Reporter’s Notebook: The day after round one in Iowa City

Princeton women’s basketball coach Carla Berube’s kids are interviewed on the jumbotron at Carver-Hawkeye Arena during Princeton’s NCAA Tournament game versus West Virginia Saturday. (Photo by Steve Silverman)

It’s been more than a day since the No. 9 Princeton women’s basketball team lost its first-round game in the NCAA Tournament to No. 8 West Virginia, 63-53. yet the reality of the Tigers’ season coming to an end hasn’t completely set in for your faithful Ivy Hoops Online correspondent. 

A few thoughts and onsite reports from the day after round 1 at the Iowa City pod of the Big Dance:

Shock and awe

Although Princeton was considered a slight underdog going into the matchup against the Mountaineers, there was a quiet optimism within the program that the Tigers would prevail.  After all, Carla Berube’s squad had faced even longer odds in their last two opening-round matchups against Kentucky in 2022 and North Carolina State in 2023, yet the Tigers found a way to win each of those games.  

In her postgame press conference last night, Berube expressed genuine surprise that her team had been beaten.

“I didn’t think our season would be over tonight,”  Berube confessed.  “But it’s basketball. Things happen.”

One of the storylines coming into Saturday night’s matchup was West Virginia’s seeming overconfidence in looking past Princeton toward a possible Monday matchup with Caitlin Clark and her Iowa Hawkeyes.  But as it turns out, the Tigers may have also underestimated WVU to some degree.  If so, they weren’t the only ones.

In Iowa City today, Iowa coach Lisa Bluder, whose No. 1 Hawkeyes face the Mountaineers Monday night in a second round matchup, joined the chorus in suggesting that the NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Committee also underestimated the Mountaineers.  

“West Virginia has a 21 NET,” Bluder observed.  “They’re a really good basketball team. I think they’re underseeded or whatever you want to say about that. I think they should be really like a 7 or a 6 right now, or a 5 possibly. I’m not on the committee, so I can’t make those calls, but I was really surprised they’re an 8 seed. I’m sure they were. They have something to prove about it.”

If Mountaineers coach Mark Kellogg can lead his team past Iowa tomorrow in front of 15,000 rabid Hawkeyes fans, the shock and awe now being felt by Princeton will reverberate throughout the heartland and the entire basketball community.

Iowa women’s basketball coach Lisa Bluder answers questions at a press conference in advance of the second round of the NCAA Tournament. (Photo by Steve Silverman)

Gratitude and joy

At the end of Saturday’s postgame press conference, Jenn Hatfield of The Next asked Berube if she had been aware that her kids were interviewed live in Carver-Hawkeye Arena during a media timeout.  

At first Berube laughed and acknowledged that she had indeed heard her kids’ voices booming through the arena’s PA system as she was trying to focus on coaching her team. 

But then Berube got philosophical and a bit emotional.  Her extended comments are worth absorbing because they say so much about the Princeton coach’s character, her love for her family and her players, and the uplifting environment that Berube, her staff, and her players have created within the Princeton community.

“It’s amazing. It’s amazing to have this job. I feel so fortunate. And then it’s even more amazing to have your family around because it’s Princeton basketball, but it’s a family.

“These are amazing women and role models that I, you know, would love my kids to grow up and become people like that. It’s a joy. I can’t emphasize that enough. And so for my kids to be loved by my team and vice versa. It’s just so meaningful . . . to be a mom and also get to coach women’s basketball.

“I know I have been doing this for a while now, and it’s just, you know, the greatest joy to be a working mom and not feel like you’re ever working, and you’re just, you know, just coaching basketball. Coaching the game that you love and giving back to — I had an amazing career, and that’s what I’m just trying to do is just give my players the same kind of experience that I had.”

As the world of college athletics convulses and churns, it’s reassuring to know that something very uplifting is going on at Old Nassau and around the entire Ivy League hoops landscape.  

Is it time for the home-court advantage to end?

When Saturday’s NCAA Tournament games had come to an end, a searing statistic began to make its way through the women’s college basketball world:  In all but one of the 32 first round games, the higher seeded team had won. The sole exception was No. 11 Middle Tennessee State, which upset No. 6 Louisville on Friday.  

As an aside, I can’t help but mention that Princeton beat MTSU on its home court in November, breaking the Blue Raiders’ 49-game home winning streak.  

But is it good for the women’s tournament to have so many higher-seeded teams win?  I don’t believe it is.  

One of the most entertaining and anticipated aspects of March Madness is the prospect of watching Cinderella stories emerge. 

Last year, the Princeton men’s team became a celebrated Cinderella as a result of its run to the Sweet 16, but you have to wonder if that would have been possible had Princeton been forced to play No. 2 Arizona at the McKale Memorial Center in Tucson rather than on a neutral court. 

Ditto for the No. 13 Yale men’s team, which upset No. 4 Auburn in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on a neutral court on Friday.  

I asked Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder Sunday at her pregame press conference whether the time has come to change the rules and remove the built-in home court advantage for the top 16 teams in the women’s competition.  Not surprisingly, Bluder expressed no interest in making a change:

“I think it is a huge advantage to the top 16, but maybe they deserve it because they did it during the year. So maybe they deserve it,” Bluder said. “You’re going to give up a crowd like this and a television experience like this in favor of going to a neutral place? I don’t think so.”

Something tells me Bluder might have a different view if she were the head coach of a mid-major program.