NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Dalen Cuff, who will call the Ivy League Tournament’s men’s games for ESPN this weekend, knows more than the average analyst about Ancient Eight hoops. He played for Columbia from 2003-06, and has stayed connected through a successful career in TV that has now run for over a decade.
Cuff isn’t short of opinions on the Ivy League, and he shared a few with the Inquirer on Friday. The interview has been edited a bit for clarity.
Are any of the men’s teams beating No. 2 seed Yale in their gym?
I think it’s less about the building, to be honest, because the kids are on spring break. And let’s be honest, even when the kids are here, they don’t exactly show up. I’ve come to three Friday night games here, and I know that they say Saturdays more people come, but Friday night when I saw Princeton play here, this place was half full.
The building itself I don’t think plays into it. The hoops and the lighting are unique in here, so that will help, but overall, they’re the better team. They’re the best team in the league, hands down, I think. When they’re playing their best, nobody else beats them.
The thing is, they have to play their best, and they haven’t done that in the last three weekends. They’ve been 3-3, and a bit up-and-down, particularly at the defensive end. They have to lock in defensively.
I think with [No. 3 seed] Princeton, this is a very anti-Princeton team, meaning the opposite of what we’ve seen in past years. Their assist rate is lower than it’s been in over a decade-plus. They don’t shoot it very well, playing without Devin Cannady. There’s nobody you’re really scared of.
It used to be that when you’d play Princeton, there would be multiple guys that would carve you up and some other guy could make a shot, an X-factor. There would be a lot of dudes who could hurt you at the offensive end. I think they’re limited there. But they’re a really good defensive team, so they can hang in there.
I think Yale is the best team. For TV’s sake, we’d like to see Harvard-Yale. I’m not in the rooting business, but those are the two best teams in this league, competing with everything on the line. And the rivalry, all that stuff would play into it, and the co-champ [tie for first place] is settled. I think that’s where we end up, but I think Yale is the best team and they’ve got to play that way.
Would you rather play Princeton or Penn?
Princeton without a doubt, because of all of what I’ve just said. I think they are limited offensively, compared to past years; and defensively they’re good, but I don’t think they have anybody that strikes fear in you.
Whereas with Penn, you’ve got deal with [AJ] Brodeur, and that’s a handful right there; and defensively, they’re very good too. And they’ve got some guys who have been through some battles and had some success on this team. That’s a little different animal.
After Penn lost Ryan Betley at the start of the season, where did you think they would make it to?
I wanted to see what they would do. I wouldn't have said they wouldn't be here — I think what shocked me most is what they did in non-conference play, sweeping the Big 5 I fell out of my chair watching the end of that Villanova game. …
The fact that they won the Big 5, the performance in non-conference [games], and then the struggles out of the gate — I know the played five of six on the road to start the league season. A lot of times scheduling in our league can determine how the league goes for you.
I was actually surprised they got here given where they were two weeks ago. When you’re 4-7 and you’ve got to win out and have some things happen, that surprised me. But I think that team is the fourth-best team in this league.
I feel bad for Brown. I love Mike [Martin, their coach]: a good team, a lot of talent on the team. But in the end, a little bit of toughness and a little bit of experience is what won some of those games for Penn down the stretch.
Now for the question you knew was coming. What do you think about the Ivy League’s decision to rotate hosting the basketball tournaments around the conference? You’ve often mockingly called your alma mater Columbia’s 2,500-seat Levien Gym the “Bargain Basement” because of its less-than-stellar amenities and below-ground construction.
Oh man. [He laughed.] How do I say this? Well, let’s just say it. We don’t deserve to host it. Dartmouth does not deserve to host it. The fact that we’re making it a meritocracy doesn’t make any sense to me. We either put it in our best venue, in the Palestra, where you have the best showcase for our league …
If it’s about growing our league, if it’s about the national TV event product you’re putting forward, if it’s about getting a second bid [to the NCAA Tournament] — all that stuff is better in the Palestra. The second bid plays into it because when kids see that, they say, “I want to be a part of that.”
My concern is, when it’s in Hanover [at Dartmouth] — I hope it’s full. I have no idea. Only 2,000 people fit in there. But what does that translate to on TV?
The first year we had the tournament, I drove back from Philly and the first person I saw when I got back to ESPN’s campus was Scott Van Pelt. The first thing he said to me was, “That was amazing TV. That event, those players, it was great.” He’s a college basketball guy, but that even opened his eyes to what the Ivy League looks like on its biggest stage, with the best players on the floor, performing at a really high level.
That translates to young kids saying, “I want to be part of that.” I’m not sure you want to be a part of that, or it comes across the same, in Hanover.