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History not on men's hoops' side after loss to Yale

There's an interesting fact about Ivy League men's basketball — one that only the conference's closest followers are aware of: Since 1992, the league's representative in the NCAA Tournament has never lost a league game to a team whose name does not begin with 'P.'

Either Princeton or Penn has advanced to the NCAAs every year. So in layman's terms, what this statistic means is that in each of the past eight seasons, the winner of this annual two-team race has always gone undefeated against the Ivy League's "other six" — the bottom-feeding collection of Harvards, Yales and Columbias that Princeton and Penn fans mockingly refer to as the "dwarfs."

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In 1993, 1994 and 1995, Penn went undefeated in conference play. In 1999, the Quakers lost to Princeton but still won the league with a 13-1 record. In 1996, the Tigers took the title despite two regular-season losses to the Quakers. In 1997 and 1998, Princeton went undefeated.

History has been quite clear on this issue. It's okay for Princeton or Penn to lose to each other in those wild Tuesday-night classics, but lose to one of the "dwarfs," and you've just about sealed your fate. Crazy things happen when the Tigers and Quakers meet, but what really determines the league title is which team takes care of business with the rest of its schedule.

Perhaps more than anything, this trend should have fans of the men's basketball team worried, in light of the Tigers' upset loss to Yale last Saturday. Certainly, Princeton is not out of the Ivy League race. The Tigers trail by just one game and will have a chance to erase that deficit next Tuesday night when Penn visits Jadwin. Still, the loss to Yale may be more difficult to overcome than even the Princeton players realize.

There's just something about a loss to one of the "dwarfs" that can turn an entire league race upside down.

One year ago today, Princeton rallied from a 27-point second half deficit to defeat Penn at the Palestra. The Quakers were left for dead, but instead came back to win the league in convincing fashion.

Penn's players and fans would have you believe that this was some sort of heartwarming tale in which the Quakers faced their inner demon (the collapse against Princeton) and overcame it. That's all fine and good, but the fact is, Penn barely had time to get used to second place. Three days after the Palestra Miracle, the Tigers lost to Yale in double overtime.

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Feeling like a prisoner just granted clemency from the governor, the Quakers stole away with the Ivy title, crushing everything in their path for the season's final three weeks. It was an ironic role reversal from the 1996 season when, despite losing twice to Penn, Princeton was granted a reprieve when the Quakers lost to a duo of "dwarfs" — Dartmouth and Yale. Princeton eventually toppled Penn in a one-game playoff that year.

You have to believe that the Quakers will be given new life by the Elis' upset of the Tigers this year. Penn had played through most of this season as if the pressure of preseason expectations was taking its toll on the Quakers. Penn lost big at Kentucky and Kansas and also dropped a tight one early against a beatable LaSalle team.

Princeton's loss to Yale, however, means two things. For starters, Penn won't be feeling nearly as much pressure when they visit Jadwin next week. The Quakers should enter that game with a one-game cushion.

Furthermore, the Elis' upset will be a wakeup call for the Quakers. Although stranger things have happened, it is now quite unlikely that Penn will overlook any of the "dwarfs" on its own schedule, meaning the Tigers will probably have to take out the Quakers themselves.

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That's not to say that Princeton fans should immediately write off the season. In fact, the Tigers were the last team to win the Ivies while also losing to the "dwarfs." In 1992, Princeton lost to Yale and Cornell and still won the conference with a 12-2 record.

Furthermore, the Tigers' schedule has become quite forgiving. Princeton is about to embark on a seven-game Ivy homestand that could not possibly come at a better time. The friendly confines of Jadwin, combined with the eventual return of the Tigers' walking wounded, could be enough to shift momentum back in Princeton's favor.

Last season, the Tigers lost to the Elis during the second half of the season and — with three road games immediately following the trip to New Haven — never really recovered. This year, there is plenty of time for Princeton to catch itself and prevent a protracted slump.

Still, if the Tigers are to rally and recapture the Ivy crown, they will have to buck the trend. History is clear. Losses to "dwarfs" have ways of coming back to haunt you.

And if Princeton splits with Penn and finishes a game behind the Quakers at season's end, we'll all know exactly which game the Tigers will wish they could play over again.

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