Fifty years after Bill Bradley, golden age returns to Princeton hoops

Bill Bradley (left) and the Princeton women of 2015-16 are two high points in the school's basketball history.

The Chinese calendar will tell you that 1965 was the Year of the Snake and this is the Year of the Sheep. Forgive those in New Jersey who think they are actually the Years of the Tiger.

Fifty years ago, Bill Bradley led the Princeton men’s basketball team to the Final Four. This go-round, coach Courtney Banghart has the Lady Tigers undefeated, having completed a 30-0 regular season.

For the love of Ivy!

"Kentucky’s coaching pros," Banghart said after the Tigers downed Penn, 55-42, Tuesday to finish their regular season. "We’re coaching potential future CEOs."

The college basketball landscape was far different in 1965. Twenty-three schools comprised the men’s NCAA tournament field, a far cry from the bloated 68 that currently receive bids.

Led by Bradley, Princeton went 23-6 in the regular season, including 13-1 in the Ivy League. Though good enough to earn the conference’s NCAA bid, it didn’t send the Tigers through to the second round on a bye.

Their run almost ended immediately. The Trentonian wrote that the All-American played more like a Rhodes Scholar, which he was, for the first 32 minutes. That left the Tigers trailing Penn State, 45-42, with eight minutes left.

Bradley found his groove, however, scoring 13 of his 22 points in the final eight minutes, and Princeton advanced, 60-58, setting up a meeting with North Carolina State.

PLAY FOX BRACKET CHALLENGE

"He’s a mean bugger," Penn State coach Jack McCluskey said of Bradley. "Unless you play against him you don’t realize how mean he is out there."

The next two victories were much simpler, a romp over North Carolina State and a stunning 109-69 dismantling of Providence, which was ranked fourth in the nation. Bradley lit up the Friars for 41 points.

This set up a rematch with Michigan. The Wolverines had defeated Princeton, 80-78, in the regular season when Bradley fouled out with five minutes left.

The Tigers’ chance for revenge was not to be as Cazzie Russell led Michigan to a 93-76 victory despite Bradley’s 29 points.

Though the national championship was out of reach, the Rhodes Scholar put on a show in the consolation game that remains one of the great tournament performances. Facing Wichita State, Bradley scored 58 points and eclipsed Oscar Robertson’s NCAA single-game mark of 56.

For the tournament, Bradley scored 177 points in five games, an average of 35.4 points.

Upon the team’s return, he spoke from atop a bus to 2,000 or so fans.

 "I don’t know whether to say I’m sorry," the Trentonian reported the crowd yelled, "No! No!" One student said, "Say it 58 times."

Fast forward a half-century to the current women’s team, which joins the Kentucky men as the only undefeated major-college programs.

There is no star like Bradley; this is a balanced troop. Blake Dietrick leads four players who average double figures.

NCAA TOURNAMENT CENTRAL

Banghart’s team makes nearly 50 percent of its field goals and 41 percent of its 3-pointers. On the other end, the Tigers boast a smothering defense. Opponents hit only 33 percent of their shots overall, 25 percent from beyond the arc.

”They are a really good team that doesn’t beat themselves,” said Hartford coach Jen Rizzotti, who lost to Princeton by 13 in December at the Fordham tournament. ”They could easily play with many of the top 25 teams in the country.”

Princeton, ranked 13th in The AP poll, is outscoring its opponents by an average of almost 25 points per game.

"Being ranked is giving us better preparation for whatever might come in March because teams have an opportunity to beat a ranked opponent for the first time in their program history every time they come out," Banghart told the Trentonian after Princeton bounced Brown to go 27-0. "We get peoples’ best. They shoot a little looser because they have nothing to lose."

For all of its dominance, this year’s success does not guarantee any sort of an NCAA run: The Tigers have lost in the first round of each of their last four NCAA tournament appearances.

Still, Princeton has caught the eye of UConn’s legendary coach, Geno Auriemma.

"There are a lot of teams in the top 10 that don’t want Princeton in their bracket in the NCAA tournament," he told The Associated Press.