Friday, January 10, 2014

Tipping Off In West Philadelphia

If you've ever been in the Palestra when it's basically empty, you can understand why it gets so loud when it has people in it.

It's such a small, confined space that the noise has nowhere to go. If you walk in on, say, a practice or shootaround where there are only a handful of people in the gym and only one or two who are speaking, even then it seems to be way louder than it really is.

TigerBlog knows a lot of people who think the building on 33rd Street in West Philadelphia is, to put it mildly, a dump. Certainly the building is old, and almost all of the seats are hard wooden benches.

Still, there is something really special about the place. Or maybe it's just the rivalry itself that makes it special?

You know the rivalry. Princeton vs. Penn, who meet for the 229th time in men's basketball tomorrow at the Palestra. The teams first played on Feb. 14, 1903, and have now played each other at least twice a year every year since.

Anytime TigerBlog walks into the Palestra through the front entrance and in through the first portal, he takes a quick look over his right shoulder, a few rows up from where he is standing.

It was there that he first sat for his first game ever at the Palestra, where he saw for the first time in his life a men's basketball game between Princeton and Penn.

Back then he was a Penn freshman, sitting in the overflow student section.

Fast forwarding more than 30 years, he has seen Princeton and Penn play men's basketball more than he's seen any two teams play any sport on any level. If he's remembering correctly, he's seen the two play each other at least 50 times, in the capacity of a student, broadcaster (and for that matter, student-broadcaster), alum of one school, employee of the other, neutral newspaper writer, athletic communications contact.

Almost all of the games he's seen Princeton and Penn play have had a direct effect on the Ivy League championship. And he came to the rivalry during the middle point of an extraordinary, unprecedented time.

And a time that probably will never be repeated.

Yale won the 1962 Ivy League men's basketball championship. Princeton and Yale tied for the title in 1963, and Princeton won the playoff to advance to the NCAA tournament. That, by the way, was Bill Bradley's sophomore year with the Tigers and Butch van Breda Kolff's first year as head coach.

Beginning in 1963 and going for the next 45 years, Princeton or Penn was the Ivy League's representative in the NCAA tournament 42 times, with only Columbia in 1968, Brown in 1986 and Cornell in 1988 as non-P NCAA qualifiers.

In fact, given that Princeton or Penn lost a playoff in five of those seasons, it's accurate to say that Princeton and Penn combined to win 47 Ivy League championships in 45 years.

Of course, it wasn't always just Princeton and Penn in those years. In fact, in the 42 seasons that Princeton or Penn went to the NCAA tournament from 1963 through 2007, the other finished in second place 19 times, while one of the other six schools did so the other 23.

That makes the fact that either Princeton or Penn won the league even more impressive, in that one had to leapfrog a few other schools to get back to the top.

There were times when it seemed like the shared domination of Ivy championships couldn't last. Penn won six straight from 1970-75, and in fact Pete Carril went to only one NCAA tournament in his first eight seasons at Princeton (in 1969), though he did get to two NITs, winning it in 1975.

Then there were the mid-1980s.

Princeton won in 1984 and defeated San Diego in the opening round before losing to UNLV.

Penn won in 1985 and lost by a respectable 12 to a Memphis State team that was the only non-Big East team to reach the Final Four along with St. John's, Georgetown and one of the great Cinderella champions ever, Villanova.

That was followed by Brown, Penn and then Cornell, who lost their NCAA games by a combined 120 points, or an average of 40.0 per game. As you know, this led to talk of taking away bids from league's like the Ivy League, and as you know, 25 years ago this coming St. Patrick's Day, Princeton ended all that talk with its 50-49 loss to No. 1 Georgetown.

Cornell won three straight Ivy titles from 2008-10. Princeton returned to the NCAAs in 2011; Harvard has been there the last two years.

This year? Well, tomorrow is the start of the Ivy League season, but it's clear that Harvard is again the favorite and that Princeton is the most likely challenger.

Penn? The Quakers have only two wins to date, but don't sell them short on their home court in their Ivy opener tomorrow.

The old building won't be packed like it used to be, like it was the first night that TB was there all those years ago. It'll still be a formidable place to play.

And it'll still be Princeton and Penn.

It's one of the most special rivalries in the history of men's college basketball.

And it always will be.

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