Ivy Madness reporter’s notebook: Day 3

Princeton women’s basketball’s post-Ivy League Tournament final press conference was one of several revealing pressers during Ivy Madness. (photo by Rob Browne)


“This is the business we’ve chosen.” – Brian Earl and Hyman Roth

“We played for, I would say, a good 15 minutes tonight, but that’s not good enough against a good program.” – Columbia head coach Megan Griffith, following the Lions defeat to top-seeded Princeton

No matter what the coaches who did not earn victories on Saturday thought, I felt there were three really good games of college basketball on display at Lavietes Pavilion, including a fantastic opener that saw Princeton escape an upset big from Cornell, 77-73.  Hopefully, West Coast fans woke up at 8 a.m. on a Saturday morning to catch it.

Here are some random thoughts and observations from the Ancient Eight’s Super Saturday:

  • I know many are not happy holding the league’s marquee event in a 1,700-seat arena, but the size and design of the building allows for a greater connection between players, fans, staff and media than I have felt at the previous Ivy League Tournaments at the Palestra and the John J. Lee Amphitheater.
  • With so many unmasked individuals around Lavietes Pavilion, I spent 12-hour days on Friday and Saturday with an N95 strapped to my face.  Is this what the league meant by Ivy Madness, the ultimate back-to-back?
  • Fans told me that they were not happy to have to exit the arena between games, especially with the temperature dropping and the rain and snow that fell in Cambridge on Saturday.  From a selfish perspective, the added time to clear out the arena and get it ready for the next game allowed the media to cover the postgame press conferences and make it back without missing the first five-plus minutes of the next game.  Just a Solomonic compromise for the two groups – maybe everyone could be allowed to stay in the building and separate the games by an hour, instead of 30 minutes.
  • The attendance for game No. 1 was 1,160, game No. 2 was 1,250 and game No. 3 was 998.  While those numbers may not impress people outside the venue, each team had strong fan support, the building felt alive, and the players all mentioned how hard it was to hear each other on the court and in the huddles.
  • It was great to see Columbia alum Dalen Cuff and Princeton alum Noah Savage, who had been doing their announcing of Ivy games remotely throughout the regular season, on hand to broadcast the game courtside.  However, it was a big miss not to have the marathon Live from Ivy Madness broadcasts during the shootarounds this year.  Please, Ivy League office, bring it back for next year!
  • Great to see all the bands make it to the games.  With the dissolution of the CUMB (Columbia University Marching Band), the Lions need to get a new band in place for the 2023 Ivy League Tournament because the women will certainly qualify.
  • Cornell sightings: Jeff Foote, a still very tall Legend of Ivy League Basketball, WBB head coach Dayna Smith, WBB assistant coach Val Klopfer, and soon-to-be retiring athletic director Andy Noel
  • Speaking of Legends of Ivy Basketball …. The Harvard men’s recipient was Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker.  The 1979 graduate appears to have only played in the 1977-1978 season, averaging 1.6 points, 1.0 rebounds and 0.1 assist per game. (Please allow me to channel my inner Fran Lebowitz: Charlie Baker, an Ivy League Legend?  Is he a powerful person? Yes.  Is he a nice person? Perhaps.  Is he a basketball legend?  Absolutely not!)  In a weekend celebrating Kathy Delaney-Smith, a champion for gender equity, the league should have found a Harvard man who was a more worthy performer on the court.
  • Some absolutely stellar performances in Saturday’s action – Princeton’s Tosan Evbuomwan (who put up 16 points, including the game-winning layup with 36 seconds left, to go along with four rebounds, three assists and no turnovers in a tense second half against the Big Red), the Tigers Jaelin Llewellyn (a game-high 23 points on 60% shooting), Yale’s Azar Swain (25 points on 60% shooting, including 5-for-8 from three), Penn’s Jordan Dingle (28 points on 50% shooting with the entire Yale rotation, bench, band and Handsome Dan defending him), Penn’s Nick Spinoso (career-high 14 points on 63% shooting coming off the bench), Princeton’s Kaitlyn Chen (30 points on 9-for-13 from the field and 11-for-14 from the line), Princeton’s Abby Meyers (16 points) and Columbia’s Abbey Hsu (19 points)
  • While his on-court results weren’t strong enough to break into that group, a special mention has to go out to Penn’s Jelani Williams.  The fact that he made it into his first tournament game, after missing the first three years of his Penn career to multiple knee surgeries and the last few weeks to an injured hand that required two screws to be placed a month ago, was fantastic to see.  He may not have the same athleticism he had when he announced his commitment to Penn (as a 10th- grader at Sidwell Friends, he was the first recruit newly hired Penn coach Steve Donahue visited when hired in the spring of 2015), he will surely be a valuable addition, on and off the court, to any school that takes him as a graduate transfer for the next few seasons.
  • My votes for the Women’s All-Tournament team: 1. (Most Outstanding Player) Kaitlyn Chen – Princeton (two games – 48 points on 15-for-18 FG and 17-for-21 FT, five assists), 2. Abby Meyers – Princeton (two games – 38 points on 13-for-29 FG and 6-for-6 FT), 3. Abbey Hsu – Columbia (two games – 34 points and six triples), 4. Ellie Mitchell – Princeton (two games – 11 points and 26 rebounds), 5. McKenzie Forbes – Harvard (one game – 22 points and seven rebounds in a near-upset of Princeton).  The league’s final list had Yale’s Camilla Emsbo instead of Mitchell.  I know the Yale junior had an impressive nine points and 15 rebounds, but I could not see putting anyone from a team that lost by 29 and got taken out their game in the first five minutes as All-Tournament-worthy.
  • A wonderful well-deserved title for the Princeton women.  I had my doubts they would be tested this weekend, but they really stood tall against two strong rivals.  Now, if the league could create a podium big enough to accommodate the players, coach and their trophy.
  • The Tigers should get a high seed.  Some see them off to Baton Rouge and others to Chapel Hill.  For the sake of all involved and after watching the difficulties of Mitch Henderson and Brian Earl compete against each other, I hope the NCAA Selection Committee does not the Tigers and Tar Heels in the same part of the bracket.
  • The press conferences had a bit of international flair with England’s Evbuomwan and Australia’s Kitty Henderson.  With their success, as well as the early career positives from Penn’s Michael Wang, it’s great to see the reach of Ivy hoops extending beyond Northfield Mount Hermon and Ontario.
  • I met a few members of the Penn cheerleading squad at my hotel, as I was leaving for Saturday’s action.  These athletes always give it their all and never get the credit they deserve.  Getting up on a pyramid and doing crazy stunts during a media timeout with an unforgiving basketball court underneath you take a huge amount of guts and skill. 
  • Reporters and fans noticed a number of Penn men sitting for the national anthem, something they have been doing all season long as an act of social and racial justice.  Since I was busy doing work, I didn’t get a chance to share my thoughts.  For anyone who is interested, I, like their assistant coach Nat Graham, absolutely support the Quakers, and I apologize to them for not asking them a question at their press conferences to talk about anything bigger than their upcoming game.

One last lengthy thought as I leave Ivy Madness, remove my mask and head into a snowy Massachusetts night …

Several weeks ago, during her weekly media session, coach Griffith was asked by a different Ivy Hoops Online writer about the culture at Princeton.  The former six-year Tigers’ assistant said there’s an expectation of winning and this mindset is slowly shifting at her alma mater.  Mitch Henderson echoed those comments during his Friday press conference. 

While I watch a lot of Ivy hoops and stay up to date with each team, I have spent the most time following the Columbia women, Penn men & women, Cornell men & women, Harvard men & women and Brown men.  As Brian Earl said twice on Friday’s press conference, “This is the business we’ve chosen.” That’s a world where people in charge, fairly or unfairly, are judged in terms of wins and losses.  On Saturday, I got to ask questions about public accountability to the fan base with Griffith, Henderson and Hsu, as well as coach Donahue, following their disappointing losses.

The three from Columbia, realizing they most likely lost their last chance at getting into this year’s NCAA Tournament, each talked about letting themselves and their fans down.  The Penn coach legitimately defended his program’s success in being one of two men’s teams making each Ivy League Tournament and competing in a stronger and more evenly matched conference than it was in the 1990s and early 2000s. (Not to mention Donahue and his staff rebuilt a program that was near the bottom of the league, competitively and morally, following the disastrous Jerome Allen years).

Abby Meyers had to take the 2018-19 year off from Princeton due to an academic violation.  She has acknowledged this issue, learned from it and grown as a leader.  Now, she is the conference’s Player of the Year, a finalist for the Becky Hammon Mid-Major Player of the Year and the main source of inspiration for the No. 24 team in the nation as they look to make a long run into March. 

Meanwhile, eight juniors and seniors from the Penn women’s team were suspended for four games each at the beginning of this season and there has been on public acknowledgment other than a source informing the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Mike Jensen that it was due to hazing.  It’s impossible to know what being more open about the situation would have meant to a Quakers team that missed the Ivy League Tournament for the first time, but it certainly would’ve provided a greater level of accountability for the program and its members.

The Penn men are 2-13 in their last 15 games against archrival Princeton and have lost in the semifinals in three of the four played Ivy League Tournaments.  The Harvard men, with arguably the best recruits in the conference, did not make it to Ivy Madness on their home court and have no NCAA appearances in the league’s tournament era.  The Brown men have never made the Ivy League Tournament, despite having multiple All-Ivy players and strong recruiting classes. 

Watching the Columbia coach and her players look into the camera and be totally honest about their shortcomings on Saturday night (which they have done all year long), instead of finding legitimate reasons to explain less than ideal results, was refreshing.  If the league expects to be among the nation’s best and wants to compete on the national stage, its programs will need to be more public about holding themselves and each other to a higher standard, while acknowledging how their actions affect fans, young and old, who spend their valuable time and dollars to support their teams.

After watching this long and unique season and spending the last few days at the Ivy League Tournament, the Lions have what it takes to consistently battle the Tigers for league supremacy and get into the national conversation.  If they don’t find a way to supplant the Tigers, that disappointment will gnaw at them decades later.  I also feel the same way about the Yale and Princeton men. 

For the other programs, I just don’t know.