“Can’t wait till tip-off”: Rutgers men poised to finally play Princeton again

Missing a decade of games is a long time for the Rutgers-Princeton basketball rivalry.

The series began in 1917 and has resulted in 120 games played, many of them memorable.

Separated by only 15 miles and both original colonial colleges, played virtually every year and sometimes twice a year from 1917 until 2013, when new Rutgers basketball coach Eddie Jordan put the games on hiatus.

Jordan was fired in 2016 after only three seasons, and new Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell chose not to play the Tigers. That policy has come to an end.

The two Jersey schools are in talks to resume the series on November 6 in Trenton at CURE Insurance Arena, as reported by veteran New Jersey college basketball writer Jerry Carino for Asbury Park Press this month.

Princeton coach Mitch Henderson has tried repeatedly since 2013 to resume the series.

Rutgers is Princeton’s most played out-of-conference opponent and only true sports rival. Sorry, Minnesota and Nebraska.

Princeton leads the series, 75-45, although Rutgers has had the upper hand in the 21st century.

Perhaps the two more memorable games took place within six weeks of each other in early 1976.

On February 2, the undefeated No. 5 Knights traveled to Jadwin to play the No. 15 Tigers, winners of the 1975 NIT. On a 16-game winning streak, Rutgers was up by only two with 11 and a half minutes to go. But a steal by All-American Mike Dabney keyed a 75-62 win.

The two squads met again on March 13, 1976 at the Providence Civic Center in the NCAA Tournament. Princeton was down most of the game but pulled to within 54-53 with Pete Molloy on the free throw line with a one-and-one. Rutgers coach Tom Young proceeded to call consecutive times out to freeze Molloy. The strategy worked, as Molloy missed and Rutgers escaped with a 54-53 win Carril characterized as one of the toughest losses of his long coaching career.

Pikiell has been viewed as a savior by Rutgers fans, leading the Scarlet Knights to consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances in 2021 and 2022 for the first time since 1976. But despite a clarion call by many older alumni and Carino himself many times, he refused to play the talented Tigers.

Dabney, a class of ’76 Rutgers graduate, noted to this writer that the game is “great for New Jersey basketball fans. Can’t wait till tip-off.”

The ostensible theory is that a solid power-six school has nothing to gain by playing an Ivy, especially an Ivy at the top of the league. The fallacy in that thinking as it relates to Rutgers-Princeton is that rivalry games are special for the longtime fans and the world of college basketball does not stand or fall on NET rankings. Many ardent followers feel that the game will sell out the Trenton building and be more than competitive. If that happens, the outcry for the game to take place annually will be loud and resonant.