Dave Zeitlin is the RTC correspondent for the Ivy League.
Right now, the Ivy League is a mess. Somehow, heading into the final weekend of conference play, a Cornell team that is superior to any other in the league has yet to clinch its berth in the Big Dance (remember there’s no conference tournament in the Ivies). Somehow, Princeton – the same Princeton that started 2-8 with losses to mighty teams like Maine, Central Connecticut and Lafayette on its resume – controls its own destiny. And somehow, Yale and Dartmouth – yes, Dartmouth! – are still mathematically alive with two games to play.
Here’s the deal in simplest terms: If Cornell (9-3 league) takes care of business and beats Penn tonight and Princeton tomorrow night at home (where they are undefeated this season), then they win the league. They can also win the league if they beat Penn while Princeton loses at Columbia tonight. But if Princeton (7-4) is able to sweep Columbia and Cornell this weekend, then the Tigers’ game Tuesday against Penn – the final game of the Ivy League season – could either make or break their chances of winning at least a share of the league title. (In the case of a tie at the top, there would be a one-game playoff between the co-champs with the NCAA berth on the line).
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.
David Zeitlin is the RTC correspondent for the Ivy League.
Let’s see … what to report from the Ivy League from the last two weeks. Hmm. Cornell beat a team by 54 points. That’s fun – even though they did it to Division III Ursinus. What else? What else? Oh! Yale and Columbia both added to the New Jersey Institute of Technology’s record 50-game Division I losing streak. Good for them. And … I think that’s about– oh wait, I almost forgot! Harvard had probably its greatest win in school history while providing the Ivy League with its best moment in quite some time. That’s probably the big story of the week, right?
Amaker and Harvard Celebrate the Win Over BC (photo credit: NBC Sports)
When Harvard (9-6) pulled off that shocker over Boston College last week, however, it seemed like there were two overriding sentiments: One was that since B.C. had just beaten then-No. 1 North Carolina, then Harvard should be the new No. 1 team in the land. And two, how ’bout that Tommy Amaker, huh? While I agree that Harvard is the best team there ever was or ever will be, I am hesitant to heap all of the praise entirely on Amaker. Instead, I would like to take a moment to praise former coach Frank Sullivan, a very good man who had little success at Harvard but whose lasting legacy might be leaving the program with Jeremy Lin. Granted, Amaker has brought in a very talented freshmen class, and has probably instilled a newfound belief into his players, but Lin is simply playing at another level right now. Against Boston College, the junior guard scored a game-high 27 points while dishing out eight assists. Here are some highlights of Lin schooling the Eagles.
WYN2K. For possibly the first time in two decades, the Ivy League basketball championship is wide open. The twin towers of power – Penn and Princeton – have held the Ivy title on one of their campuses each of the last twenty seasons. This year, however, Princeton will be recovering from the Joe Scott disaster (18-24 in three seasons culminating in an atrocious 2-12 debacle last year), while Penn will have to deal with the loss of the core group that won three straight Ivy championships. Penn has enough returning to make another run at the title, but don’t expect another 13-1 blitzkrieg through the league, as several other contenders will make their own push toward an NCAA bid.
Predicted Champion.Penn (#14 seed NCAA). Ok, ok, so we’re too chicken to pick anybody else here. We know that on paper there are other Ivy schools with more returning talent (ahem, Yale), but consider the weight of history that Penn has behind it – 5 of the last 6 titles… 7 of the last 9… 10 of the last 15. Every other champion during that time was Princeton. With the Tigers almost completely out of the picture, how can we not make our pick for Penn? Despite losing two-time Ivy POY Ibrahim Jabber and Mark Zoller, the Quakers still have the most depth of any team in the league to go along with the best home court advantage at the Palestra. This year’s squad will be led by Brian Grandieri and Justin Reilly, the latter of whom showed some decent post skills during the NCAA Tourney loss to Texas A&M last year. Sorry, Ivy faithful, but we just can’t pick against Penn until someone outside of Princeton knocks them off their perch.
Others Considered. Should Penn crash and burn this year, Princeton assuredly will not be the beneficiary, which means that a team not used to winning this title will be doing so for the first time in a generation. We like Yale as next in line. The Bulldogs return four starters plus their top two reserves, including prohibitive POY favorite Eric Flato, a do-it-all guard who nailed 71 treys last season. The only reason to lend a skeptic’s glance toward Yale is their maddening tendency to lose “shoulda” games, such as when they dropped a home game vs. Columbia immediately prior to a big showdown at Penn last year, effectively ending their conference title hopes. Cornell is another team that appears ready to make the leap on paper, but simply hasn’t been able to get past the monolith in Philly. Coach Steve Donahue is a tidy 0-14 in his career vs. the Quakers, which doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in winning a conference race that depends solely on regular season performance. Still, the Big Red, who was the last non-P&P team to make the NCAA Tourney back in 1988, has a nice set of guards returning (Ryan Wittman and Louis Dale) along with the 2006 ROY Adam Gore (redshirted last year) and USC transfer Collin Robinson.
Games to Watch. Since the Ivy League decides its champion via round-robin and not a conference tournament, there are a few key home-and-homes to watch this season.
Penn @ Cornell (02.09.08) & Cornell @ Penn (03.07.08)
RPI Booster Games. Last year the Ivy League went 2-17 against BCS schools, but surprisingly, middle-of-the-packers Cornell (defeated Northwestern 64-61) and Brown (defeated Providence 51-41) were the two winners. Penn, on the other hand, was 0-5 – go figure. There are 23 games on the slate this year, and here are a few highlights.
Yale @ Stanford (11.20.07)
Virginia @ Penn (11.23.07)
Brown @ Northwestern (11.24.07)
Michigan @ Harvard (12.01.07)
Cornell @ Syracuse (12.20.07)
Penn @ Miami (FL) (01.02.08)
Odds of Multiple NCAA Bids. Zippo.
Neat-o Stat. With the hiring of Tommy Amaker at Harvard and Sydney Johnson at Princeton, six of the eight head coaches in the Ivy League are now black. Unthinkable a generation ago, this means that the Ivy has a higher percentage of black head honchos (75%) than all but the two historically black D1 conferences, the SWAC and MEAC. We’re not sure if that will necessarily translate to more wins at those two schools, but it can’t be a bad thing in terms of inspring qualified minority hiring practices at other schools (ed. note – we guess that assumes Amaker is qualified. Apologies).
64/65-Team Era. The Ivy League has gone 3-23 (.115) over the era, with all three wins concentrated in the mid- to late-90s. The Ivy tends to receive a favorable seed from the NCAA committee, averaging a #12.8 over this period, which equates to an expected value of around seven wins. This shows that the league has really underperformed compared with its seed over the years. Of the three wins, two belong to Princeton (1996 – #13 Princeton 43, #4 UCLA 41; 1998 – #5 Princeton 69, #12 UNLV 57) and one to Penn (1994 – #11 Penn 90, #6 Nebraska 80). With that said, the league’s NCAA representative (well, Penn, really) has in recent years consistently played its first round opponent tough before ultimately succumbing to superior talent.
2003 – #11 Penn down four to #6 Oklahoma St. with 2:25 remaining
2006 – #15 Penn down one to #2 Texas with 6 mins left
2007 – #14 Penn tied with #3 Texas A&M with 11 minutes to go
Nothing says thrilling like Gus Johnson, so we’ll leave you his call of 1996 Princeton-UCLA.
Final Thought. We actually look at this year’s Ivy a little bit like we look at the Big South. You have one program (Penn and Winthrop, respectively) that has clearly been the class of the league for the better part of a decade going through some serious changes, and you have a smattering of challengers ready to stake their claims on the league crown. The problem in both cases is more psychological than physical – can the likes of Yale and Cornell overcome the mental hurdles that Penn has constructed for them over the years by winning a key game in late February on the road when it really counts? It should make for an interesting winter in our nation’s smartest league, that’s for sure.