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Men's hoops finds higher stakes, more pressure in NCAA tourney this year

Two years ago, Everyone's Favorite Underdog traveled to Indianapolis for a first-round game in the NCAA tournament. The men's basketball team had nothing to lose – it was facing defending national champion UCLA, and it wasn't expected to win.

What the Tigers were expected to do was play their usual role in the NCAA two-step – fight valiantly so all America could cheer for the underdog and make a quick exit.

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The stakes are different this year.

As compared to the Princeton team in March of 1996 that had nothing to lose, this group of Tigers has nothing to gain in its first-round game.

More significantly, they have absolutely everything to lose.

Of all 64 teams anticipating their first-round matchups, Princeton quite possibly has the most pressure on its back. If the Tigers win, they were supposed to – after all, they are the No. 8 team in the nation according to the polls and the tournament selection committee bestowed a No. 5 seed upon them.

A Princeton loss, however, would give fodder to every naysayer in America. For everyone who scoffed at the Tigers' weak schedule, low RPI rating or the fact that the team ascended into college basketball's top 10 only because teams ranked above Princeton lost, a loss to UNLV would be the justification they were seeking.

Sure, senior center Steve Goodrich said that the Tigers' ranking was most likely inflated, but there is a distinct difference between a player's words and a box score.

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An early exit by Princeton would also send a strong message to the tournament selection committee. Never again would a highly-regarded team from a small conference get a high seed, despite its position in the polls. The ceiling – and the precedent – would be set. Teams from the non-power conferences would be relegated to the bowels of the seedings.

In that aspect, this year's Tigers are the benchmark that will be applied for years to come. They carry the torch for all the "little guys" of college basketball – those teams that excel despite playing the Monmouths and Browns of the hoops world night after night.

There is no question that Princeton is one of college basketball's media darlings, especially this season as articles about the Tigers pop up in national newspapers and magazines all over the place.

But as much as the media has tried to depict this Princeton team (again) as Everyone's Favorite Underdog, the tables have turned. A first-round victory, once an incredible feat that seized a nation, is now the expectation. A valiant loss, once the expectation, would confirm the skeptics' thoughts – these Tigers are overrated.

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And that, unfortunately, would be the lasting impression of the season, should Princeton fall in Hartford tomorrow night. Who would remember the 26-1 regular-season mark, best in the country? The school-record-tying 19-game winning streak? The exceptional coaching job by Bill Carmody?

No one.

All that would be remembered about the 1997-98 Princeton Tigers is that they were overrated.

A first-round win by the Tigers won't be as big a deal this time around the "Dance" floor. When the backdoor heard round the world went in two seasons ago, the Princeton campus erupted in celebration, for the Tigers had pulled off the unthinkable. If Princeton wins tomorrow, will there be much of a celebration?

Probably, but most brackets in campus-wide tournament pools show the Tigers reaching the Sweet 16 not due to blind faith but because that is the expected result.

To put tomorrow night's clash against UNLV in Vegas terms, Princeton has a lot more riding on the result than do the Rebels.

"We have something to prove in the tournament," Goodrich said in yesterday's New York Times.

The Tigers have something to prove to the media – that they aren't just Everyone's Favorite Underdog anymore.

They have something to prove to their many doubters – that they deserved to be ranked despite playing a schedule that doesn't compare to other top teams.

Most of all, they have something to prove to themselves – that they are capable of more than a quick one-and-out in the tournament.

These Tigers are here to show they are here to stay.

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