Ivy League teams can reach the Final Four – it happened in '79
Every year the Ivy League sends a representative to the NCAA basketball tournament. The presence of of an Ivy League team in the Final Four, however, comes along about as often as Haley's Comet. But like the Comet, it does happen. And not just when there's someone named Bill Bradley on your team.
Anyone who grew up as a college basketball fan has heard about the 1979 NCAA tournament. In probably the most famous championship game of all-time, Michigan St. defeated Indiana St, 75-64. The game marked the first, but not the last, meeting between a point guard from Michigan St. named Ervin Johnson and Indiana St. forward Larry Bird.
While the championship game battle between Magic and Bird will certainly be replayed for years to come, its one of the other other teams in that Final Four that ought to capture the attention of any Princeton basketball fan. There, standing alongside two Midwestern state schools and at-the-time basketball powerhouse Depaul, was the University of Pennsylvania.
Yep, the same school that Princeton has now run off five straight victories against, the same school the Tigers perennially battle for the Ivy title.
The story of the 1979 Penn basketball team is the classic tale of an underdog from a small conference that helped make the NCAA tournament is so popular today.
After completing the regular season a modest 19-6, and wrapping up the Ivy League, Penn was seeded ninth in the East Regional. At the time the NCAA tournament consisted of only 40 teams, not 64 like it does today. The absolute worst Penn could have been seeded was tenth, so the selection committee wasn't exactly rewarding the Quakers with a No. 9 seed.
The selection committee had no reason to believe Penn deserved anything better. The Quakers had come out of a weak conference and had even dropped an Ivy League game that season. Biases haven't changed much in 20 years.
Penn had no wins over other tournament teams, and no superstar 20-point-a-game scorer. Sound familiar?
So with little expectation of success Penn embarked on a journey that most peopled figured would end at the very latest in the second round when the Quakers were slated to meet No. 1 seed, and third-ranked, North Carolina.
Then a funny thing happened. After squeaking by Iona in the first-round, the Quakers shocked North Carolina and the basketball world, defeating the Tarheels, 72-71, on Carolina's home court.
In the game, Penn's Tony Price exploded for 25 points. Penn rode Price's hot-hand all the way through the East Regional adding wins over Syracuse and St. Johns. Price scored over 20 points in every game of the East Regional that year, and was named the Regional's Most Outstanding Player.
With the win, Penn earned the Ivy League's first appearance in the Final Four since the 1965 Princeton team led by Bradley, and a meeting with Michigan St. and Magic Johnson.
Johnson and eventual-champions Michigan St. finally ended Penn's miracle run handing the the Quakers a 101-67 thrashing. In a sensational performance, Johnson put up a triple double – scoring 29 points on 9 of 10 shooting from the field, and adding 10 rebounds and 10 assists. Johnson would go on to add a few more triple-doubles and championships to his resume.
In 1979, the NCAA still ran a national third place game, in which Penn faced another future NBA star in Depaul's Mark Aguirre. The Quakers fell to Depaul 96-93, and their magical trip was over.
Even with all the future NBA stars – Magic, Bird and Aguirre playing in the tournament – it was Price who has the tournament's leading scorer with 142 points.
No Ivy team has been back since. The Quakers made their run that year without a future NBA superstar like Bill Bradley – Price played a grand total of five games in the NBA – and entered the tournament with a low seed and few expectations of a trip to the Final Four.
But with a few upsets, some lucky breaks and a dominant performance by one player, Penn surprised everyone.
So before you completely discount an Ivy League team's chances up reaching the Final Four, remember it has happened. And if these things run in cycles the Ivy League is due.
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