Princeton fighting for NCAA berth despite perfect season
PRINCETON, N.J. — As the first team to go 14-0 in Ivy League play and not automatically qualify for the NCAA Tournament, Princeton has earned a somewhat dubious distinction in league history.
Were it any previous year, the Tigers would be eagerly awaiting Selection Sunday. However, the Ivy became the nation’s final league to employ a conference tournament to decide its automatic qualifier, so Princeton (21-6) still needs two wins in Philadelphia this weekend to reach the NCAAs.
Previously, the regular-season champ received an automatic berth to the tournament.
“I feel for Princeton,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said. “But we all understood that going into it. All four teams, I imagine, will be excited for the opportunity.”
The inaugural “Ivy Madness” pits No. 1 seed Princeton against No. 4 seed Penn (13-14, 6-8) on Saturday, followed by No. 2 seed Harvard (18-9, 10-4) against No. 3 seed Yale (17-10, 9-5), the defending champion. The winners meet Sunday for the title.
Amaker took the Crimson to a share of the regular-season Ivy title in five straight years and twice won their first game in the NCAA Tournament. But under the old system, their NCAA chances would be done after finishing this season with losses to Princeton and Penn.
Instead, the Crimson can still make the tournament.
“I liked the old way. I like the new way,” Harvard point guard Siyani Chambers said. “We didn’t really finish the way we would have hoped. In the old format, we probably — actually, we wouldn’t — have a chance to go to the tournament.”
A rotating tournament site will be decided before each season. The first went to the Palestra. Thus, Princeton’s reward as top seed means it must beat Penn on its home court, considered one of the toughest in the nation.
“It’s certainly a unique situation, but we know what we have to get done,” said senior forward Spencer Weisz, one of four Tigers averaging double figures. “We have a lot of fans we know will come support us. Hopefully the atmosphere will be in our favor just as much as theirs.”
Coach Mitch Henderson, who played for Princeton’s last undefeated Ivy team in 1998, refuses to lament the situation.
“You can waste a lot of time thinking about things that way,” he said. “We’ve really just tried to focus on things that are important as they relate to the game. We know it’s going to be a huge challenge, so we’re excited for it.”
If Princeton loses, it is guaranteed an NIT berth as league champ. Despite having to become the first Ivy team to go 16-0 to reach the NCAAs, the Tigers fully support the new conference tournament.
“In the long run it’s a great thing for the league,” Weisz said. “It provides so much exposure. We’re recruiting at a national level now, competing with the top programs. It’s a great way to showcase the talent in the league and the competitiveness of our conference.”
“I think it’s good,” Henderson added. “I think this showcases the league in all the right ways. Of course we want to be the ones standing on Sunday, but we know there’s more work to do and that’s fine, that’s the way it should be.”
The Tigers enter the post-season with a 17-game winning streak, second longest in the nation behind Vermont’s 20, but Henderson feels they have not peaked.
“The beauty of what we are is, we’ve had a lot of wins and we’ve seen them happen in a lot of different ways,” he said. “Our defense has been very good and that’s what we’ve relied on. I think our offense is catching up. I like where we are.”
Senior forward Steven Cook leads Princeton in scoring at 13.8 points per game, followed by sophomore guards Devin Cannady (13.7) and Myles Stephens (11.9), and Weisz (10.6). Each has stepped up at different times.
“They’re all committed to doing whatever it takes to win and if it’s somebody else’s turn to shine, they’re OK with that,” Henderson said.
They must shine two more times, starting with a Penn team they beat 61-52 at home and 64-49 in Philadelphia.
“I feel like every game we’ve played them since my tenure has been a competitive one that could go either way,” Weisz said. “Fortunately we got two already this year but we need to get a third to get our next goal done.”