The men's basketball team has received a lot of national attention lately. A top-15 ranking in both major national polls, feature stories in yesterday's USA Today and this week's Sports Illustrated, and junior guard Brian Earl's selection as one of 30 finalists for the John R. Wooden award, which goes to the nation's best college basketball player.
But for all the honors and success, Princeton (11-1) still has yet to face its most important obstacle of the season – the Ivy League schedule. The Tigers open their Ivy League slate this weekend with games at Yale (4-7) and Brown (3-9). Even with all its early season wins, the fate of Princeton's season rests on its Ivy success.
"Wins over good non-conference teams are great, but the Ivy League is much more important," head coach Bill Carmody said. "It has to be – that's what gets you the (NCAA tournament) bid."
The Ivy League is one of the few conferences in Division I basketball that does not have a post-season tournament. Consequently, the league's automatic bid to the NCAA tournament goes to its regular season champion. The Tigers have received that bid the last two years and are favored to return to the tournament this season.
The Tigers' early-season success means that they have a chance of being an at-large selection even if they do not win the league title. If Princeton does finish out of the top spot in the league, however, it will have lost at least two more games, and its national ranking will have likely plummeted.
Seeing how only two teams in the league, Princeton and Harvard, have winning records, it seems unlikely that the Ivy League would receive two bids. Never in the league's history have two teams made the NCAA tournament in the same year. Without victories over the Penns, Yales, and Browns of the world, the Tigers' defeats of Wake Forest and Texas could become insignificant.
"I have no idea," Carmody said of the team's chance for an at-large bid. "You don't want to leave it in somebody else's hands like that." So to assure itself a spot in the NCAA's field of 64, Princeton must first secure the Ivy title, something that is not as easy as it appears.
While Ivy League teams are not as talented as many of the Tigers' early-season opponents, they are more familiar with Princeton and their personnel is different, which will have an effect on the Tigers.
"They match up with us a little bit better," Carmody said. "Teams we played early in the season might have had to put a 6-7 or 6-8 guy on (junior forward) Gabe Lewullis guarding him on the perimeter, now someone 6-4 might be guarding him. The shots he gets are going to be different."
Also, don't expect Ivy teams to role over and play dead just because the mighty No. 15 Princeton Tigers are on the other side of the court. The last time an Ivy team was ranked in the top 15 was 1979, when Penn was ranked 12th. That year the Quakers went all the way to the NCAA Final Four before falling to a Magic Johnson-led Michigan State squad.
Even that team, however, did not make it through its Ivy schedule unscathed. Despite their high national ranking, the Quakers went only 13-1 in the league, dropping a contest on the road at Columbia. And several of Penn's Ivy wins that season were close contests. Princeton went only 7-7 in the Ivy League that season, but took Penn to overtime before losing by two points in both meetings.
Most of the teams in the Ivy League will get nowhere near the NCAA tournament, but every one of them has a chance to make its season by beating Princeton. The Tigers certainly know that, and for that reason Carmody is not the least bit concerned that Princeton will overlook an Ivy opponent and get upset.
"We're not trying to change things too much," Carmody said. "To be honest I haven't said a thing about the Ivy League. They're a bunch of level-headed kids."
Princeton may be ranked in the top 15 nationally for the first time since 1966-67, but starting today that ranking loses most of its meaning. All that matters, from now until the NCAA tournament, is where Princeton is ranked in the Ivy League.