Checking in on the… Ivy League

Posted by rtmsf on February 20th, 2009

David Zeitlin is the RTC correspondent for the Ivy League.

A weird sequence of events happened during the Penn-Columbia game two weeks ago: Penn fans listened as the Princeton-Cornell score was announced. They learned Princeton was winning. And then they cheered. Of course, this makes perfect sense. The only way for any of the seven Ivy League also-rans to make the NCAA Tournament (or at least the play-in game) is to get through Cornell, the clear favorite to win the league. But for all of the Penn fans in the gym that night – the dozens of us – cheering for Princeton still felt dirty. That’s because for so long the Ivy League has been all about Penn and Princeton, the two storied programs that have made up one of college basketball’s best rivalries. Penn-Princeton games may not always produce the most exciting basketball (unless you love backdoor cuts and running the shot clock down to five seconds) but each contest is special because it usually determines the league champion. Over the years, the other six Ivy League teams have had as much success as Gus Johnson trying to keep his voice down in a library. Consider: Since the Ivy League’s inception in 1955, only seven times has the league championship been awarded without the Quakers or Tigers at least sharing the crown. Here’s a good YouTube video on the rivalry which highlights the 1999 game in which Penn raced out to a 29-3 lead before losing, 50-49, in a game now known at the Palestra simply as “Black Tuesday.” Six years later, however, Penn produced a miracle of its own when it erased an 18-point deficit in the final seven-and-a-half minutes to stun Princeton in overtime. I think about nine of my 10 favorite Palestra memories came from that game, and I still get chills every time I watch the highlights.

These days, the Penn-Princeton rivalry is on shaky ground. Both teams are young, wildly inconsistent and simply not very good – Princeton stunned Cornell two weeks ago to move into first place in the league but followed with awful losses to Brown and Yale the very next weekend; Penn beat Brown and Yale, but only after one of the worst three-game losing streaks in program history. Student attendance at games would make Bingo night at any retirement home seem festive. And even the tradition where the student newspapers exchange degrading columns on the other team seems to have taken a year off.

But just when you thought the Penn-Princeton rivalry might be disintegrating, the two teams get together for a classic. OK, so maybe both teams had trouble shooting in Penn’s 62-55 overtime win Tuesday. And yes, the game probably won’t end up meaning much as both teams are two games behind Cornell at the midway point of the season. And from what I read, Princeton’s gym was only half-filled (Thanks to Comcast not carrying ESPNU, I had to listen to Princeton’s radio feed. And as an aside, don’t let the guy who does the public service announcements for that radio station anywhere near your children. He sounded like a cross between Buffalo Bill and Ben Linus. But still, the game had enough bizarre elements with a Penn player getting ejected and the awful referees changing who would shoot the free throws after a Princeton player already missed one and enough memorable moments with Penn freshman Zack Rosen hitting the biggest shot of the night to qualify as a classic Penn-Princeton game. And remember, just because the game is ugly doesn’t mean it’s not fun; in fact, that’s the way we like it. Hopefully, for the sake of the rivalry, both teams continue to improve and restore their basketball tradition. But as this year goes, the Ivy League title is still Cornell’s to lose.

 Speaking of Cornell, the defending champs haven’t been quite as dominant as most people might have expected. The Big Red somehow lost to Princeton by 20 points – which got the Tigers head coach Sydney Johnson an interview in the New York Times. And in Cornell’s latest game, they needed two overtimes just to survive Dartmouth at home. Still, even if this Cornell team isn’t as good as, say, some of the dominant Penn teams earlier in the decade, the Big Red are still 7-1 in the league and ahead of every other team by at least two games. And when they’re on, they’re on. Just ask Harvard, which watched Cornell shatter two records against them.

 Moving on to Tommy Amaker’s bunch, Harvard sits near the bottom of the Ivy League. With a 2-6 record, the Crimson is ahead of only Brown. This development may be surprising to outside observers who remember only Harvard’s stunning upset over Boston College early in the season. But as I’ve said before: Let Amaker win something before he’s hailed as the coach who will shake up the Ivy League.

With a 5-3 record in the league, Columbia has been one of the surprise teams this season, winning five of its last six games. Senior Jason Miller and freshman Noruway Agho swept the Ivy League player and rookie of the week awards after big-time performances in the Lions’ sweep of Harvard and Dartmouth last weekend. Miller, a 6-foot-8 senior who was little more than a role player during his first three years, has been especially impressive in bulling over smaller, younger players this season. He was so dominant inside against Penn that he prompted Quakers head coach Glen Miller to say how much tougher Columbia is than his team. What Miller is really trying to say is that he doesn’t know much about players coming into their own for their senior year – given how this is one of the worst crop of Penn seniors in recent memory.

Dartmouth has also been somewhat of a surprise with a 4-4 record. The Big Green proved it is a tough out for any team after taking Cornell into double overtime. If the season were to end today, senior Alex Barnett would be the league’s player of the year.  He’s averaging nearly 20 points per game and is pretty much the only scoring threat on his team.

Yale is tied with Dartmouth with a 4-4 record. But coming off a loss to Penn in which head coach James Jones actually called the Quakers “tough,” the Bulldogs are in serious trouble.

So if Penn isn’t tough at all one night and then too tough for other teams to handle, what does that say about the Ivy League? Basically, every team is inconsistent. Except for Brown, which, with a 1-7 record, just isn’t tough at all. And except for Cornell, which barring an implosion, should earn the nation’s first automatic NCAA berth next weekend. Can you feel the Big Dance in the air yet? Cornell certainly can, but Penn and Princeton cannot. How the mighty have fallen.

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