March 16, 2023 

Ivy League co-champions Columbia and Princeton prepare for starkly different postseasons

Princeton heads to NCAA Tournament; Columbia’s Megan Griffith calls out selection committee

As Ivy League co-champions Princeton and Columbia prepare to open postseason play on Friday, both programs are experiencing a kind of déjà vu — but with contrasting emotions.

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Princeton is the 2023 Ivy League Tournament champion and heads to the NCAA Tournament for the second time in as many seasons under head coach Carla Berube. Last season, the Tigers had won 17 straight games entering the NCAA Tournament, and as a No. 11 seed, they upset No. 6 seed Kentucky before losing by a point to No. 3 seed Indiana.

This season, the Tigers have won 15 straight games and are a No. 10 seed. They flew to Salt Lake City, Utah, on Tuesday for their first-round game against No. 7 seed NC State. If they win that game, they could face No. 2 seed Utah.

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Columbia qualified for its first WNIT in school history last season and made the Elite Eight after finishing second in the Ivy League with a 12-2 conference record. Last April, after that run ended, head coach Megan Griffith unequivocally declared that her team would make the NCAA Tournament this season, but the Lions fell one game short and will host Fairleigh Dickinson in the first round of the WNIT.

The Lions set a program record this season with 23 regular-season wins and again finished 12-2 in conference play. Their Ivy League regular-season championship is their first in school history, and they won at NCAA Tournament teams Princeton and Miami and at WNIT teams Memphis, Seton Hall and UMass. But after looking shaky in an overtime win against seventh-place Cornell on March 3 and losing to Harvard in the Ivy League Tournament semifinals, Columbia was squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble.

The Lions believed they had a strong at-large case: They had the highest winning percentage of the bubble teams against top-50 and top-100 teams in the national NET rankings, and they tied for the most road wins of any team in the country. Yet they were one of the first four teams left out of the NCAA Tournament, and selection committee chair Lisa Peterson told reporters after the bracket was revealed that the loss to Harvard — which had a NET ranking of 78 on Selection Sunday — was the deciding factor.

On Sunday, Columbia issued a press release in which Griffith said that the Lions were “disappointed in the decision” but “ready to move forward.” On Wednesday, Griffith went into more detail on her weekly call with reporters.

“With how the selection committee selects teams, it doesn’t always make sense,” she said. “And we did everything that we could in the nonconference to put us in a position to be selected, and we weren’t. … It’s really hard to process, and there’s obviously a lot of disappointment amongst the team and the players and the staff. But … we got to go win a championship now another way.”

Griffith blasted the selection committee for what she considered inconsistent decision-making. She pointed to Power 5 teams losing in the early rounds of their conference tournaments, yet seemingly not being punished by the committee. “How many other teams that made it into the tournament did the same exact thing [in their conference tournaments as we did], but not even in the semifinal game?” she asked.

She mentioned how Stanford and UConn each had bad losses but still received a No. 1 and a No. 2 seed, respectively. And, asked whether she believed that fellow bubble team St. John’s, which was ultimately one of the last four teams in the tournament, “unduly benefited” from beating a shorthanded UConn team on Feb. 21, Griffith said, “I do. I do.”

“What are we choosing, right?” she said. “Because there’s like 15 criteria on this NCAA selection committee list. And it’s like you just seem to pick and choose … If our resume from November to literally that last weekend was what it was, any other team would have made the tournament from any conference.”

Overall, the selection committee mostly eschewed mid-majors: Just eight of the 26 top seeds in mid-major conference tournaments ended up with automatic berths to the NCAA Tournament, leaving many good mid-major teams up for at-large consideration. Yet only two earned at-large berths: Gonzaga and South Florida. Each had similar NET rankings to Columbia’s 47 on Selection Sunday, at 35 and 44, respectively.

“Why did we even try to put ourselves in the best possible position in the nonconference? It almost makes you feel like it’s not going to be good enough,” Griffith said. “… It doesn’t make any sense, and it seems like the committee’s doing favors for people … If you don’t have people on the inside, it’s like you almost don’t have a chance.”

Griffith also called out a lack of consistency from year to year, citing her time as an assistant coach at Princeton under Courtney Banghart in the mid-2010s. A year after entering the NCAA Tournament 30-0 and receiving only a No. 8 seed, Princeton got an at-large bid in 2016 after going 23-5 and 12-2 in the Ivy League — the same record as Columbia has this season. This Columbia team, Griffith said, has a better resume than that 2016 Princeton team, and the Ivy League as a whole is much deeper.

Coaches around the league praised that depth during the Ivy Tournament and advocated for a two-bid conference. Berube voiced her support for it in her post-championship press conference, and on Wednesday, she told The Next that, while she doesn’t study bracketology much, she was disappointed for the Lions.

“They had a great resume and a great season,” Berube said, “and it’s just too bad they didn’t get that nod. I guess it certainly makes a difference how you play at the end of the year. So it’s unfortunate, but I’m sure that it’ll fuel their fire.”

Princeton head coach Carla Berube and senior guards Maggie Connolly and Julia Cunningham put a sticker of an orange and black Princeton "P" in the champions slot on a black Ivy League Tournament bracket.
Princeton head coach Carla Berube (center, facing camera) and senior guards Maggie Connolly (left) and Julia Cunningham put a Princeton sticker in the champions slot on the Ivy League Tournament bracket after defeating Harvard at Jadwin Gymnasium in Princeton, N.J., on March 11, 2023. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

On the other hand, Princeton is in the NCAA Tournament for the 10th time in the past 11 seasons that the Ivy League has competed in postseason basketball. “We’re really happy to be out here,” Berube said of getting sent to Utah, “out of our neck of the woods and seeing a new place.” In the team’s downtime on Wednesday, it visited the Natural History Museum of Utah, and Berube called the area’s mountain views “pretty amazing.”

The Tigers’ No. 10 seed is their best since that perfect regular season in 2014-15. Asked about improving by one seed line from last season, when the Tigers went undefeated in the Ivy League, Berube noted that seeds depend in part on other teams, but she added, “I think that at least now we’re a name that has won in the NCAA Tournament before, so I think there’s maybe some respect there.”

NC State head coach Wes Moore wasn’t underestimating the Tigers on Monday, telling reporters that they would pose “a big challenge.” That starts with their defense, which ranks seventh nationally in points allowed per 100 possessions. Moore also highlighted Princeton’s winning streak, the talent of Ivy League Player of the Year Kaitlyn Chen, and the rebounding of junior forward Ellie Mitchell.

Berube is also focusing heavily on rebounding, pointing out that the Wolfpack rely on everyone to rebound rather than having anyone quite like Mitchell (who alone grabbed 23 rebounds against Seton Hall in November). NC State ranks in the 91st percentile nationally in defensive rebounding rate and 78th in total rebounding rate, while Princeton ranks in the 87th or 88th percentile in offensive, defensive and total rebounding rate.

“When they rebound well on the defensive end and when teams don’t take good shots, they are lethal in transition,” Berube said. “They score really, really well and fast. So we need to be smart with when we send our offensive rebounders and just taking good shots.”

Berube said that playing teams such as Texas and UConn in the nonconference helped prepare the Tigers for NC State’s athleticism and skill. Moore brought up UConn, too, for its stylistic similarities to Princeton and for the teams’ results against the Huskies. NC State lost at UConn by 22 in November, while Princeton played UConn a few weeks later and nearly upset a shorthanded Huskies team.

“They went to UConn and lost by five, and we know how our trip to UConn went,” Moore said. “So obviously they’re a very good team and are going to present some challenges.”

A wild card will be the availability of NC State star guard Diamond Johnson, who is averaging a team-high 12.3 points and 3.5 assists per game but has missed the past month with an ankle injury. Moore was pessimistic, saying that she is “still struggling” but that he didn’t want to “slam doors shut yet.” Princeton, meanwhile, will have senior guard Julia Cunningham, who landed awkwardly in the Ivy League Tournament championship game on a shoulder that has bothered her this season but has been practicing this week.

FiveThirtyEight gives Princeton a 29% chance of beating NC State, while Her Hoop Stats has the odds at 38.7%. A victory would not only give Princeton wins in back-to-back NCAA Tournaments for the first time in program history, but it would also have sentimental significance for Berube.

When Berube was growing up in Oxford, Mass., she didn’t always have her eye on UConn. Well before she grew into a high school prospect, she had wanted to attend NC State and play for legendary head coach Kay Yow because her grandparents were from North Carolina. Then, as a sophomore at UConn in December 1994, she played at NC State in front of her grandparents, with Moore as an assistant coach on the opposite bench.

“I do remember playing at NC State really well,” Berube said, “because I think I actually played decently there and my grandparents are from North Carolina, so that was meaningful.” The Huskies won 98-75, and Berube had 11 points, three rebounds and two assists in 15 minutes off the bench, according to a box score provided by UConn Athletics.

“I thought it was really cool. And it was a really loud gym,” Berube added, drawing out the second-to-last word for emphasis.

As the clock ticks closer to Friday, Princeton is preparing to surprise people in the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year. And Columbia is again preparing for the WNIT, wishing that it got that same chance to impress on the biggest stage.

Written by Jenn Hatfield

Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats, FanSided, Power Plays and Princeton Alumni Weekly.

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