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March Madness and the Ivies

A brief history of overachievement in the NCAA Tournament.

When Yale men’s basketball went to the NCAA Tournament in March, reader Robert Petrie ’74 wrote to ask about the top five Ivy League men’s performances in the history of the tournament. Objectively, Dartmouth has gone the furthest, losing in the finals to Utah in 1944. Penn and Princeton went to the Final Four in 1979 and 1965, respectively, and Penn also reached the Elite Eight in 1971 and 1972. Contributing writer and hoops fan Bruce Fellman has more to say about some of those performances.—Eds.

While I’m sure we would all agree that Yale’s thrilling win over Baylor on March 17 certainly ranks as Yale's best, I suspect that most basketball historians would give the nod to Dartmouth’s 1944 men’s team, which made it all the way to the national championship game, losing to Utah 42–40. Of course, if you want to be a stickler, that game really shouldn’t count, since the Ivy League only came into formal existence in 1954.

So I’d call the 1965 Princeton men's squad either the best—or the second best—team performance, and the same team’s game against a superb Providence College team in the regional conference final, one of the best performances I've ever seen in any game by a single individual. Princeton won 109–69, and Bill Bradley—yes, eventual Senator Bill Bradley—scored 41 points against a very tough PC team led by Jimmy Walker. (Bradley would later play against Walker in the NBA.) That win got them into the Final Four, where the Tigers tipped off against the University of Michigan, and though Princeton gave Cazzie Russell and his team a run for its money, the Wolverines prevailed 93–76. But it still wasn’t over for Princeton: in those days, the two losing teams would battle for third place. That game pitted the Tigers against Wichita State, and that's where Bradley scored an almost unbelievable 58 points, which is still a Final Four record by one player, and Princeton prevailed 118–82. Not a bad night's work.

As to a number three—or two, depending on your perspective—Ivy team effort in the Tournament, I'd offer the 1979 Penn team, which also made it to the Final Four, with some incredible games, including a regional squeaker to knock off the one-seed, the University of North Carolina, 72–71. In the Final Four, Penn ran into a buzzsaw: the eventual national champions, Michigan State, led by a guy named Magic Johnson. They lost 101–67. Michigan State, incidentally, would play an almost unknown school, Indiana State, which was led by someone named Larry Bird. I seem to remember that this was a pretty good game.

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