Princeton’s journey becomes face of March Madness’ COVID era

Princeton’s journey becomes face of March Madness’ COVID era

Princeton forward Tosan Evbuomwan spent his first three college seasons enduring one disappointment after another.

Reaching the NCAA Tournament and advancing to the Sweet 16 made it all worthwhile.

After the 2020 Ivy League Tournament was canceled, after the entire 2020-21 season was canceled, after losing by two points in the conference’s 2022 tourney title game and after watching three friends transfer just to keep playing in 2022-23, this resilient 6-foot-8 Brit has taken the Tigers on their deepest NCAA Tournament run since 1967 and has emerged as survivor of one of college basketball’s strangest journeys.

“I think it did start with that COVID year,” Evbuomwan said. ”There was a togetherness with that group. One of my favorite things about that time was the Zooms with one another, the Face Times, just talking about what we wanted the next season. We wanted a championship.”

Now, the Ivy League tourney champions are the talk of the nation and an illustration of the impact two pivotal COVID years have had on the college basketball world.

Nobody outside the Princeton locker room expected this run — especially when three of last year’s top five scorers left to take advantage of the NCAA’s extra season. League rules allowed them only to use that season at a non-conference school.

But these Tigers pride themselves on perseverance. So instead of allowing the obstacles to derail their dreams or steal their spirit, they dug in, stuck around, forged a bond and finished the job.

“We missed out on a whole year. That hurt, watching essentially every other team in the country play,” Princeton guard Matt Allocco said. “But I think it actually helped us in the long run. We were able to get together in the spring and practice, be with each other, build those relationships. It ended up being a great experience.”

Not everyone remembers the COVID years fondly.

San Diego State and Dayton saw their 2020 title hopes dashed by the NCAA’s announcement. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo thought he had a Final Four team, too.

Northern Kentucky coach Darrin Horn’s long-awaited return to March Madness was extended by three more years, prompting him to acknowledge two weeks ago that winning the 2020 Horizon League crown almost seemed like it never happened.

There’s no way to replace what was lost — even for this year’s 16 regional semifinalists.

Just ask San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher, whose team faces top-seeded Alabama on Friday in the Louisville Regional. The Aztecs were supposed to be a top-two seed three years ago.

“As I said all those years ago, as good as Malachi Flynn and KJ Feagin and Yanni Wetzell were, they never played in the NCAA Tournament one time in their careers. That’s unbelievable,” Dutcher said. “Sometimes we take for granted just going and losing in the first round. Just to have a chance to play would have meant the world to those guys so I feel bad for that, that they never got a taste of March Madness.”

Meanwhile, at Creighton, it was a different scenario.

In 2021, the tourney provided the Bluejays with a bittersweet memory: Celebrating their first Sweet 16 appearance since 1974 inside the lonely Indianapolis “bubble.”

So when sixth-seeded Creighton knocked off third-seeded Baylor 85-76 last weekend to return to the Sweet 16, something suddenly felt far more satisfying about Friday’s matchup against 15th-seeded Princeton in Louisville.

“We had a lot of fans there to celebrate at the end of the game with us (in Denver) and then you go back to the hotel with family and friends and have a chance to celebrate rather than go back to your room and eat another piece of rubber chicken out of a Styrofoam box, which is what we did in Indianapolis,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. “To get to the Sweet 16 is a difficult thing to do, it was just a little more fun to celebrate that particular night.”

What about 2021 national champion Baylor? Of course, the Bears had no complaints.

Kansas State coach Jerome Tang was an assistant on that title team and has used the lessons from that run as the model for his third-seeded Wildcats, who take on Izzo’s seventh-seeded Spartans on Thursday at Madison Square Garden.

Tang believes the similarities in roster composition will help Kansas State this weekend.

“We spent 30 days in the ‘bubble,’ right? And if you don’t like each other, nobody wants to spend that amount of time together,” Tang said. “That team, we really liked each other. We loved being together. I mean, it was fun to be around them. I feel the same way around these guys. We could be in a bubble for 30 days and we’ll be just fine. We’re going to have a great time.”

But nobody will have more fun than Princeton.

Just two years after watching everyone else’s games, the Tigers need two wins to end a 48-year Final Four drought, two wins to become the first Ivy League team in the national semifinals since Penn in 1979 and two wins to cement their status as one of the greatest and most compelling advance-and-survive stories in tourney history.

And it might not have happened without Princeton’s COVID experience.

“Having to watch those games on TV, the tournament, hurt. I think looking back on it, it fueled us for the next year,” Princeton guard Ryan Langborg said. “I think this year, this Sweet 16 run so far, it’s more than making up for it.”

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