Ivy League school pull upsets almost every March, and the Princeton Tigers look to continue that improbable tradition.
Since 2010, there have been four instances where an Ivy League school busted brackets: Cornell in 2010, Harvard in 2013 and 2014 and Yale in 2016. Schools coming out of that conference typically fall between the 14th and 12th seeds, and it’s starting to become normal to pick these upsets because they’re not even upsets anymore. I mean, technically, they are. But these teams can play. The four squads that shocked college hoops had incredible teams with players who stepped up, and playing in a hidden conference certainly helps.
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The average fan isn’t paying attention to the Ivy League. That’s beginning to change, and the Princeton Tigers will be representing their conference after winning the tournament and earning the automatic bid. It’s their first trip to the Big Dance since 2011 where they lost to Kentucky in the first round. This year, the Tigers finished with a 23-6 mark that’s bolstered by a perfect 14-0 in conference play, and they’re entering the tourney on a 19-game winning streak.
Princeton hasn’t beaten a top-50 RPI team all year, and Bucknell is the highest at 63. Notre Dame is the 23rd best squad by that criteria. However, the Irish are just 8-8 against the same crop that Princeton’s winless against, but, in late January Notre Dame slipped up and got dropped by Georgia Tech.
Just for some context, Duke was 16 in RPI last year, and Yale was 44.
Princeton doesn’t have a fighting chance with talent, but don’t tell me that the Bulldogs had more talent than Duke last year. Mike Brey has four guys averaging double-figures, and Bonzie Colson is their leader. The junior is a walking double-double with 17.5 points and 10.2 rebounds, and he’s also in the running for the Wooden Award. Devin Cannady and Steven Cook pace the Tigers with 13.7 points a night each, but Princeton is one of the nation’s 10 best teams defensively.
On average, they allow 61.5 points a night, and that puts them at 10th overall, but they’ve given up just 1,783 points on the year, and Virginia is the only team to have given up less (1,780). Mitch Henderson has an incredibly disciplined team who doesn’t foul (468, third-fewest) and does a tremendous job not letting their opponents get any looks at the hoop. Their 1,516 field goals allowed is the lowest total in the nation, and teams struggle to get offensive rebounds (231) and second-chance points.
Notre Dame doesn’t have a juggernaut offense, but they spread the defense and raining down threes gives them their best chance at beating the Tigers. The Irish shoot a ton of threes, about 24 a night, and they make more than their fair share. Matt Ryan, Matt Farrell, Rex Pflueger and Bonzie Colson all pass the 40 percent mark. Ryan doesn’t see much time, but Brey’s thrown him out there for double-digit minutes in their last two contests, and he’s someone who the defense absolutely cannot help off of.
Farrell, the team’s third-leading scorer, is more voluminous than his first-name brother and just a touch more inaccurate. Pfleuger’s a spot-up guy, and Colson doesn’t spend much time on the perimeter, but V.J. Beacham is the guy who the Tigers need eyes on at all times. He’s a good all-around player but is much more lethal from behind the arc. At 6-8, Beacham shoots over small defenders with ease and he’s third in the ACC in threes made (86) and percentage (37.6); in 18 conference games, his clip jumps up to 39.5.
As potent as the Irish are, their defense is average at best. History isn’t on their side, and the formula of these Ivy League upsets are founded on lockdown defense. If this game turns into a sloppy offensive mess, the probability of the Tigers advancing to the Round of 32 gets even higher.
RPI rankings courtesy of ESPN. All other stats are from Sports-Reference.
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