Princeton forces Ivy League playoff

PHILADELPHIA -- The Ivy League proudly refers to itself as the Ancient Eight, comfortable in its status as a relic and an antique in an age when newer is always equal to better.

This is a place where things are done a certain way because they’ve always been done a certain way. Change is welcome, but only when it is incorporated into the honored traditions of the past.

So while the rest of the country stages its conference showcases, bringing the early madness to March with Champ Week, the Ivy League doles out its automatic bid to the NCAA tournament the old-fashioned way: to the regular-season winner.

And when there is a tie, the old league reverts to the age-old rules of the playground: one game, winner take all.

It is archaic, perhaps, but is it really so wrong?

When there is only the hope of one bid -- and the Ivy has never received an at-large -- is it more fair to let the team that grinds it out over 14 games represent your league or the Johnny-come-lately who gets hot or catches lightning in a bottle for 72 hours?

“I think it’s a good way to do it,’’ Princeton coach Sydney Johnson said. “That’s the way it was when I played and that’s the way it was before and I appreciate that. I think it’s the right way to go about it.’’

Johnson, some would argue, could afford to be gracious. Thanks to a 70-58 win over rival Penn on Tuesday night, his Tigers now have a 50/50 chance of winning that single ticket.

Princeton will face Harvard at 4 p.m. ET on Saturday in a one-game playoff to decide who is in the NCAA tournament and who is not.

But those reared in the world of the Ivy League understand that this is how it works and appreciate that this is probably how it ought to work.

“Is the glass half full or half empty?” Penn coach Jerome Allen said. “If I’m in first place, I feel pretty good about it, but sitting here like we are, I’d love the chance to keep on playing. But that’s the law of the land. We had an opportunity to extend our season. We had 14 chances and it didn’t happen.’’

On Saturday, most of the talk will center around Harvard. Until it beat Princeton on Saturday, the Crimson had never won even a piece of an Ivy League championship. The school's one and only NCAA tournament appearance came in 1946.

Hey, the school has only been around for 375 years.

Yet Princeton’s share of the title and chance to play for a March bid is every bit as newsworthy. Occasional fans consider the Tigers the elitist league’s elite, but in reality, it has been Princeton which has fallen back among the pack in recent years.

It’s been six years since the Tigers won a share of the crown, which on the scale of Harvard isn’t much but to Princeton fans is an eternity.

The drought chased out one of its own. Former player Joe Scott left as the Tigers head coach for Denver before the posse could catch him.

As the university so often does, it turned to one of its own to replace him, handing the keys over to Johnson.

In his first year, he went 6-23.

“It was pretty lonely,’’ he said. “It was very different than what people were accustomed to at Princeton.’’

Different, too, than what Johnson was accustomed to. He won two Ivy titles as a player, going 14-0 in his senior season.

He has drawn on his own experiences and his own sense of pride to push his players, sometimes coaxing them and sometimes shaming them. On Saturday, when Harvard beat the Tigers to win a part of the Ivy crown, Johnson made his players stay on the court and endure the court storming.

He wanted them to understand what it feels like when you don’t give your all, when you are outhustled and outworked as he thought his Tigers were on Saturday.

“It was painful, real painful,’’ senior Dan Mavraides said. “I hope they didn’t have a camera on me because I got pretty emotional.’’

Johnson went back to that well against Penn. The Tigers led the game 15-4 and then trailed 23-19 at the half. Just under a minute in, the Quakers extended that to 27-19.

Johnson called timeout. He huddled privately with his coaches and when one of them, former player Brian Earl, told him "they just aren’t playing hard enough," Johnson delivered that message to the team.

At first it was patient and then it was straight firebrand, an insistence that the Tigers were simply being too passive, that they weren’t playing hard enough.

In the 15 minutes prior to Johnson’s critical timeout, the Tigers scored four points.

In the 15 minutes after, they scored 37.

Senior Kareem Maddox internalized the message the best. He had two points at halftime and 23 by game’s end. His post dominance forced Penn to sag inside, and once the defense committed, the deft passer found his shooters outside.

The Tigers hit an astounding 14 of their 18 field goals in the second half.

“Several people talked to me at halftime and told me I wasn’t being as aggressive as I normally was,’’ Maddox said. “I didn’t really realize it.’’

And now the challenge is to find the intensity for one more game.

Johnson played in a playoff game in his own career. In 1996, the Tigers beat Penn 63-56 in overtime.

They would go on to beat UCLA in the first round of the NCAA tournament in what would be Pete Carril’s last year.

“To be the coach here, it’s a huge responsibility,’’ Johnson said. “It’s not just a job when you’re coaching your alma mater. In some cases, it’s where you met your wife like I did. It’s about your best friends and you put a lot of love into it. It’s a real challenge, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.’’

Johnson knows the history.

He’s lived the history.

And he appreciates the history.