It has to be a misprint.
Glancing at this year’s Ivy League basketball standings, the only logical conclusion a knowledgeable college hoops fan would come up with is that a mistake must have been made.
There’s Penn, one half of the perennial Ivy power structure, sitting on top at 8-1. That seems right. In second place is Yale at 5-3, then Cornell at 6-4. Suddenly, the realization sets in—Princeton is nowhere to be found.
Keep on moving down the standings. Next, there’s Harvard at 5-5, a year removed from a 4-23 overall record. Tied with the Crimson for fourth is Dartmouth, which finished last year at 3-25—right below Harvard in last place. Only when you move past the once-woeful Big Green will you find the Tigers, sitting in sixth place at 3-6, just a half-game above cellar-dwelling Brown.
That simply can’t be right. After all, this is Princeton we’re talking about, the team that has 23 NCAA tournament appearances, right? The team that went 13-1 in the Ivy League last year? The legendary program built by Pete Carril? The school that has an entire offense named after it?
Up until the beginning of the Ivy season, the Tigers looked like they might be as strong as ever. Princeton was chosen to repeat as league champion, and with the return of both of its best players from last season—co-captains Will Venable and Judson Wallace—the Tigers seemed practically invincible. Princeton started off the year strong in its non-league games, and entered Ivy play at 9-5.
Then came a 57-52 home defeat to Brown. That loss should have set off the warning bells; not since 1995-96 had the Tigers dropped their Ivy opener. Most fans and pundits, however, figured it was just a bump in an otherwise smooth road to the NCAA tournament. But after a win over Yale, Princeton traveled to Hanover and got beaten by the Big Green. And not beaten in any conventional manner—Dartmouth scored 18 of the game’s final 19 points to pull off the upset. Something was clearly wrong.
Next up was Harvard. Surely Princeton, which carried a 116-35 all-time mark against the Crimson, would begin its inevitable run of dominance against the normally cooperative Cambridge bunch. Harvard had its mind set on halting a 10-game losing streak against the bullies from New Jersey, however, and pulled out an emotional 61-57 win.
After that game, a gaggle of media members assailed coach Joe Scott in a corner of Lavietes Pavilion. To the embattled first-year coach, those reporters must have been far too reminiscent of vultures slowly circling his head. A tired looking Scott, already having to face questions about a potential NIT bid, could only stare blankly at the tape recorders and repeat over and over that his team was “not doing the little things.”
The slide had officially begun.
The Tigers traveled to Pennsylvania three nights later to take on the league-leading Quakers. Princeton pulled out to an 18-point lead, but blew it and eventually succumbed in overtime, killing all Tiger title hopes—a fourth Ivy loss essentially means no chance at the NCAAs.
That defeat, though sufficiently painful, was far from the lowlight of the season, which would instead come the following Friday night. Hosting Cornell, Princeton again led well into the second half. But an inexplicable 20-0 run from the Big Red erased an eight-point deficit and resulted in Cornell’s first win at Jadwin Gym in 20 years.
Forget about the NCAA tournament—that crushing at home destroyed any residual chance the Tigers had of earning a selection to the National Invitational Tournament. Princeton’s poor play can be described partially by the chronic back injury of star center Judson Wallace, which has limited his availability and dulled the Tigers’ claws. But Wallace’s back can’t explain the fact that the team is poised for its worst Ivy League season ever.
Not once has a Princeton team finished below .500 in league play since it joined the Ancient Eight in 1956. With two more losses, this year’s edition of the Tigers would be ensured of that dubious honor. And if Princeton splits this weekend’s road trip to Columbia and Cornell—the most likely outcome of the two games—then Harvard would enter its game in New Jersey on the season’s last weekend with the chance to give the Tigers their record-setting eighth loss.
While such a loss would not ensure the demise of Princeton’s illustrious program, it would count as another milestone for Harvard in a season that has seen the Crimson take several steps toward establishing its own winning tradition. For now, Harvard must hope that future fans will again find the Crimson above the Tigers in the standings, and not think twice about it.
—Staff writer Caleb W. Peiffer can be reached at email@example.com.