USA TODAY Sports Weekly
Princeton’s run shows how much committee under-ranks
It’s the madness that makes March so special, and the past few days have been absolutely bonkers.
Princeton continued as one of the poster children for why this is the greatest month in sports, with the 15-seed Tigers reaching the men’s Sweet 16 with last weekend’s 78-63 win over Missouri in Sacramento, California.
But as the men’s NCAA Tournament’s latest uplifting underdog scenario plays out, Princeton also symbolized what’s becoming an increasing problem for the Big Dance.
The Ivy League champs were the best team on the court start to finish, producing the largest margin of victory ever by a team seeded 15th. They shredded the Missouri defense while limiting the fourth-place Southeastern Conference team’s ability to get out on fast breaks.
Note to selection committee: There are hidden gems
It’s just the latest example of the selection committee badly under-ranking a midmajor program, as it becomes increasingly clear that those teams are not getting the respect they deserve. And it’s the New Jersey teams the past two years that have made it clear that metrics don’t measure things like heart and determination.
“The best version of us we felt like could beat the best version of them, and they did it,” Princeton coach Mitch Henderson said. “Yes, we’re going to the Sweet 16 but this is a really unique group and I think in the tournament each one has a special life, and this one has a really special life.”
It’s time for the committee members to start catching on to the level of play of some of these supposed lesser leagues, which are increasingly making
their seeds look silly.
Anyone who watched the Ivy League this season saw how ultra-competitive it was. Every game was a battle. And Princeton wasn’t even the best team during the second half of the season. Yet the Tigers have obliterated the bracket, beginning with its first-round takedown of East 2-seed Arizona.
“The last five or six games of the season, they were all huge games. They all felt like championship games,” senior forward Tosan Evbuomwan said. “The Yale loss (in overtime on Feb. 18) was a turning point for us. We were able to refocus the day after
in practice and go forward. But all those games were big games and that kind of gives us confidence, going into each game here, and the Ivy championship as well, like we’ve been here before. Obviously, this is the biggest stage, and we were able to get it done.”
It was the same blueprint a year ago for Saint Peter’s, the first 15-seed to reach the Elite Eight. The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference was brutal night in and night out, and what emerged was a battle-hardened squad that took down Kentucky, Murray State and Purdue before falling to finalist North Carolina.
Already this year it was Furman advancing to the second round as a 13-seed, and Fairleigh
Dickinson pulling off the biggest stunner of all, emerging from the play-in game to become just the second 16-seed ever to advance, beating Purdue.
The more the merrier?
Missouri coach Dennis Gates feels there are plenty of teams just like Princeton that didn’t get in and thinks it’s time for the NCAA to expand the tournament past the current 68 teams, an idea that has picked up support in recent years.
“It’s always been a great tournament,” he said. “I just think it has been a tournament – the NCAA Tournament has always expanded, if you look at the history of it. And I truly believe a lot of good teams have been left out. If you look at the NIT, if you look at teams in the Ivy League.
“We were fortunate enough to play Penn, who was the preseason favorite. We were fortunate enough to watch as much Princeton as we could.
“I have seen several very good teams in that conference that could very well be in the NCAA Tournament.
“All I’m saying is, in the big picture, it’s probably time for expansion – that’s a good team we played, and several teams, including Vanderbilt from our conference, were left out.”
New Jersey’s best?
Princeton looks like the best team from New Jersey right now, bad losses and all.
By contrast, if Rutgers had received an invitation, like it should have, the Scarlet Knights, having lost seven of their last 10, likely would have been an 11 seed. And they ended up getting knocked out in the first round of the NIT.
And while it’s not fair to Princeton, how about Arizona, which worked hard all season to secure a No. 2 seed and deserved a softer first foe.
For Princeton, it’s a metricsbased spiral it can’t escape right now. Henderson has repeatedly expressed his frustration with his inability to get high-major programs – most notably Rutgers – to play his team. They couldn’t schedule a single highmajor this season. That after knocking off South Carolina and Oregon State last season.
At least privately, Missouri had to be ecstatic after Princeton dispatched a Pac-12 power in Arizona.
But it’s the latest example of the quality of the teams midmajor leagues are producing. And it’s about time the selection committee starts giving some of the teams the respect they deserve.