At first, there was only euphoria. Sheer, blinding, unadulterated joy. There wasn’t room for anything else. Princeton beat Harvard on Carril Court as the legendary coach watched, besweatered as always, from the raucous stands. Mitch Henderson, the man who played for Carril and now carries on his legacy, had his first signature Ivy League win. The Tigers handed the Crimson its first Ivy League loss of the season Saturday night, knocking off a Top-25 team at home for the first time since the late “70s.
Who could blame the Princeton faithful for storming the court once the final buzzer sounded? Christmas came early for Tiger fans, after an Ivy League season that at times promised little more than a lump of coal. The win over Harvard, without a doubt, represented the zenith of Princeton’s season.
One of the challenges in trying to determine how to take a basketball game is the way in which the game simultaneously exists as an isolated moment of athletic competition, artificially divorced from everything around it, and as a single node, a data point, on the larger continuum that makes up a season. As a single game, standing apart from everything else, Princeton’s win over Harvard was about as perfect as a win can be. But now that the weekend has come and gone and the overwhelming, unthinking jubilation of the upset win subsided somewhat, what are Princeton fans left with? The Tigers are now just 4-3 in Ivy League play, sitting in the bottom half of the league (fifth place) and looking up at Cornell. Herein lies the dirty little secret about what happens when Christmas comes early – it sucks to watch everyone else opening up their presents on December 25th.
Perhaps more than anything, the Harvard game showed just how schizophrenic a
year it’s been for the Tigers. Clearly this Princeton squad has talent – they’ve beaten three Top-100 teams this year, tied with Harvard for the most in the Ivy League. But they’ve also given up three bad losses to teams ranked below 200 in the Pomeroy ratings – something’s wrong here. What makes the highs so high and the lows so low for this incarnation of the Princeton squad? One possible explanation could be the return of the classic Princeton offense under Mitch Henderson and a heavy reliance on three-point shooting. The Princeton offense, with its 8% house edge or higher due to certain rule variations like 6:5 natural payouts and allowing dealers to hit on a soft 17. backdoor cuts and passing big men, arguably won the Tigers the game against Harvard, allowing them to get good looks at the basket. But Princeton also ranks in the top 20% in the country when it comes to the percentage of their shots taken behind the arc. Living and dying by the three ball lets you occasionally hang with the big boys — on nights when the shooting is hot — and that’s how Princeton nearly pulled off the early season upset against NC State. But it can also let inferior teams keep it close, and even pull off a cheap online slots win, on nights when the trey ball just isn’t falling. Obviously the reliance on the three-point shot is only one facet of Princeton’s inconsistency, but it remains a strong explanation for why they’ve been so up and down, and why, before this weekend, they had yet to win two Ivy League games in a
In the holiday season that is Ivy League play, the proverbial Red Ryder BB gun, of course, is the league title and an automatic berth to the NCAA tournament, from which Princeton has yet to be mathematically eliminated. However, even after Saturday night’s win, the Tigers would have to play perfect basketball the rest of the way, including beating Harvard in Cambridge two weeks from now. The rest of the Ivy League would have to cooperate, too – someone else would need to take a game from Harvard, and it would help if a few teams in the bottom half of the league could score an upset or two against Yale and Penn. Not impossible, but highly improbable.
But even though the larger implications of Princeton’s win can’t possibly match the joy of the isolated contest, that doesn’t mean the Tigers are doomed to wade through meaningless games, dwelling on their already-gone moment of glory. With seven games still left in the regular season, Princeton has put itself in a position to play hard for a chance at the postseason – not in the NCAA tournament, but perhaps in the NIT or CBI. After Saturday night’s win, Princeton is now 101st in the RPI, the second strongest Ivy League ranking after #37 Harvard. The Tigers have put together a decent out-of-conference resume – they’re the only team to beat Florida State in Tallahassee this year – and a strong finish to the Ivy League slate could go a long way towards helping Princeton play some late-March basketball.
Perhaps more enticingly, Princeton has the chance to play the spoiler for the top teams in the Ivy League. The Tigers will roll into Cambridge knowing that they can beat the Crimson and looking to remind the world of Harvard’s place in the historical Ivy League pecking order. And classic Ivy League basketball fans (like Dr. Quaker and Mr. Clark) now have a real season finale to look forward to, when Princeton hosts Penn at home and tries to avenge its loss earlier in the season at the Palestra.
Nothing Princeton does for the rest of the season, in all likelihood, will match their win over Harvard this past weekend. But who cares? Princeton reminded the rest of the league that the Tigers are still a force to be reckoned with. And now they’ve got seven more games to prove it.