I have to admit that other commitments had kept me away from the Princeton men's basketball team this year. Good commitments, at that -- family and work, to name a few. I also have to admit that when I saw that two starters were lost to the season for injury that I had my doubts about the Tigers' chances to win the Ivy title.
True, they had played well last year without center Hans Brase, who missed last season with a knee injury only to get hurt again and miss this season. But they also had played well with hard charging forward Henry Caruso, a returning all-Ivy pick, and it's hard to replace a player like that and win the league.
Down two starters, the Tigers adapted and improvised. Coaches will tell you that teams have a fork in the road when they lose key players. They can either use the injured teammates as an excuse or as a reason to adapt and step up. In the case of the Princeton Tigers, everyone -- including coach Mitch Henderson -- stepped up. Senior Spencer Weisz was named Ivy League player of the year; two teammates joined him on the Ivies' first team -- senior Steve Cook and sophomore guard Myles Stephens, who was named the Ivies' defensive player of the year, too. Add guards Amir Bell and Devin Cannady into the mix, and, while short, the Tigers best five were mobile and agile.
They went undefeated in the league and drew the first seed in the first-ever Ivy tournament, held at Penn's magical, mystical Palestra. The basketball gods worked in Penn's favor on the last weekend of the season, as Penn inexplicably lost to Dartmouth at home and then beat Harvard in the regular season's last game to earn the fourth seed. The Quakers won 6 of their last 8 Ivy games and were peaking at the right time.
The Quakers are a young team, giving only one senior meaningful minutes. Coach Steve Donahue was the legendary Fran Dunphy's top assistant at Penn, moved to Cornell where he took the Big Red to several titles and a Sweet 16 appearance, struggled and was fired at Boston College and returned to University City to take the helm at Penn. His Quakers got off to a great start, took the lead into half time, came out hot after half time, played good defense and hit the boards well. They were up four with under a minute to play -- only to have Princeton tie the game with five seconds to go to send it into overtime. In OT, it was all Princeton, and the Tiger players should have given their meal money to Stephens, whose outstanding game covered for a middling effort from Weisz, a disastrous shooting display by Cook and a disappearing act on offense by Cannady (who, admittedly, excelled in the last minute of OT by hitting every foul shoot he took -- and there were at least eight). [Note: Stephens ended up being named the tournament's MVP).
It was a great game, worthy of a championship tournament, worthy of the Palestra, and worthy of the Penn-Princeton rivalry. Strange things can happen in rivalries, and strange things can happen to visiting teams in legendary arenas (okay, so technically Penn was the visiting team because Princeton was the higher seed). It's also hard to beat a good team three times in one season, and Princeton had to do that twice over the weekend.
The arena was not packed. There did not seem to be the fervent atmosphere that populated the Palestra when Penn-Princeton regular season games were like playoff games. The teams were at the top of the league, and when there were no playoffs you really needed to beat your rival to get a leg up in the standings. The building used to be packed all the up to the rafters, the arena packed with students, the noise deafening.
I'll allow for the fact that some schools might have been on spring break, but I'll also argue that the student bodies have so much talent in so many areas and such diversity that everyone has a lot to do. Whatever the case, there were far fewer students from both schools than say there would have been three decades ago. I get it, times have changed, but playoffs are playoffs and when the prize for the weekend is a ticket to the Big Dance, you would have thought that there would have been more interest from students. There was interest -- from faculty, staff, alums and family -- and the atmosphere was good if not electric.
I wore my orange and black, saw some Penn friends, sat with a classmate and watched a good game. And then I watched the championship game on TV the next day, where Princeton took a half to figure out Yale before winning comfortably and cutting down the nets. The arena, from my vantage point on TV, looked less full on Day 2 than on Day 1. But perhaps that's the case with all tournaments -- the losers go home after they lose; their tickets go unclaimed.
It's fun to have your team go back to the tournament after a six-year absence. It's nice to see Mitch Henderson a great player and really good guy, get his first opportunity to coach in the NCAA tournament. Whether it's great that the Ivies have a playoff now, well, I'll continue to think about that.