Not everyone is all that enamored with Princeton’s perfect season, most notably the women’s NCAA Tournament selection committee.
The committee made the Tigers an eight seed heading into the tournament that begins Friday.
While it’s the highest seed ever for an Ivy League school, it raised a few eyebrows after Princeton was held up as the darlings of the basketball world alongside the much-ballyhooed 34-0 Kentucky men’s team for being the only undefeated squads in Division I. Tigers coach Courtney Banghart’s phone hasn’t stop buzzing since the announcement, with coaches texting her to say how wrong it was that that her team didn’t get a higher seed.
“We’ve almost in a way become America’s Team, I can’t tell you the amount of support we’ve gotten from inside the business. I’m not going to repeat the language that I’ve received, but I think people (a) they don’t want us in their bracket and (b) they thought that this was the story that they’re all living along with us.”
It’s hard to argue with the sentiment that the Tigers got shortchanged, especially considering that Princeton was a nine seed the last two times it was in the tournament with a lesser resume:
- This squad is just the 15th women’s team to enter the NCAAs unbeaten.
- They won 19 games away from home or at neutral sites, convincingly. Princeton won by an average of 25 points this season - second to only UConn for margin of victory.
- They climbed to 13th in the final Top 25 poll of the season.
That’s pretty impressive for any school, but especially one that doesn’t offer athletic scholarships and takes a three-week break in the middle of the season for exams.
“I’m disappointed how the committee seeded them and that’s their decision,” said Ivy League executive director Robin Harris, who also spent nine years at the NCAA offices. “I might have a quibble here and there of a seed as a fan and a commissioner, but never felt that way about a seeding like this and it’s off base. It doesn’t reflect quality and competitiveness of Princeton.”
The committee noted that Princeton’s strength of schedule hurt the Tigers.
But Harris and Banghart took exception to the committee’s assessment of the level of competition in the Ivy League.
When the committee released its top 20 seeds a month ago the Tigers were just outside the list at 21 or 22 according to the chair Dru Hancock. They fell nearly a dozen spots in the last few weeks despite not losing a game.
“You can’t do better than be undefeated,” Hancock said. “But at the end of the day, when all was discussed by the committee, they didn’t have a win in the Top 25. They really played a couple of teams and won in the top 25 to 50.”
Princeton had wins over NCAA Tournament teams American and Pittsburgh - both on the road as well as victories at Michigan and Duquesne. Banghart tried to get top teams on her schedule, including a few in the area, but was refused.
“Scheduling is an issue for so many reasons,” Banghart said. “We can’t even get the top teams to play us on the road. For them, if they lose it’s awful and if they win it doesn’t help them.”
Conference scheduling is unique to the Ivy League. No other conference plays its games on back-to-back nights with late-night bus trips between cities. Taking a four-hour ride from Cornell to Columbia on a Friday night in the winter and then playing the next day takes a toll on teams. And with no end of season conference tournament, every game matters even more.
Huskies coach Geno Auriemma can appreciate the challenge it represents.
“Winning every game in your league is impressive regardless of when you do it and who you do it against,” said Auriemma, who has led six undefeated teams into the NCAA Tournament - five of which won titles. “Then, when you take into consideration you are preparing for two teams and you have to do it back-to-back, it’s not easy. I’ve heard a lot of questions about what league people are in a lot this year, but the bottom line is to be able to do it and to do it the way they have done it is pretty special. I think it should be celebrated regardless of what happens in the tournament.”
The Tigers have had a special season, but have a chance to do more - including showing the selection committee it got it wrong.
Princeton opens on Saturday against ninth-seeded Green Bay - another mid-major power. A win and they could potentially play Maryland, the No. 1 seed in the Tigers’ region.
“We are just taking it one game at a time,” said senior star Blake Dietrick. “When I was a freshman we were so close to that win and we were in it the whole game. We are so close to proving we can get over that edge and get the ‘W’ in postseason. Hopefully this is the year.”
The Tigers are trying to add to their unprecedented season with a victory in the NCAAs.
That would only be the second win for an Ivy League school, joining Harvard’s upset of No. 1 Stanford in 1998. That’s also the same year that the last mid-major entered the NCAAs unbeaten. Liberty was undefeated heading into the tournament and was given a 16-seed and a first-round matchup against unbeaten Tennessee. The Flames lost by 44 points.
“Winning a game would be so big for this team, the university, the Ivy League,” Banghart said. “Nothing can take away from the incredible season we’ve already had.”
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