Thursday, March 19, 2020

1998 vs. 2020

The Princeton women's basketball team finished 17th in the final coaches' poll and 22nd in the final media poll.

Does this confirm that coaches are much smarter than media members?

Back in 1998, as the Princeton men's basketball team was climbing up the national rankings, TigerBlog would write each week on where the Tigers were in each poll and would have the heading "what do the coaches know" or "what do the media know" depending on where they were higher.

Also, during the first semester exam break, Princeton went from somewhere along the lines of ranked 17th to 10th or so without ever playing. TB wrote this: "If we never play again, we'll end up No. 1."

Those Tigers didn't quite reach No. 1. The highest they got was No. 8 in the final AP poll of the season, which left them sandwiched between No. 7 Kentucky and No. 9 Utah, who played that year in the NCAA championship game.

That was an incredible year to be the basketball contact for a team, as TB was back then. He saw all 29 games the team would play that year, beginning with wins over Texas and North Carolina State in a preseason tournament at what was then a very beautiful and vibrant Meadowlands Arena and ending in at the Hartford Civic Center with a second-round NCAA loss to Michigan State, a team that would bring four of its players from that day back as starters two years later when it won the national championship.

The 1998 men's team and 2020 women's team had something in common - their record in the regular season. Princeton's men that year, and Princeton's women this year, went 26-1.

If you recall, the lone loss by the Princeton men that year was to North Carolina, in December. The Tar Heels moved into the No. 1 spot in the national rankings after that game.

The women this year lost only to Iowa, a team that is 23rd in the coaches' poll this week and also 21st in the media poll, which would be one spot ahead of the Tigers in that one.

TigerBlog was trying to think if there are a lot of similarities between the teams beyond their record. They both played very challenging non-league schedules. Both teams led Division I in scoring defense, something TB did not remember about the 1998 men's team, which allowed just 51.6 points per game (the current women allowed 47.6).

As he thinks back to that team, his memory is of what a fluid offensive team it was. Having done a podcast with Carla Berube all year and having followed the current Princeton women's team as closely as he did, he thinks first of their defensive mentality.

The Tigers in 1997-98 shot nearly 50 percent as a team the field (49.8 percent for the year), which is extraordinary, especially considering that 49.5 percent of the shots that team took where three-pointers.

In fact, Princeton shot better than 60 percent as a team on two-point shots that year. In the days preceding any serious analytics, TB's memory is that the majority of those shots were either layups, low post moves, or sadly as in the case of that loss to Michigan State, a foot on the line on a three-pointer.

The 2019-20 women actually averaged nearly five points per game more than the 1997-98 men (71.2-66.5).

The Ivy League Player of the Year in men's basketball in 1998 was Steve Goodrich, the Tiger center who would go on to play in the NBA. The Ivy Player of the Year this year in women's basketball was Bella Alarie, who isn't quite a center but she's also headed to the pro ranks, in her case the WNBA.

Goodrich shot 66 percent on two-point shots that season. 

Both of them, despite being dominant inside players, could also shoot the three-pointer. In the case of Alarie, she was 21 for 59 (.359) for the year. TB would have guessed that Goodrich would have been about the same, but he actually shot 31 for 73 (.425) that season.

There are a lot of differences between the teams. The 1998 men had five seniors, while the 2020 women had two. The men had three players average between 13 and 14.5 points, while the women had Alarie at more than 17, Carlie Littlefield at just short of 14 and nobody else over 10, for instance.

Still, they are linked by more than just their regular-season records.

You can start with the idea that they will be forever known among the greatest basketball teams the Ivy League has ever seen. 

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