The Ivy League will get its March Madness started with the league's first-ever conference basketball tournament
Consider the current mixed blessings of the Princeton Tigers. They own the Ivy League regular season championship. They own the spotless 14-0 conference record, and a 17-game winning streak. If this were yesterday, they’d own a bid to the NCAA Tournament, all done and done.
But not today.
The Ivy League has finally joined the crowd this season; the last holdout to play a conference tournament. The top four teams – Princeton, Harvard, Yale and Penn – will gather in Philadelphia’s Palestra this weekend for the inaugural event.The top four women’s teams will be there, too.
Should be fun, and will certainly be historic. But it also means double jeopardy for the Tigers, who have to prove their dominance all over again. Because this isn’t the ACC, with a gaggle of teams getting selected on Sunday. It’s the cruel and unforgiving world of the one-bid league; win the tournament – or else.
Ask Belmont or Monmouth – who won their league season titles by five and four games, but derailed in conference tournaments last week – how that can work.
So what do the Princeton folks think about all this?
“I’ve been asked that question a lot,” coach Mitch Henderson said over the phone. “There’s a tournament, this is the reality, and it’s something we’re all adjusting to, including us. I think it’s wasted energy at this point to be thinking about what-ifs and what it used to be like. This is the new Ivy League and I think we’re all trying it on for size, and it’s going to be exciting.”
Also a little dicey. Princeton’s semifinal assignment Saturday is Penn on its home court. Plus, the Quakers are on a roll.
They started 0-6 in Ivy League play, then won six of their last eight. If the Tigers do get to the championship game and play Harvard – who meets Yale Saturday -- they’ll be facing a team they beat by only one and four points during the season.
The Ivy League is not noted for its rash moves in athletics, which explains the time it took for the conference to decide to change its no-tournament stance.
“It puts the league into a conversation on Selection Sunday weekend,” Henderson said. “It brings to the front the high quality of play in the league. And it gives the kids and the coaches and all of us a chance to experience championship weekend, which I think is a lot of fun.”
League executive director Robin Harris seconded that motion.
“What the tournament is doing is it’s actually put an enhanced value on the regular season for more teams. What we found as we came into the second half of the schedule was every single team was alive and still fighting for a berth. The reaction has been incredibly positive, and all the votes were overwhelmingly in support of the tournament.
“Our coaches have been wanting this for years. And I think in part they were reflecting what they know their student-athletes want.”
The Ivy League has become a bunch of troublemakers lately for higher seeds in the NCAA Tournament.
2010 – Cornell advanced to the Sweet 16.
2011 – Princeton scared the bluegrass out of Final Four-bound Kentucky, before losing 59-57 in the final seconds.
2013 – Harvard, a 14-seed, dumped No. 3 seed New Mexico.
2014 — Harvard with another upset, this time Cincinnati. And narrowly lost to Michigan State by seven.
2015 — Harvard again, leading North Carolina with 1:15 left before losing 67-65. “It’s the luckiest I’ve ever felt after a basketball game in my entire life,” Roy Williams said that day.
2016 — Yale pounded Baylor on the boards and won 79-75, then pounded Duke on the boards – by a 42-28 count – but lost 71-64.
“There’s not one person in our league that was surprised,” Henderson said of all this mischief.
“Even in the years we didn’t have a win, every game was close,” Harris said. “We made every team we played sweat.”
Harris was named executive director in July 2009. This Ivy League surge started the next spring.
“I wish I could take credit. In fact, I can’t,” she said. “I’m just fortunate to have been here.”
She mentioned the Ivy League’s ability to keep players for four years as a factor. Henderson pointed to better recruiting, and a league of good coaches. Tommy Amaker has made a power of Harvard, James Jones is a mainstay at Yale. Both are their school’s all-time winners and will face one another in Saturday’s semifinals.
The setting should help the occasion, too. An iconic league in an iconic arena.
“The Palestra is such a natural choice for us,” Harris said. “It is the cathedral of college basketball. It happens to be run by one of our own schools (Penn), and is right in our footprint. It was really an easy decision that that’s where we should be.”
Few would understand Ivy League potential in March better than Henderson. Remember Princeton’s first-round 43-41 stunner over defending national champion UCLA in Indianapolis in 1996? He was a guard that night for the Tigers. and chipped in eight points.
Henderson can still in his mind remember how the Indiana crowd in the RCA Dome swung over to Princeton, even booing hometown Pacers hero (and UCLA alum) Reggie Miller when the scoreboard showed him at courtside wearing a Bruins cap.
“I think it captured the magic of what the tournament can be,” Henderson said. “Two coastal teams in the middle of Indiana, and I think the whole place -- with the exception of a couple of people, including Reggie Miller – were cheering for the Tigers.
“What I remember is doing something special with my teammates and creating a memory like that. That’s what I want for our guys, creating something that people will remember forever.”
Winning the first Ivy League tournament ever played would certainly qualify.