Imagine this: Your team has won every game of the conference season to this point — a pretty impressive feat considering most weekends feature two conference games, back-to-back, Friday and Saturday. But standing in the way of your team’s Ivy title aspirations is the same formidable pair: Penn and Princeton. In two successive nights, you will face off against not just one, but both of the ‘”Killer P’s.”
It’s almost criminal.
Yale and other Ivy League teams, with perfect records or at least a decent shot at the Ivy title, season after season, have found themselves shaking in the same hightop shoes as they prepare to challenge Penn and Princeton, names that echo decades of basketball dominance in the Ivy League. The “P’s” are travel partners, meaning that whenever they play league games on the road, one of the two will play Friday night, the other Saturday. Similarly, when other teams travel to Princeton, they do so knowing that the next night they will face off against Penn, or vice versa.
“We went into that [same Friday night] game a few years ago,” recalled Yale head coach James Jones, referring to his 2001-2002 Ivy Championship team. By sweeping Penn and Princeton at home on successive nights that season, Yale became the first team since 1989 to do so, thus ending the first half of the conference season with a 7-1 mark (the one loss coming against Brown).
But lightning doesn’t strike twice. On the road later in the season, the Elis, then 11-1, suffered back-to-back losses to the “P’s.” The losses resulted in the three-way tie for the title with Penn and Princeton. It was the first time since the 1987-88 season that a team other than Penn or Princeton claimed a share of the title.
“1985 was the last time they both got beat on their home floor [on back-to-back nights],” James Jones said. “I think it just shows you what [Penn’s and Princeton’s] dominance has been in the league over the years.”
Indeed, dominance is the only appropriate word in the case of Penn and Princeton basketball. The Tigers and the Quakers have together amassed 42 outright Ivy League men’s basketball titles since a champion was first determined in 1956. Only four times since 1960 has a team other than Princeton or Penn won the title outright. On just three occasions since 1960 has a team shared the title with one or both schools, the most recent being the three-way tie between the “P’s” and Yale in 2001-2002.
“I went back and looked at the basketball records over the last thirty years and it is fascinating,” Yale Athletic Director Tom Beckett said. “There are some anomalies, but … for three plus decades, Princeton and Penn have been at the top of the league by a margin that is significant, with [final conference] records of 14-0 and 12-2, while the other teams were around .500.”
The record books cannot hide what amounts to a complete and utter lack of parity in the Ivy League. While almost every championship program, no matter how illustrious, encounters the ebb and flow of success, the rules that govern the basketball universe seem to pay no heed to Penn and Princeton. For current Penn head coach Fran Dunphy, winner of eight titles himself, the answer is easy enough.
“We’ve had a nice run,” Dunphy explained ever so modestly.
Joe Scott, who is in his first year at the helm at Princeton, hinted that success might breed success, but quickly threw in a ready-made college basketball cliche.
“[Success is] a year-to-year thing and the beauty of college basketball is that you start over every year,” Scott said. “It’s a new year — guys graduate and you have new guys coming in. The only advantage with [a winning reputation] is when you win, people know you a little bit more.”
Is that all there is to it? Some good luck and a few good recruiting classes were responsible for cementing Penn and Princeton as perpetual league leaders?
Jeff Orleans ’67, the executive director of the Ivy League since 1984, pointed out that Penn and Princeton possess some unique commonalities, the most important being a sense of continuity.
“They’ve had continuity of coaching at Penn and continuity of philosophy at Princeton,” Orleans said.
Dunphy has been the Quakers’ head coach for 15 seasons, coaching top-finishing teams decorated with numerous All-Ivy selections, Ivy payers of the year and All-Americans. Similarly, Scott has been associated with Princeton’s program for 12 years as both a player and an assistant coach. As an assistant from 1992-2000, he helped coach the Tigers to a record of 163-61 and “only” three championships. Despite being a first-year head coach at Princeton, Scott, who coached Air Force to the NCAA tournament for the first time in over four decades last year, has inherited the defending Ivy League champions that have won or shared three of the last four titles, their one blemish coming in a seemingly disappointing 2002-2003 season, finishing 10-4, good for second place in the conference. Of course, that was the most recent year Penn swept the Ivy race.
To Orleans, success’ self-perpetuating nature stems from practical reasons.
“[Success] attracts good players and good students who expect that they will succeed,” Orleans said. “It also generates fan support and a good atmosphere.”
As far as recruiting, student-athletes who consider playing basketball in college want to win, but they also want to play. Scott explained that the hardest recruiting years happen when Princeton makes a successful Ivy bid with a relatively young lineup.
“If we have a lot of guys coming back [after a good season], that’s when we lose guys to Penn,” Scott said.
With a pool of basketball players that is academically self-selective year after year, courting next year’s top freshman is anyone’s game, which is evident in recent recipients of the Ivy League rookie of the year award. A Quaker or Tiger has not won the award in the last three seasons.
So although the best two teams in the league may not always get the top freshman player, Orleans said, the overall quality of potential talent in the freshman classes at Penn and Princeton has been noticeably higher.
“If anything, I think it may be that the fourth, fifth and sixth guy making the commitment to Penn or Princeton might be a little better than the fourth, fifth or sixth guy at the other schools,” Orleans said.
Dunphy deviated a bit from this assertion, siding with fortune instead.
“Sometimes you’re just going to get lucky with a player [who surprises you],” Dunphy said.
Penn must have an awful lot of luck.
While every other Division I basketball conference in the nation holds a conference tournament to decide an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, the Ivy League has held out, reserving the honor for the season’s champion. In eight weeks, a team has 14 games to fight for the crown and the grand prize of a trip to the Big Dance. As Yale captain Alex Gamboa ’05 said following the team’s last non-conference game against St. Peter’s, “It’s a 14-game tournament.”
Columbia head coach Joe Jones, in only his second season in the league, agreed wholeheartedly.
“That’s exactly how I would describe it,” Joe Jones said. “Every call is a big call, every game is a big game. Losing back-to-back nights at any time, you’re really out of the race. It’s just a really grueling 14-game tournament.”
A lot of debate around the league is centered on the fact that Penn and Princeton have been travel partners since the inception of the 14-game system in 1956 and additionally, every team that faces the “Killer P’s” faces them on consecutive nights.
“The theory is that when you travel to one site on Thursday night and go to another on Friday after the game, you don’t want to have to make a long trip,” Beckett explained. “[Traveling between] Cornell and Columbia — that’s a tough [three hour] trip — but Penn and Princeton are just 45 minutes apart. As far as I know that was the original travel plan.”
Columbia is expected to shake up league standings this year after finishing fifth in the league last year with a 6-8 record and posting a 10-4 non-conference record this season heading into Ivy play. But if the past has any control over the future, any leaps of progress in up-and-coming Ivy programs, such as Columbia, will continue to be stilted by the traditional format. Columbia shared its first and only league title in a tie with Princeton in 1967-68.
For this reason, Ivy League coaches have put forth several proposals to jostle the current system in future years, such as rotating traveling partners or, at very least, having a few weekends in the conference season operate on a Friday-Sunday design. No matter what, the idea of playing Princeton the same weekend as Penn twice every season is daunting for most coaches in the league.
“Until [a traveling partner rotation] happens, it’s not going to be completely fair,” Joe Jones said.