On Feb. 10, just 15 hours after Princeton beat Penn in what might have been the best regular-season game of the year, seniors Gabe Lewullis, a forward, and Brian Earl, a guard, sat on their Princeton dorm-room sofa, pondering the imponderable. "To be down 27 points at the Palestra...." marveled Lewullis, shaking his head. Said Earl, who was just as bewildered, "I've never been down by more than 10 with that much time left and still won the game!"
Against the Quakers the previous night, the Tigers had staged the fourth-biggest comeback in NCAA history (chart, page 76). Trailing 29-3 in the first half (after a 29-0 Penn run) and 40-13 with just over 15 minutes to play, Princeton pressed, treyed and prayed its way to a 50-49 miracle win. As Earl tearfully clutched the rebound of Quakers guard Matt Langel's last-second miss, the same Palestra rowdies who had gleefully chanted, "You have three points!" at Princeton near the end of the first half were slumped silently in their seats.
It was high theater, except for one problem: Only the 8,722 spectators at the Palestra and a regional cable audience saw it. That's strange because, year in and year out, Penn-Princeton is the nation's most meaningful regular-season matchup.
The Ivy League and Pac-10 are the only conferences that don't have a postseason tournament and thus award their automatic NCAA bids to their regular-season champs. But while the Pac-10 usually grabs three or four at-large berths a year, the Ivy League has never had even one. Hence the importance of Penn-Princeton games, which pit the two teams that have won 32 of the last 35 Ivy titles.
To spice things up after its sweet victory, the Tigers turned around and lost 60-58 in double overtime to 4-17 Yale last Friday. That was their first Ivy defeat in three years. If Penn and Princeton each win their next four league games, the Quakers and the Tigers will meet in their season finale on March 2, with the winner receiving the league's lone NCAA bid.
Or will it be the only bid? Say Princeton wins the rest of its games but falls to Penn in the last game. The Tigers would finish 21-6 and would have beaten Florida State, Texas, UAB, UNC Charlotte and Penn, which could all end up in the NCAAs. Wouldn't Princeton deserve a bid, considering not only those wins but also how well it has acquitted itself in previous NCAA tournaments? Similarly, Penn could be a 21-5 bridesmaid even though it has beaten Temple this season. If the Quakers can win at Villanova on Feb. 23, they would rate an NCAA berth even if they don't win the Ivy League.
Princeton coach Bill Carmody hopes the Selection Committee will keep an open mind. "Over the years they've always said the Ivy League gets one bid and that's it, but things have changed pretty drastically" he says. "We've shown we can play with anybody, and so has Penn."
Who's Eligible And Who Isn't?
The names have been popping up in the sports pages with increasing regularity: A foreign player who has been competing in the U.S. suddenly has to miss games because of questions surrounding his relationship with a pro team overseas. Last fall San Diego State's Julien Sormonte and North Carolina's Vasco Evtimov received 23-game and 18-game suspensions, respectively, for having played with the pros in France. Also this season, European players at Boise State, Creighton, Delaware and Marist have had to miss a number of games while their schools answered questions about their eligibility posed by an NCAA official. Another European player, at East Carolina, might have had to miss games last month if he hadn't been sitting out with an injury.
The trend is the result of an NCAA effort, launched last summer, to look into the way pro leagues overseas operate. The NCAA has a lot of catching up to do. There are 291 foreign players in Division I basketball—up from 135 six years ago—and both the NCAA and its schools are having a tough time figuring out how their antiquated guidelines on amateurism apply to the new world order. "Ten years ago there was hardly any professional basketball in Europe," says Rob Meurs, who scouts European players for the NBA and colleges. "It's changed tremendously. The rules [the NCAA] made on professional basketball weren't made for foreign kids. They were made for kids in the U.S."