Princeton takes Ivy with a buzzer-beater few will forget, for better or worse

Two weeks ago Saturday, Harvard watched as navy-and-white-clad fans rushed the floor at John J. Lee Auditorium in New Haven, Connecticut. Two weeks later, it watched as an orange tide swept over that same floor, their Ivy League auto-bid hopes dashed at the final tick of the clock. Two plays at Yale from an Ivy League title might as well be 200 miles.

The beauty—and curse—of time passing is that it can dull visceral memories, but it can never change them. The memory of the lazy arc of Douglas Davis’s leaning 15-foot jumper may become hazy, but the history books will never read Harvard 62, Princeton 61. Of course, few who were at this game will soon have their memories of it dulled. The variance of emotions, from jubilation to agony, will make the 2011 Ivy League Playoff unforgettable.

Harvard basketball has accomplished so much this season. It has flown higher than any Crimson team before it. The players deserve a much fuller treatment of their struggles and accomplishments. What they will get is one highlight to be replayed over and over. And they aren’t even in it.

It is at once profoundly fair and unfair. College basketball is far too large and fast-paced for many besides the eventual winners to get their star turn. There are far more compelling stories in college basketball than the few that will ever be told.

This is to take nothing from Princeton. Theirs is a story well worth telling. From the depths of a 6-24 season in 2008 emerged a deep, disciplined, tough team that will go dancing in 2011. The senior class, particularly stars Kareem Maddox and Dan Mavraides, along with Coach Syndey Johnson, has catalyzed the necessary evolution of Princeton basketball. These are not the Tigers of yore that overcame superior talent with ruthless execution and won games with scores in the 50s. These Tigers have the talent and will to win any style of game.

The Crimson will most likely be back with a vengeance next season. It does not graduate a single player from this team. The narrative will be pre-written: hungry, talented Harvard team searches for the Ivy title that it held in its grasp last year. But few words will be written about the joys of last year’s team. The unbelievable 24-point second-half comeback against Brown will be only a footnote. Oliver McNally’s baseline jumper to beat Penn in a double-overtime classic might be remembered in Palestra lore. The way Brandyn Curry and Christian Webster’s ball movement made the NBA-bound stars of Colorado hang their heads at Lavietes in November may be reduced in some scout’s notebook.

The single most important thing Harvard basketball did this year, however, was perhaps its most impressive feat: It made basketball matter in a place it has not really mattered before.

To the wider college basketball world, Harvard’s 2010-2011 basketball narrative may consist mainly of one possession in New Haven in March. Ultimately, though, this team could be remembered for laying the corner stone to something much more important in Cambridge.