What do Hofstra, Colgate, Siena, Loyola Chicago, UMass and Vermont all have in common? They are all solid mid-major men’s basketball programs and willing to travel to the home gym of a top Ivy team.
It doesn’t seem like a big deal on the surface, but it is.
Consider Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights have one natural rival in their 153 years of playing college sports. Not Penn State. Not Syracuse.
The universities, separated by less than 20 miles, have played 120 men’s basketball games. Princeton leads the series, 75-45.
Any Tiger fan over the age of 50 will tell you that after Penn, Rutgers is Princeton’s greatest rival. Not many Rutgers fans will admit it, but they know it’s true.
Rutgers is now coached by Steve Pikiell, who has done a magnificent job since taking over in 2016. The Scarlet Knights have been to consecutive NCAA tourneys for the first time since 1976, and in 2021, won their first game in the Big Dance in 38 years. Pikiell’s Scarlet Knights defeated then-No. 1 Purdue at the RAC last December.
But Pikiell won’t play Princeton despite a media outcry that includes the dean of New Jersey college basketball writers, Jerry Carino.
Here’s what Carino wrote in 2016 when Pikiell was hired in a column urging Jersey schools to stop giving Princeton “the leper treatment”:
“[I]t’s a bad look for the state university to dodge a century-old rival because they beat you a couple of times,” Carino wrote for the Asbury Park Press in 2016.
Yet Rutgers had no problem scheduling an Ivy that’s struggled more than Princeton in recent years, Columbia, soundly defeating the Lions in this season’s opener and eking out an overtime win in 2018.
UConn is coached by Danny Hurley, son of the great Bob Hurley, who as coach of the now closed St. Anthony High School in New Jersey would play anyone, anywhere. But since the younger Hurley took the reins in Storrs in 2018, the Huskies haven’t played Yale. Hurley has told this writer that the matchup probably won’t happen.
Maybe there’s a stigma among UConn alumni of losing to an Ivy among UConn alumni, but the reason is really irrelevant. And it frustrates the heck out of Yale coach James Jones.
The last time the two played, Yale won, 45-44, in December 2014 over the then-defending national champion Huskies. Kevin Ollie was UConn’s coach, and alumni all over the state were apoplectic about the loss.
Jones’ alma mater Albany wouldn’t play Yale this year. Neither would Lehigh. And throw in Central Connecticut State, Hartford and St. John’s, which is off to a 7-0 start consisting of five wins against opponents ranked below Yale by KenPom.
So what is really going on? Well, Yale’s simply too good, and coaches all over the country know it. Under Jones, the Bulldogs have defeated the likes of Rutgers, Penn State, Washington, California and Clemson, all away from home.
“We’ve called every school within 100 miles. All of them several times,” Henderson told Carino in 2016.
But power-five schools are still shying away from taking on the Tigers. Princeton had to travel to London this month to get two games, and it’s been relegated to playing Division III Cairn University Wednesday.
The Tigers tried to get road games with St. John’s and Seton Hall when Kevin Willard coached the latter, to no avail. Yale had to fly to Hawaii to get three games this season, winning the Rainbow Classic there.
Carino recently told me that playing local nonconference games is good for the fans, and by proxy, good for the sport.
“Avoiding an in-state game against a Princeton or a Yale because they’re successful programs seems cowardly,” Carino said in an email. “Instead of scheduling some lower tier A-10 or CAA team from elsewhere, why not play a local team with a similar metrics value? I
Carino has asked Jersey’s high-majors about scheduling Princeton several times over the years.
“I’ve never heard a reasonable explanation,” Carino said, adding that he’s hopeful that new Seton Hall coach Shaheen Holloway will “break this gridlock.”
Jones was surprised to get a road game at Colorado.
“We’re experiencing the curse of a good mid-major team,” Jones said after the game. “With all the programs within a three-hour radius of our campus, it’s extremely frustrating that we can’t find enough to help build our schedule.”
Yale was forced to play two Division III teams this year, Sarah Lawrence and John Jay.
So what to do about this? Probably nothing, because the NCAA and conference commissioners are not going to step in and tell $3 million-plus coaches that they have to give the Ancient Eight’s top teams a break and play them. But it would be refreshing if that happened. It would also be great if the Ivy League stepped in or spoke out on the issue, but that hasn’t happened and probably won’t.