The final buzzer that ended the men’s basketball team’s 72-66 victory over Columbia this weekend doubled as a death knell for the Lions’ conference title hopes. They entered the winter as the Ancient Eight’s consensus dark horse, the only team that might be capable of challenging Princeton and Harvard atop of the standings. Now, Columbia is merely the latest example of the ruthlessness of the 14-Game Tournament.
Only 10 days ago, the Lions were in pretty good shape. They had passed their first Ivy test, convincingly beating Cornell on the road, and after chaos unfolded around the league on the afternoon of Jan. 26, Columbia had a chance to move to a painless 2-0 in a rematch at home. But three straight losses — by a total of 13 points — have relegated the Lions to a tie for last place, and while they haven’t yet been mathematically eliminated from the championship, overcoming a three-game deficit against both of the league leaders is an all-but-impossible task.
As they celebrated one of their toughest wins of the season at Jadwin Gymnasium on Saturday night, Princeton players and fans could have felt some compassion for their vanquished foes — after all, the Tigers suffered the same fate just one year ago.
Last year’s Princeton, like this year’s Columbia, was not the Ivy League favorite but was a clear contender before the season. Both teams had some non-conference struggles but showed their potential by beating a future giant-killer on the road (Princeton won at Florida State, which later toppled North Carolina and Duke; Columbia thrashed Villanova, which beat Louisville and Syracuse two weeks ago).
But both teams took three early losses in league play, submarining their dreams of an Ivy League title before the midpoint of the season. Princeton made it one game further than Columbia did, but a 58-54 loss at Yale dropped the Tigers to 2-3 in conference play; despite playing extremely well after that point, they finished two games behind eventual champion Harvard. This year’s Lions may also be capable of a strong finish, but with two unbeaten teams ahead of them, it’s hard to find a path to the top of the league.
“They’ve had a tough start ... they don’t play any games that aren’t close, and I really respect what they’re doing. They gave us a really difficult game,” Princeton head coach Mitch Henderson ’98 said of the Lions.
Saturday’s loss might have been the most heartbreaking one for Columbia, which was only a couple shots away from beating the Tigers at Jadwin, something the last 19 Ivy League visitors had failed to do. The Lions hung tough despite watching Princeton go into NBA Jam-mode from beyond the arc; after making 36 percent of their three-pointers throughout the season, the Tigers more than doubled that rate on Saturday, hitting eight of 11 triples. Many of those were clean shots as a result of Columbia’s focus on defending the post, but regardless of how open they are, no basketball team in the world can be expected to make 73 percent of its threes.
For 40 minutes on Saturday, though, Princeton did exactly that, giving the Lions something with which they are all too familiar — a hard-luck loss. Over the last two seasons, 10 of Columbia’s 13 Ivy League defeats have come by six points or fewer, or in overtime.
“It’s been a tough stretch; they’ve all been tight games, and we’re struggling to get over the hump,” Columbia coach Kyle Smith said. “We’re snakebit, a little bit.”
If the Lions continue to drive and score like they did against Princeton, they will be a very tough opponent for the league leaders — starting next Saturday, when they host Harvard — as well as everyone else in the league. But that comes as little consolation in the Ancient Eight, without the reprieve of a conference tournament.
Meanwhile, another Ivy League team may be copying a recent Princeton trend — and this one should be much more concerning for Orange and Black fans. The 2010-11 Tigers, you may recall, won the Ivy League title and beat Harvard in a thrilling one-game playoff to reach the NCAA tournament. But their success in close games did not start with Doug Davis ’12 hitting a game-winning shot in the tiebreaker at Yale. Before that, Princeton had played six other Ivy League contests that were decided by five points or fewer, and the Tigers won all six. They let inferior teams like Yale, Penn and Columbia hang around at Jadwin, but each time, they pulled out a close victory.
Well, this year’s Harvard team has taken that playbook to the extreme. In its Ivy League opener, the Crimson trailed Dartmouth — a last-place team for three years running — by five points before smacking down an 11-0 run late in the second half. That seemed like a harmless blip ... until Harvard needed a 10-point comeback in the final 90 seconds to beat the Big Green at home the following weekend. This week, the Crimson had the opposite problem, struggling to close out a game against Yale and then watching a 22-point lead slip away against Brown, also at home, before winning in double overtime.
Quite simply, Harvard is lucky to be undefeated. If a fifth foul on point guard Siyani Chambers against Dartmouth isn’t overturned, and if Brown gets one more shot to fall, the defending champions could easily be 2-2, and the league would look a whole lot different. That’s not to say the Crimson isn’t a good team — just that it’s a good team that has been saved by a whole lot of luck in Ivy play. (Though Harvard fans probably see it as karmic justice for football season, when they posted by far the league’s best scoring margin but lost two close games — including a comeback at Princeton — while Penn won the league with six single-digit victories.)
In the long run, that sort of luck is not sustainable. The Crimson’s shakiness should catch up to it sooner or later, especially when it plays tougher teams on the road. Meanwhile, Princeton has looked more solid in recent games and should be the league favorite right now.
But a 14-game season is short enough that fortune doesn’t always balance out, as Harvard and Princeton learned two years ago. And given how that season ended, well, let’s just say these Tigers shouldn’t let their fate come down to one shot in New Haven.
Original URL: http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2013/02/05/32614/