - but with some head-to-head results against teams like Hofstra, Marist and Dartmouth that suggest that while nothing is going to be easy, Princeton might match up well here.

The euphoria of the selection party has now faded in the name of getting to work.

For teams from one-bid leagues who know they have almost no chance to win their game, the next few days of preparation, travel and on-site activity will be all the fun.

For the Princeton women, the excitement level goes way up at tip-off.

No comments: