In an era of money-grubbing conference realignment, it makes sense that the Ivy League, the lone leftover of the no-scholarship bygone days, is going back to its roots.
Penn and Princeton, long the dominant forces in the Ancient Eight, are experiencing a rebirth after an unusual period of drought. From 1969 to 2007, either the Quakers or the Tigers won all but two Ivy League titles, a ridiculous flip-flopping of power that made for a two-game-a-year showdown for the NCAA tournament automatic bid.
But the Tigers and Quakers nosedived off the map, skidding to the bottom of the league in stunning fashion before being rebuilt by their own. Jerome Allen, hired midseason after Glen Miller was let go in 2009, is slowly bringing Penn back to life, and at Princeton, Mitch Henderson takes the reins after former teammate Sydney Johnson took the Tigers from last to co-Ivy champions last season.
This return to glory, though, is different.
This time it’s not Penn, Princeton and six other teams no one cares about.
For starters, Harvard will likely enter the season as the favorite. The co-champs with Princeton, the Crimson lost the chance for its first NCAA tournament bid since 1946 after losing a one-game playoff in the most painful of fashion. The Crimson return all of their starters from that team, plus Tommy Amaker adds freshmen Wesley Saunders, a three-star power forward, and Kenyatta Smith, a three-star center.
Cornell, the team that soared when Princeton and Penn faltered, struggled last season with a young roster, but Chris Wroblewski is back for his senior season.
And Yale could have one of its best team in years. Leading scorer Greg Mangano, who played with Team USA at the World University Games, is one of four starters returning for James Jones.
“It’s so much better this way,’’ said Henderson, who as a player was part of some of the most dominant Princeton teams in history. “When you go 14-0,you don’t necessarily get those road challenges you need for the postseason. This league is so much better now. There’s no margin for error anymore.’’
Now the catch: making everyone else believers about the strength and depth of the Ivy League.
Henderson was part of arguably the most well thought of Ivy League team in recent memory. In 1998, Princeton soared to No. 7 in the country and earned a five-seed in the NCAA tournament.
But since -- even amid the dawn of mid-major success -- there have been more skeptics than believers.
Two years ago, Cornell rolled to a 27-4 regular-season mark, losing at then-No. 1 Kansas by just five points in the regular season. The selection committee handed the Big Red a No. 12 seed and Cornell promptly used it to dismiss Temple and Wisconsin en route to a Sweet 16 finish.
“Absolutely a team in this league can be ranked No. 7 again,’’ Henderson said. “Why not? Look at what Butler did and VCU. You need to hit a home run in recruiting, to get that Matt Howard kind of guy, but it can happen. If you get great senior leadership, good juniors who stay and develop, it definitely can happen. That’s the beauty of basketball. Anything can happen.’’