You really couldn’t have drawn it up any better. Storylines abound as the Ivy League prepares to hold its first ever men’s basketball tournament. Rivalries? Check. History? Hell yeah. A shot at perfection? You got it. Saturday’s semifinals feature the Ivy League’s best basketball rivalry and the conference’s oldest one. Penn and Princeton will take center stage early Saturday afternoon with Harvard and Yale to follow.
The quartet and its coaches account for basically everything you need to know about Ivy League basketball over the last half century. The Crimson or Bulldogs have been the conference’s NCAA Tournament representative for each of the last five seasons. The Tigers took that honor home in 2011. Penn coach Steve Donahue preceded Princeton with three straight league titles at Cornell. Before that, the Quakers and Tigers either won or shared all but two Ivy League titles between 1963 and 2007. Penn and Princeton were so dominant that they used to schedule their second regular season matchup for the Tuesday after the other six Ancient Eight schools wrapped up their conference slates. The games often served as de facto conference championships.
With a real conference championship now on the books, the Quakers and Tigers will be meeting for the 237th time on Saturday. Penn leads the all-time series, 124-112 after the most recent meeting on Feb. 7. Since then, the Quakers and Tigers are the two hottest teams in the Ivy League—Penn has won six of its last eight games while Princeton finished its Ivy League slate without a loss. After losing to Yale in the teams’ first go-round, the Quakers humiliated the Elis at home. Two weeks, the Quakers got revenge against a Harvard team that beat Penn by ten in Cambridge.
Even though the Tigers clinched the Ivy League’s top seed two weekends ago, Princeton did not lay off the gas in the conference’s final regular season weekend. The Tigers dropped the Crimson in the closing seconds for the second time last Friday before ripping Dartmouth’s big green limbs off the following night. While the Penn-Princeton rivalry is old—the teams first met in 1903—it is more notable for the success of the two programs. The Quakers and Tigers have combined for 51 conference championships and 26 of the league’s 43 NCAA Tournament wins.
If the Penn-Princeton rivalry is Philadelphia’s Main Line, Harvard and Yale just bought a place at Two Liberty Place. You thought The Game was just a football rivalry? You would be wrong. Not only have the Crimson and Bulldogs played meaningful basketball games for the first time ever in recent years, the teams and their head coaches are not particularly fond of one another.
Both matchups this season—two Harvard wins—have gotten chippy. The last time that the two teams met at the Palestra, Steve Mondou-Missi ’15 put the finishing touches on an epic late season collapse by the Bulldogs. Yale coach James Jones does not forget that game and has taken exception to Tommy Amaker’s recruiting tactics, saying in 2014 that his program “could not get involved with many of the kids” that Amaker has brought to Cambridge.
Both semifinal matchups and the championship if Princeton wins on Saturday feature matchups that have gone the same way in two playings this season. It is not easy to beat a team three teams in a season. Since 2002, three pairs of Ivy League teams have met thrice in a season and never has one team won all three matchups. Of last season’s Final Four teams, Villanova was the only one to beat a team (15-18 Georgetown) three times.
Did we mention that the tournament is being played at the Palestra? The old dog, which is celebrating its 90th anniversary this season and has hosted more games, more teams, and more NCAA Tournaments than any other arena, will learn a new trick this weekend. The Cathedral of College Basketball has seen its fair share of Ivy League, high school, and college basketball over the years. In 2012 and 2013, Notre Dame senior Steve Vasturia and Miami junior Ja’Quan Newton squared off in the always star-powered Philadelphia Catholic League finals, which began being played at the Palestra in 1937.
When a high school senior named LeBron James came to Philadelphia to square off with Maureece Rice and his Strawberry Mansion Knights, the game was played at the historic arena and even Allen Iverson was a guest in the hallowed bleachers. Miles Bridges, Tyler Hansbrough, Jeremy Lin, Kyle Lowry, and Jameer Nelson have all been visitors at the Ivy League’s largest arena. Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, and James came to the Palestra to take on a team of Philadelphia stars during the 2011 NBA Lockout.
The building feels old school. Photographers complain about the sightlines and players bemoan the small locker rooms but that all is overpowered by the building’s charm and history. While the stands feature minimal lighting, the court is a brightly illuminated center stage. Ivy League and Philadelphia Big Five banners hang from the rafters. The building feels and literally looks like a cathedral.
We’re supposed to be unbiased and all but I think that the Quakers making the inaugural Ivy League Tournament is the best thing that could have happened for the conference. Sure, the hosts could get their doors blown off by Princeton on Saturday afternoon but a tournament played at your home arena without you playing in it is like when you go out to dinner with a friend and a friend of a friend and your friend goes to the bathroom. Trust us, having the Philadelphia horse in the race will make the whole weekend a lot better.
To understand what the Palestra means to Philadelphia, you have to know a little bit about the City of Brotherly Love. My senior religion teacher described Philadelphia as the most parochial place he had ever lived. For being the nation’s fifth-largest city, Philadelphia has a small-town feel. Residents identify themselves by their neighborhoods and Catholics do likewise with their parishes. The small-town, family affair goes all the way down to the city’s most popular sport.
While the Eagles dominate Philadelphia’s professional sports scene, college basketball gives you a better idea of what the city is all about. Philadelphia has six Division I college basketball teams to its name and each has its own rabid fan base. Big Five games sell out whether it’s Villanova-Penn on a Saturday night at the Palestra or Temple-La Salle midweek at 19th and Olney. Big Five wins are oftentimes more meaningful than conference ones and the rivalries are some of the most intense in college basketball. A talented and high stakes high school basketball scene only adds to the fun.
Competing in the Big Five has a special pull for players and coaches alike. John Giannini has been the head man at La Salle since 2004. Phil Martelli is in his 22nd season at St. Joseph’s. Martelli’s Jesuit high school and Temple coach Fran Dunphy’s alma mater play an annual Thanksgiving football game. Dunphy coached the Quakers for 17 seasons before taking his talents to North Broad Street in 2006. One of Dunphy’s assistants at Penn was Donahue, who hails from the same Philadelphia suburb as his former boss and current Big Five rival.
Villanova coach Jay Wright grew up north of the city and was an assistant under former Drexel coach Eddie Burke. Fraternal is one word you could use to describe amateur basketball in Philadelphia. To tie it all together, Bill “Speedy” Morris, the all-time winningest coach in Philadelphia Catholic League history, coached those 2012 and 2013 league championship games at the Palestra with St. Joseph’s Prep, went against Martelli, Dunphy, and Wright while he was the at La Salle, and game planned for Donahue while the Penn coach was a high schooler at Cardinal O’Hara and Morris was in charge at Roman Catholic High School. The city and its basketball history are parochial, both in the Catholic and traditional meaning of the word, and no building is a greater reflection of that than the Cathedral of College Basketball.
Philadelphia has won only one major sports championship since 1983. Whether it is Rocky or the ’01 Iverson-led Sixers, Philadelphia is a city of underdogs. Its love of college basketball reflects that mentality. Of the ten largest cities in the US, Philadelphia and New York are the only two with more than four Division I basketball programs. The city has its own de facto basketball conference and its own unique basketball culture. It’s why former Philadelphia mayor and Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell has season tickets for Penn basketball and why Smokey Joe’s is packed after big Quaker wins. It’s why 60,000 people turned out for Villanova’s parade through Center City last April and why Nelson still gets a standing ovation when he comes back to play the Sixers.
Philadelphia may be in its own little world when it comes to college basketball but the city wouldn’t have it any other way. Philadelphia relishes the fact that Villanova beat North Carolina on a miraculous buzzer beater and that St. Joseph’s is one of only three teams this century with a perfect regular season and that La Salle rode a Southwest Philly floater to the Sweet Sixteen four seasons ago and that Temple throws the kitchen sink at Syracuse or Kansas or Indiana and even that Penn has won 25 Ivy League titles and played in arguably the greatest Final Four ever.
You can market it all you want—more than its beverages, its casinos, its music, and its iconic Love Park, Philadelphia loves it college basketball and the arena that helps to tell so many of its stories. The Ivy League will get to see why this weekend and will have a chance to make some history of its own.
Now to the (quite few) picks:
PRINCETON VS PENN
All good things must come to an end―the Ivy League regular season as we once knew it, Harambe, this column. This weekend will mark the end of the road for three Ivy League teams. As Princeton takes on Penn then, we’ve decided to take a look back at how the Quakers traditionally have traditionally dealt with the Tigers.
For those of you new to the Ivy League I’ll provide some background. A Quaker―according to a reliable source, Wikipedia―is a member of a historically Christian group generally known as the Religious Society of Friends. They are plentiful in the Northeast. Tigers roughly fall under the same definition.
As the Quakers take on the Tigers then, we figured it would be valuable to look at the way in which Quakers have traditionally dealt with their feline counterparts from Princeton. Given we’ve seen Princeton stun the Quakers several times this season, we decided to take a more nuanced approach to the question at hand. We hate to say it, but it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say Penn sort of stumbled into the tournament after Columbia stumbled just a bit harder.
Let’s not give Princeton a break here though. They too have not yet been vindicated by reliable sources. According to a credible source known as Urban Dictionary, Princeton is nothing more than, “a medium-sized town in New Jersey, home not only to the Tigers, but also Palmer Square, and more importantly, a centrally located J. Crew.”
Ah, how could we forget about Princeton’s centrally located J. Crew! Rumor has it it’s almost as legendary as the Tigers’ historic ‘locomotive’ chant which no one has actually ever heard of.
It’s tough to say this given how much Princeton sucks at non-basketball activities, but the even playing at home, we think the Quakers won’t be able to move past their natural inclination to peace.
HARVARD VS YALE
We don’t typically take to quoting other publications, but I think the Yale Daily News did a particularly good job of summing up one of the most prolific games witnessed in Harvard basketball history―and we weren’t even playing.
Take it away, YDN.
“When it came time for the fateful inbounds play with 1.8 seconds remaining — a lob and game-winning finish by Big Green forward Gabus Maldunas, a senior playing his final game for pride and pride alone — only the 1000-plus fans in attendance could see. That shot created a one-game playoff the following weekend between Yale and Harvard at the famed Palestra, and the rest is history.”
We’re not actually sure how the brutal 2015 Yale-Dartmouth game and the ensuing one game playoff against Harvard are relevant here, but we figured if there’s ever a time to pour some salt on those wounds, then why not today.
It’ll probably sting on Saturday, too.
—Staff writer Troy Boccelli can be reached at email@example.com.
—Staff writer Stephen J. Gleason can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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