Friday, January 24, 2014

Princeton Vs. Kean

TigerBlog covered more than his share of Division III athletics while in the newspaper business.

Most of it involved the College of New Jersey, which was known as Trenton State College when TB was writing about the school. Its basketball facility is called Packer Hall, and TB spent a lot of nights there when it was jammed with people, watching the Lions take on rivals like Stockton State, Glassboro State or Jersey City State, all of which have different names now, by the way.

TB would go on the road as well, also to small, packed buildings (with rabid fans), watching incredibly intense basketball games throughout the state, as he covered TSC (or TCNJ) in the New Jersey Athletic Conference.

It wasn't always pretty. It was always competitive.

It was a great contrast for TB, who would cover Division III games during the week and then Princeton games on the weekend. He would also mix in some midweek Rider games, mostly on the road, because Harvey Yavener didn't want to travel that much. Rider home games were usually off-limits, because that was strictly Yav's domain.

The Division III teams were filled with guys who were 6' 2" forwards or 6' 5" centers who scored tons of points in high school but whose bodies didn't translate to the Division I level.

What they were able to do was continue to score in college. It's the same on the lower Division I level, where players who put up huge numbers in high school are hugely successful, even if they're a few inches too short for the ACC or Big East.

TB has always loved to see those kinds of players, because they play with a chip on their shoulders as well. Why? Because they have the skill but never got the big-time opportunity, and they want to prove people wrong every time out.

Nights in the NJAC were filled with guys like that.

As TB became more immersed in covering Princeton and eventually working at Princeton, the annual Division III men's basketball game was always an interesting one for him.

Princeton used to return from first semester exams with games against Division I schools, often Davidson or DePaul, though also St. John's or Colgate. It was in the 1985-86 season that Princeton hosted Franklin & Marshall, a Division III power, to start the familiar tradition of playing a DIII opponent post-exams.

The point is obvious.

Princeton hasn't played in two weeks because of exams. It's jumping back into the Ivy League schedule for real the following weekend.

A Division III opponent gives Princeton the chance to get back into its game routine, get its starters a chance to get the rust off, usually get everyone in the game and then head back into its practice routine.

It's hard to get Division I opponents at this time of year, especially at home. Usually the Division III game is sloppy for the first five minutes while Princeton gets its legs back and then eventually becomes a blowout.

The Tigers have played a Division II or III opponent in its return from exams every year since that F&M game except for 2006 (Davidson), 2007 (Seton Hall) and 2012 (nobody). Princeton is 25-0 in those games (its loss to Carnegie Mellon in 2005 was in December).

The closest of those 25 games has been nine points, in Princeton's 59-50 win over TCNJ in the 1997-98 season. That was by far the most entertaining of these games, as a big crowd (4,320) came to see a 14-1 Lions team take on a 13-1 Princeton team, one that was on its way to the Division I Top 10 and was pretty close at the time, as the Tigers were ranked 11th prior to that game. Princeton had actually been ranked 15th heading into exam break and moved up four spots in two weeks without playing.

TCNJ didn't flinch at all in that one, and with a huge student turnout, kept it close throughout. In fact, that game would be closer than 13 of Princeton's 14 Ivy games.

TB also remembers the night 21 years ago tomorrow when Washington & Jefferson's Mark Johnson lit up Jadwin for 28 points, nearly half his team's total in an 82-60 Tiger win. When Johnson came out of the game near the end, the Jadwin crowd gave him one of the biggest ovations TB can remember.

This year's DIII game is Sunday afternoon, when Kean (an NJAC opponent) comes to Jadwin. If history is an indication, Princeton will win by a fairly comfortable margin.

But anything is possible. For Kean, it's a chance to play a Division I opponent in a Division I arena, something that none of those players may get again in their college careers. Like all of the DIII teams that have come to Jadwin, Kean is going to want to make the most of it.

After that, Princeton is at Harvard a week from tonight. Harvard, which lost to Florida Atlantic this week, is at Dartmouth Sunday at 4 before hosting Princeton and Penn next weekend. Princeton is 0-1 in the league, having lost to Penn in its opener.

It figures to be a wildly intense scene in Cambridge seven nights from now, when Princeton is in town.

Princeton vs. Kean is the first step back.

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