Everybody can take away from the inaugural Ivy League Tournament semifinals what they wish. Anti-tournament folks can point to the folly of a team that finished 6-8 in league play essentially hosting a squad that went 14-0. Pro-Palestra Ivy observers can point to what was a rollicking atmosphere with a mostly full arena during the first men’s semifinal. Pro-tournament, anti-Palestra fans can look to the dip in attendance following Penn-Princeton to make the case for a tourney at a neutral location more geographically equidistant for all the Ivies.
I didn’t like this Princeton basketball team at first. In fact, I found it infuriating. At the start of the season, these Tigers seemed to affirm my fears that the classic “Princeton System” was dead at Old Nassau.
Growing up less than two miles from Jadwin Gym, I was raised on the pure form of Princeton Basketball. My parents took me to see the Tigers win the NIT at the Garden when I was 10 and I was hooked for life. My Dad taught me to watch the players without the ball and to observe the players’ feet, not their hands. A good pass is not just one that reaches the open man, because the player needs to land the ball in a teammate’s hands in perfect position to shoot.
For Mitch Henderson, the climb to the top of the Ivy League mountain has been anything but easy.
Critics point out his teams’ surprising inability to close the sale in some past seasons and his struggles with Harvard and Yale as indications of something missing in his program. Supporters point out he is young, smart and has brought a vision for the long haul. He has developed a new culture and identity for Tiger basketball that bears his unmistakable imprint.
The Tigers’ 14-0 march through the 2016-17 Ivy schedule, making Henderson the odds-on favorite for Coach of the Year honors, tips the scales in favor of the supporters’ case.
Let’s take a closer look at what Henderson has done, particularly over the last three seasons as he put the building blocks of the current juggernaut in place.
One impressive Ivy winning streak continued this weekend, while another very consequentially ended.
Princeton upped its consecutive win total to 15, effectively clinching the No. 1 seed in the inaugural Ivy League Tournament, to be played March 11 and March 12 at the Palestra. The last four Tiger victories have been by double digits, and Princeton’s defense is shutting down opponent after opponent.
Penn, though, couldn’t escape the Empire State unscathed, suffering a crucial 70-67 defeat at Columbia that snapped both the Red and Blue’s five-game winning streak and the Lions’ five-game losing skid, keeping Columbia very much in the race for the inaugural Ivy League Tournament’s No. 4 seed.
But that race isn’t what most Ivy supporters thought it was as recently as this past weekend. On Sunday morning, in response to a question from Mike James (@ivybball), the Ivy League confirmed that second tiebreaker for the No. 4 seed doesn’t just take into account the No. 4 candidates’ records versus tournament qualifiers from No. 1 through No. 3, which is how most Ivy observers interpreted the tiebreaker (which can be read at the #IvyMadness site here). Instead, the tiebreaker would be the highest Ivy that one No. 4 candidate beat that other didn’t, even if that tiebreak goes as low as Brown or Cornell.
ITHACA – The Tigers completed another sweep on the road, running their Ivy road record to 7-0 and league record to 12-0 overall. The current winning streak stands at 15, with two more contests remaining: Harvard and Dartmouth at Jadwin Gym this weekend.
As IHO writer Rob Browne pointed out to me Sunday night, this was a topsy-turvy weekend for Ivy hoops. Comebacks came and went, winning and losing streaks were snapped and the race for the league tournament No. 4 seed got muddled:
After a weekend sweep at home against Cornell and Columbia, the Tigers have now played every other team in the league, Penn twice. With a perfect 8-0 record, Princeton is clear of the second-place Harvard Crimson and Yale Bulldogs by two full games and is in control of the No. 1 seed in next month’s Ivy League Tournament. The Tigers are easily within the top 100 teams as ranked by KenPom and Sagarin, while Harvard and Yale are outside. It is doubtful that either team will leapfrog the Tigers, even if one or both of them finish the regular season tied with Princeton. The top seed is crucial for the team that gets it. If it’s Princeton, that means Yale and Harvard will play each other in the tournament.
With the first full Ivy weekend in the books, the conference standings are rounding into shape. The current standings offer a clear top four building momentum toward the first ever Ivy men’s basketball tournament and a clear bottom four looking for a second wind.