Craving Madness, if not the Ivy kind

It’s back. That deliciously dizzy feeling that madness is coming. As a rabid Princeton basketball fan of a certain age, I got used to this feeling years ago when the Tigers charged into the NCAA Tournament with regularity. Twice in the late ‘70s, four times in the ‘80s, six times in the ‘90s, and twice in the early 2000s, the orange and black danced “bigly,” as a certain Penn graduate might say.

I’ve been fortunate to see the Tigers play in the tournament nine times and have many (mostly) great memories from those excursions. (I’ll be forever repaying my wife for an utterly irresponsible — and not very sober — trip to New Orleans one year, however. She did not appreciate being left home alone with our three-week old son and three-year old daughter while I traveled to the Big Easy.)

It’s been six long years since the near-upset of Kentucky in Princeton’s last trip to the tournament, which was followed by a wild night in Tampa spent accepting free drinks from fans of the Wildcats and other “power conference” schools who were impressed by the Tigers’ fight that day. That adventure came seven long years after the team’s previous journey in the tournament. (That year in Denver, the Tigers took a five-point lead over Texas into the second half before succumbing.) With only one NCAA appearance in 13 years, the Tigers are past due to return.

In the 1980s and 1990s, there was a real mystique around Princeton basketball that was celebrated by basketball fans far and wide (even as it was despised by our friends to the south). I’ll never forget an encounter in Winston-Salem with a woman in her 80s whose Carolina blue hair was done up perfectly to match the color of her UNC sweatshirt. “Your boys can really shoot that rock!” she shouted emphatically at me after watching the Tigers at the public “shoot around” the day before the first round. “I’ll be rootin’ for y’all!” she promised before the Tigers’ match against Cal — yet another last-second defeat.

As the Tigers have moved smartly through the league this year, these glorious memories have come streaming back. Lately, I find myself checking the RPI ratings each morning — a habit I got into while following the phenomenal 1997-98 Tiger season. The Tigers climbed to No. 7 in the AP poll that year but it was their RPI rating in the teens that earned them a No. 5 seed. (After dominating a very good UNLV team in the first round, the Tigers ran into a hot Michigan State team that ended the dream season.)

Now, one can really obsess over the metric by following Jerry Palm’s daily “Palm Reader,” which helpfully tells you which teams need to win their games that day for your team to rise in the RPI.

A younger generation of Ivy hoops fans now looks down their crimson noses at the RPI in favor of the “advanced analytics” peddled by their piper Ken Pomeroy. But with the infamous “bracketologists” continuing to follow slavishly the RPI as the basis for their prognostications, I’m keeping my eye on the RPI, where the Tigers currently sit in the low 50s.

Of course, the new Ivy League end-of-season tournament has me and other Tiger hoops fans shaking our fists and cursing the skies. With the Tigers sitting atop the league standings at a gaudy 10-0, the timing of this abomination’s inaugural is perfectly awful.

The back-and-forth arguments about the new tournament between the traditionalists and the more “contemporary” fans on the Ivy basketball forum pages has grown tedious, but I’ll throw in my two cents here.

I’ll be blunt. I hate it. In my mind, the winner of the grueling “14-game tournament” deserves the NCAA nod. And holding the thing at the dreaded Palestra instead of the league champion’s home court is frankly an outrage. As much as I would enjoy watching the Tigers best the hated Red and Blue three times in one season, if Penn sneaks into the tournament as its fourth seed and thereby enjoys home court advantage, the event will be transformed from festival to farce. Outrage on stilts.

Moreover, the postseason gimmick threatens to undermine the Ivy’s chances in the NCAA Tournament. Based on those widely denigrated but still widely followed RPI ratings, the bracketologists currently have the Tigers pegged as a No. 13 seed, with a good chance to climb to a No. 12 or even a No. 11 seed if they win out.

If one of the other Ivies manages to pull an upset and win the league tournament, they’d most likely wind up a No. 16 seed, based on their current RPI ratings. Yale (RPI 138), Harvard (142), Penn (185), and Columbia (255) all trail well behind the RPIs of the currently projected No. 15 seeds, which range from 84 to 104. Since the NCAA Tournament was increased to 64 teams in the mid-1980s, No. 12 seeds have won 46 first round games and No. 13 seeds have pulled off first round upsets 26 times. As Tiger fans know all too well, no No. 16 seed has ever won a game.

But I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself. For the next two weekends, I’ll just enjoy the thrill of the Ivy League title race. The old-school kind.

17 thoughts on “Craving Madness, if not the Ivy kind

  1. I would not as it is still not a sentence, nonetheless i see your point.

    As for the retraction, no I am not prepared. I am prepared however for yet another Mitch “I really look good for most of the Ivy Season” Henderson meltdown. I do believe your Tigers are the best team this year, but they are not a lock to make it to the NCAA Tournament.

    Prepare yourself…..

    The AQ

  2. Mitch has done the best coaching of his career this season. The $&!?#% tournament will be a challenge but I think the Tigers’ experience and defensive intensity will carry them through.

  3. To our Tiger friends,

    I think that Henderson has done a very good, consistent job in his six years there, especially because I believe he is working under much more restrictive academic requirements than Amaker is. But the one thing Henderson has yet to show he can do is close out a championship season. The team’s final weekend collapse in 2013 was inexplicable and, while the slip-up against Harvard last year was more understandable, it was still a loss to an opponent who had nothing to play for but pride.

    Until and unless you guys win the title, you have won nothing.

  4. In fairness to Penn and depending on one’s viewpoint, every Ivy has a cross or two to bear. Many of us are not big fans of our new president. But, I don’t hold the institutions he attended responsible for his behavior any more than I hold my own responsible for some of its other alumni that I prefer not to mention. No matter what one’s convictions we can all find a few fellow alums that fail our smell test. We may fail theirs as well. The man (or woman) is not the institution. Although it is tempting, if not fun, to tweak a friend from a rival Ivy about one of his alums whom neither of you respect, I shall certainly try to refrain from such behavior in the future!

  5. I attended many of the same NCAA games that you did, Jersey Jim. The Winston-Salem trip was particularly disappointing since the game started at noon on Thursday. For me the tournament was over in the early afternoon of the first day. California had a good player who is on his way to the NFL HOF: tight end Tony Gonzalez. Of course, we “haven’t won anything yet.” But we have played consistently well throughout the Ivy campaign with smothering defense and a different guy scoring well almost every night. Henderson has coached skillfully since he got here and he has recruited a team that values unselfishness above all else. But the talent level from top to bottom in this league is very high. Boudreax, Spieth and Matt Morgan are all-Ivy caliber players and could start for any team. The Tigers did not have an easy game with any of the 4 teams remaining on the schedule. I’ll be looking for a sweep but will not be surprised with a split. On to The Palestra!

  6. Jim from Jersey: What a fabulous reminiscence you have written! I, too, attended many of the tournament games you mentioned; however, unlike you, most of my memories are tainted by the many last second disappointments of Princeton falling when an upset seemed to be in hand. One that particularly pained me was the 2-point loss to Villanova in 1991, when Princeton led virtually the entire game and was actually the higher seed. On the other hand, all of those demons were exorcised by the legendary upset 5 years later when 13th seeded Princeton upset defending national champion UCLA in Indianapolis. Interestingly, many of the bracketologists currently predict the same matchup (#4 UCLA vs. #13 Princeton) in this year’s tournament. Of course, the Tigers will have to win the Ivy Tournament first, and I have to confess that I have a foreboding feeling about that. And it’s not even the Quakers that I fear, although they will, of course, provide a great challenge. My real concern at this point is Harvard, a team that looks to have the greatest talent in the League right now.

  7. Steve,

    Right there with you friend. My then-girlfriend and I drove to Syracuse from DC for that Nova game. Tigers were #8 seed to the Cats #9. I was sure they were going to win and salve the scars from the two prior near misses but it wasn’t to be. We stayed at the same hotel as the Tigers and after the game saw Pete walking solemnly through the lobby, dragging his jacket on the ground behind him. We drove the 6 hour trip back in complete silence. At the time, my girlfriend swore she would never go to another game again because it was just too excruciatig. Seeing her share that pain was when I knew I would marry her some day. A previous girlfriend laughed at my pain from the Tigers last minute loss to Arkansas in the tournament the previous year. Sacrilege!

    And yes, the UCLA made all the pain melt away. After that win (which I did not see in person), a classmate and I made a pact that we would go see the Tigers play whenever they made it. Haven’t missed an NCAA game since.

    Jim from Jersey

  8. Your theory that any of the other teams winning the Ivy tourny would get a 16 seed is assuming that the highest RPI team wins every other conference tourny. They won’t. Also, Yale and Harvard have recently won games in the Dance, so there’s no way they’d put them as a 16. Penn has a win over Central Fla.

  9. The Arkansas game is the one I have trouble letting go. The Tigers had it at the end and failed to box out on a Razorback missed free throw.

  10. Jim and SRP: I share your pain on both of your experiences (Arkansas and silent drives home). I also traveled to Austin for the Arkansas game and thought we genuinely would win that one. And, Jim, I too traveled with my then girlfriend (now wife) to a couple of NCAA first round games, including the Cal game at Winston-Salem. We drove part of the way, flew part of the way home in complete silence. My fault, not my wife’s. She deserves sainthood for putting up with me during those times. Funny how no sporting event has the same impact on me today. I guess having children changes your perspective on what’s important in life. That being said, Go Tigers!

  11. Agree the ivy tournament is nonsense. Conference tournaments began as another way to generate money. Now that college hoops has become big business, the ridiculous conference tournaments are here to stay. However, the ivy schools do not need money. Since they continue to play Friday Saturday to minimize lost class time and they do not give athletic scholarships, it would seem they still put education before athletics. An ivy tournament is a disgrace. It is both unnecessary and hypocritical. It is also stupid to allow anyone but the winner of the league a chance to go to the tournament. Stupid and Ivy league do not go hand in hand. Sad that the athletic directors think otherwise.

  12. One little-mentioned side effect of the %#$ tournament is that it ends the great tradition of Ivy playoff games to break ties at the end of the regular season. I have been to some good ones, not least between Penn and Princeton at ‘neutral’ sites (Lafayette, Lehigh)

  13. SRP, Steve and Toothless,
    Let’s not forget the 1976 NCAA game against the undefeated and highly ranked Rutgers team–the first heart breaker in Providence. I was a just a kid then (I am a townie who grew up on Princeton basketball and alum). Princeton down 1, with reserve guard Peter Molloy–my favorite player on the team–at the stripe for a one-and-one. Just a few seconds left. Rutgers coach Tom Young calls a time out, perhaps two, to ice the shooter. Front end hits the rim, Rutgers rebounds and time runs out. Scarlet Knights go on to the Final Four.

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