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.