A paean to Princeton’s triumphant Ivy League Tournament and season

Pictured here during the Ivy League Tournament Saturday, the Princeton women have made a habit of lining up single file behind each other with their arms draped over each other’s shoulders during the national anthem. (Steve Silverman)

The Princeton men’s and women’s basketball teams did more than punch tickets for the NCAA Tournament by winning championships at the Ivy League Tournament over the weekend.  They also made history for the university and the Ivy League.  

By winning both the men’s and women’s regular season and tournament titles, Princeton became the first school in Ivy League history to win four conference basketball championships in the same season. It’s a record that may be tied someday, but it can never be broken. 

As the Princeton basketball community basks in the glory of this unparalleled success, here are three reflections from the perspective of a long-time follower and admirer of Princeton basketball:

1. Princeton is enjoying a golden age of coaching

There is something poetic about Princeton winning four basketball titles in the season following the loss of the legendary Pete Carril.  Mitch Henderson paid tribute to his former mentor at the press conference following the men’s championship game on Sunday. 

“I thought about him a lot wearing the bow tie patch this year,” Henderson said.  “So much of what I say [to the players] is him.  A lot of this is honoring him.  There’s a through line to him … He would be very proud.”

Beyond poetry and symbolism, there is something even more significant in this moment of triumph for Princeton men’s basketball that should also be recognized:  Mitch Henderson now has fully become the heir to the Carril legacy.  

During his press conference, Henderson brought up a comment that John Thompson III shared with him during the postgame celebration on Pete Carril Court. Thompson, who is also a great former player and coach at Princeton, remarked how “all is right in the world” now that Princeton is returning to the NCAA Tournament, per Henderson postgame. 

Yes, and all is right at Old Nassau so long as Princeton continues to have Mitch Henderson at the helm of the men’s basketball program.  

In his 12 years as head coach, Henderson has won three regular season titles and two Ivy  League Tournament championships during a time in which basketball in the Ivy League has become more competitive than perhaps any time in its history. Under Henderson, Princeton has dominated archrival Penn, defeating the Red and Blue three times this season and nine times in a row.  He has modernized Princeton’s style of play while retaining many of the timeless elements of Carril’s brilliant offensive scheme.  

But perhaps even more important than all of the winning on his coaching resume, Henderson has also established himself as one of the most thoughtful, accessible and respected leaders in the college basketball community.  

Henderson always seems cognizant of the bigger picture surrounding him and his players. He typically begins his press conferences by graciously thanking the people behind the scenes and those who have contributed to his own success.  During his preseason press conference for media day back in October, Henderson used his opening remarks to acknowledge the sadness of the death of a student on campus who had no connection to Princeton basketball.  It was a poignant reminder that sometimes there are more important things in life than college basketball, a lesson not lost on his players and staff.

On the women’s side, coach Carla Berube has stamped her own mark on a program she inherited in the midst of a dynasty. During her first two seasons at the helm, she led the Tigers to an unblemished record in Ivy League play.  Last year, her squad gained national prominence, defeating Kentucky in the first round of the NCAA Tournament and nearly taking down an Indiana team that was a genuine contender for the Final Four. 

Like Henderson, Berube’s positive impact extends well beyond her team’s win-loss record.  During the Ivy League Tournament, I couldn’t help but notice how Berube’s players openly demonstrate their affinity for and connectedness to each other, especially during pre- and postgame festivities.  For example, during the national anthem, the Princeton women typically line up single file behind each other, with their arms draped over each other’s shoulders.  

I discussed this with Berube after the men’s Ivy League Tournament final Sunday and she told me her players genuinely love each other.  It shows, and it’s a beautiful reflection of the style of leadership that Carla Berube has brought to Princeton.

Neither Henderson nor Berube won recognition this year as coach of the year in the Ivy League, but a strong case can be made that both should have won or at least shared the honor with those who did win the award.  Both led their teams to repeat championships despite losing key players to graduation and injury. 

Henderson found a way to blend a group of talented freshmen with a core of returning veterans, which is no easy feat.  For the second year in a row, his team won the regular season title despite preseason predictions from the media that other teams would finish on top.

I don’t know what it will take for Mitch Henderson to gain the recognition he deserves, but I can say for certain that supporters of Princeton basketball feel extremely grateful for his commitment to the program, the students and the entire Princeton community.  Ditto for Carla Berube.

2. Princeton University and the Ivy League put on a great show at Jadwin Gym

By all accounts, the Ivy League Tournament was a smashing success this year with Princeton hosting the event for the first time.  The event was very well-organized and Jadwin Gym was packed with fans for much of the weekend.  

Although Jadwin Gymnasium will always have its drawbacks as a basketball venue, there was a genuine vibe of excitement in the building in a way I haven’t witnessed since the late 1990s, when the men’s team was nationally ranked and playing significant games, sometimes before a national television audience.  

Given the success of the weekend, I wouldn’t be surprised if the league looks to Princeton as a repeat host of Ivy Madness in the near future.  

3. The NCAA selection committee did the Ivy League no favors on Selection Sunday

The NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Committee once again showed its lack of respect for Ivy hoops when they announced the pairings for the men’s and women’s brackets on Sunday.  

The Princeton men were assigned a head-scratching No. 15 seed, their lowest since 1989 when the Tigers were handed a No. 16 seed and dispatched to face a No. 1 Georgetown squad led by Alonzo Mourning.  We all remember what happened in that game.  (In case you’ve forgotten, Princeton “won” the contest, 49-50).  

At least the 1989 team was allowed to play in Providence, close enough to home for students and boosters to travel to the game and show support for their team.  In contrast, the committee this year exiled the Tigers to Sacramento, which admittedly is where Carril was an assistant coach for the NBA’s Kings for a decade after stepping down at Princeton. 

Still, the Tigers are expected to be sacrificed at the altar of the top-10-ranked and No. 2-seeded Arizona Wildcats, a team that just won the Pac-12 tournament and has the most formidable frontcourt in the nation.  

Am I the only one who thinks Princeton might shock the world again on Thursday afternoon?  You heard it here first.

Meanwhile, the Princeton women, winner of 15 straight games, drew a mediocre No. 10 seed from the Committee and will face an ACC power, North Carolina State, in the first round of the women’s bracket.  Though they will be the underdogs in this matchup, the Princeton women will go on the road and win this game, just as they did a year ago when they took down the Kentucky Wildcats in the first round of the tournament.

Perhaps the most egregious snub occurred when the selection committee omitted the Columbia women from the tournament bracket altogether.  Apparently, the Lions needed to beat an extremely talented Harvard team (again) in the semifinals of the Ivy League tournament to prove they deserved to be in the NCAA Tournament despite having a top-50 NET ranking.

Here’s hoping that Megan Griffith and her determined Colombia squad can use this inexcusable insult from the NCAA committee as motivation to make a second straight deep run in the WNIT.

Regardless of what happens in the NCAA Tournament, no one can take away from the men and women of Princeton basketball the championships they won during the 2022-23 season.  Soon, there will be four new banners enshrined in the rafters of Jadwin Gym to remind us forever of their historic feats.

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