Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.
By Mel Greenberg @womhoopsguru
PRINCETON, N.J. – Twenty-four hours earlier prior to Penn’s narrow 62-60 win here Tuesday night for the Ivy title over Princeton,, three-time defending NCAA champion Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma, after locking up another American Conference championship at Mohegan Arena, was asked about the potential of two Ivy League teams on the bracket when the 64-team draw is announced this Monday night on ESPN at 7 p.m.
Even though Auriemma, a Naismith Hall of Famer, is locked into guiding his group to a historic finish in 2016 that would result from four straight NCAA women’s titles and 11 overall, he is familiar with the work of friends in the profession in Princeton’s Courtney Banghart and Penn’s Mike McLaughlin.
“Are they doing that again?” he smiled about a second winner-take-all showdown between Ivy teams tied for first about to occur at Princeton’s Jadwin Gym for the second time in three seasons after the Quakers won the title in 2014.
Penn narrowly upset the Tigers by two points in early January this time around and then stayed one game ahead until mid-February of a Princeton group, which a year ago made Ivy men’s and women’s history going unbeaten overall into the second round of the NCAA tourney before falling to top seeded Maryland.
The two programs of McLaughlin and Banghart have been elevated to the point that if the identity of their conference membership was kept a secret and then an observer was given an eye test to guess their affiliation, the Ancient Eight would not be named in the first several tries.
The Tigers are the only Ivy team to get ranked in the Associated Press women’s poll, which occurred in separate seasons. The Quakers, long a doormat nationally and locally in the Big Five women’s wars of Philadelphia, have won multiple games in the City Series in back-to-back seasons, including a first-ever 3-1 finish in 2015 that brought a piece of the Big Five title.
This season the program, with 20-plus victories three straight times, have set a win record with 24 to date.,
However, unless one was academically smart and athletically gifted at a place called Stanford, the notion that two Ivy teams of similar nature could be in the field is scoffed at by outsiders who are focused their own parochial interests far away from the Ivies.
Not so, Auriemma, however.
“I think that’s a problem that shouldn’t exist, if you play in certain conferences, you’re not worthy,” Auriemma said. “A team is a good team, regardless of what conference they play in.
“If you do what you’re supposed to do during the regular season, take care of what you should take care of, and you schedule accordingly, you should be rewarded for that. And it should have no bearing on where you’re from,” Auriemma explained.
He has had a similar experience of his own following the breakup of the old Big East and UConn’s three-year unbeaten domination of The American.
“It’s not like you have 30 at-large teams that are that good you can’t put them in there. So I always root for those guys, you know that, and I’m hoping they get in.”
Incredibly, both teams have RPIs in the 30s, which used to be a rating virtually signifying automatic selection to teams not owning the instant NCAA bid that occurs from winning a conference championship.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before in the Ivies,” said McLaughlin prior to his Quakers’ triumph, though much closer than the win here in 2014.
“It’s good that the Ivy has that digital package and every game is archived because I just went back to watching their January game the other day,” said Chris Dawson, the chair of the NCAA committee, without commenting on the relevance of two Ivy schools.
“You just want to make sure everybody on the committee is doing their homework on all of this and other matters.”
Obviously, slots for two Ivies would be historic for the conference and would help foster growth for the game, a phrase used many times be people some of whom when given the opportunity then decide but maybe not now.
Way back in time when expansion of the tournament to the current field of 64 was being considered, there was a difference of opinion between the WBCA coaches from the premium schools arguing that the increased total should all be of the at-large variety instead of awarding automatic bids to the conferences that did not own them.
“Well, it’s true that it might be a stronger field going all at-large on the increase, but if you don’t give those other folks something to play for, to expand the game at the grass roots level, how are you ever going to make our sport more popular,” countered UCLA’s Judie Holland, then the chair of the committee.
Holland’s vision was certainly justified Tuesday night where a large energetic crowd was in Jadwin that might have otherwise not occurred if the NCAA perk was not attached to the championship showdown.
And don’t say, they were there because of the men’s game that followed, though nothing was at stake with Yale having already wrapped up the trophy that goes to the other Ivy gender.
Comments along a packed press row during the women’s game could be heard marveling how the emphasis on the night was on the opener.
Meanwhile, it would not be surprised for numbers crunching to be occurring in the athletic offices of both Penn and Princeton today to figure out how to fend off poaching of McLaughlin and Banghart from schools with openings, especially in the Power 5.
Both are considered hot targets because of what they have built, though with Banghart being a former Ivy star at Dartmouth and McLaughlin, who grew up in Philadelphia, owning a pair of keys to the fabled Palestra on Penn’s campus, it would take something really sensational in terms of offers to pry either.
For that matter, another coach out there with Ivy DNA who might draw attention is Maine’s Richard Barron, whose Bears will play Albany Friday night for the America East title.
He built Princeton from a two-win program to the Tigers’ first title, though they lost the NCAA bid in a three-way tie. Barron set the table for Banghart to take the school to the next level when he moved on to Kim Mulkey’s staff at Baylor.
He later was an assistant at North Carolina State, helping the Wolfpack return to NCAA relevancy, and now has performed a similar revitalization with the Maine program.
Penn has proven to be McLaughlin’s destiny following a long career in Northeast Philadelphia coaching Holy Family into a Division II power.
“In a way, this might have worked out for the best,” he said earlier this season after winning his 500th game overall. “I don’t know if we’d be doing all this if it had gone the other direction.”
That would be at La Salle when the search to fill the vacancy left by the departed legend Johnny Miller was under way in the middle of the last decade.
Insiders had McLaughlin’s dream of coaching a Big 5 school being realized a few hours away before La Salle officials decided to go with Miller’s assistant, the popular Tom Lochner, who now is an assistant at Delaware and had the thrill of coaching Elena Delle Donne during the Blue Hen’s recent time in the national limelight.
McLaughlin went back to winning a few more titles at Holy Family, saying next time might be the charm.
As it turned out charm it has been for both him and the Penn faithful.