The Yale Bulldogs’ terrific showing in this year’s NCAA Tournament has inspired a new national narrative. As a Wall Street Journal headline put it, “The Ivy League finally merits your respect.”
But as someone who has been following Ivy League basketball for more than forty years, the story that’s being promoted in certain circles is revisionist history that just makes me want to scream.
I am not as venerable as Toothless Tiger. I wasn’t around to enjoy the Bradley years and I know the dynamic Brian Taylor only through stories told to me by my father. But I’m certain that the Princeton teams of the mid to late 1970s that are the subject of my earliest Tiger hoops memories would have had no trouble competing with today’s Ivy leaders. Today the chattering bracketologists worship at the altar of “Top 50” wins. But back in the day, Princeton (and Penn) routinely played, and defeated, Top 10 squads.
When the Tigers won the NIT in 1975, they did so by beating teams that would have easily made today’s bloated 68-team NCAA field. South Carolina, Oregon, Providence and Holy Cross were no “bubble” teams. The first three were all ranked in the AP Top 20 that year and the Crusaders were similarly ranked just a few years later. Did you find it thrilling that two Ivy teams were in the RPI Top 50 the last couple of years? Well during the 1974-75 season, Princeton and Penn were ranked as high as No. 12 and No. 9, respectively, in the AP poll!
The following year the Tigers took down No. 8 Alabama and nipped No. 9 St. John’s. The 1975-76 season would end in heartbreak at the Providence Civic Center (an unlucky 13 years before another heartbreak in the same building.) With two seconds remaining and Princeton down one to undefeated and No. 3 Rutgers, Peter Molloy missed the front end of a one-and-one. I was 12 and cried like a baby. Rutgers would cruise all the way to the Final Four that year. (If tournament teams had been seeded back then, the two nationally prominent New Jersey squads would have never been pitted against one another in the first round.)
The Tigers won their first NCAA game within my years of consciousness a few years later, during my freshman year at Old Nassau. Were you amazed by No. 12 Yale’s defeat of No. 5 seed and AP No. 21 Baylor from the Big 12 this year? Well in 1983, No. 12 Princeton defeated No. 5 seeded and AP No. 19 Oklahoma State of the Big 8 in an NCAA first-round game.
To those for whom awareness of Ivy League basketball began when Tommy Amaker rolled into Cambridge, stories of the ‘60s, ‘70s and early ‘80s may conjure up images of lads in wool jerseys tossing hand-stitched balls at peach crates.
But you don’t have to go back that far to remember another era when Ivy teams were winning postseason games. Between 1994 and 1998, Princeton and Penn won three of the teams’ five first-round NCAA tournament games, a fact that is perhaps lost on those awed by Cornell, Harvard and Yale’s more recent success.
Between 1996 and 2000, the Tigers made five straight postseason excursions, winning two games in the NCAA tournament and another two in the NIT, just missing appearances in those tournaments’ “Sweet 16” and semifinals. The Tigers won 114 games over those five seasons, taking down a bunch of power conference teams along the way — Texas (twice) and N.C. State (twice), Florida State, Georgetown, Wake Forest, Rutgers (four times) and, famously, the Wizards of Westwood. They also beat a veritable alphabet soup of teams just a notch below the national powers — TCU, UAB, UNC Charlotte, UNLV and UTEP.
Don’t get me wrong. I am thrilled by the Ivies’ recent hoops success and I enthusiastically jumped on the #2BidIvy bandwagon, tweeting like a maniac with a new toy at the bracketologists to demand respect for our league.
But the fact is that Ivy teams have been playing high-level basketball for a very long time. It’s just not accurate to suggest that today’s Ivies are vastly superior to their predecessors.