AROUND THE IVY LEAGUE: Dancing Solo in the Ivies

Since Penn has already whisked away the Ivy crown (and Columbia has already levitated its basketball hoops), there’s a full non-consequential week left to discuss everyone’s favorite topic—the lack of an Ivy League postseason tournament.

Unlike the I-AA football playoff issue, the idea of a conference tourney, like the ones held by the other 30 conferences in Division I basketball elicits a wide variety of highly emotional responses from fans, coaches and athletic directors around the league that are discordant, at best.

To see why, let’s start with a typical eight-team tournament where the No. 1 seed opens with No. 8, No. 2 with No. 7, and so on. Should an eight-seed, one which posted anywhere from an 0-14 to 4-10 league record, be able to get hot for three games and take the league’s coveted automatic bid to the NCAA tournament? How about a seven-seed with a slightly better, say, 5-9 record?

Most objective observers would say that such a brief aberration from a dismal season shouldn’t be rewarded with the Ivy’s most coveted prize. I’d agree.

Of course, this ignores the fact that it’s rare to see a team from the bottom-half of the standings in a mid-to-low-major tournament survive for three days. Looking at the American East and the Patriot League—two conferences that the Ivy League schedules a fair amount of games with and that are at similar talent levels—in 36 combined tournaments, the No. 1 seed has won 25, the No. 2 seed has claimed 10, and a No. 3 seed took home the other. The lowest seed ever to make the conference finals was a No. 5 and only five times have teams seeded lower than third advanced to the final game.

But back to the tournament formats. With a six-team tournament, the same logic applies. A team that goes 6-8 or 7-7 in conference, probably shouldn’t be able to get hot for three days and steal the NCAA tournament bid. It may be a little easier to accept a .500 team in league play sweeping to the title, but still it seems somewhat unfair to reward a weekend hot streak that comes on the heels of a mediocre season.

Narrowing the tournament field to three or four, however, makes it more difficult to lodge the “unworthy” complaint. Sure an 8-6 four-seed might be unjustified in taking the automatic bid away from a 13-1 or 14-0 No. 1 seed, but what about a 10-4 third-place team taking the automatic bid away from a 12-2 league winner. While a 13-1 or 14-0 record shows a significant talent gap compared to an 8-6, how much better can we say that the 12-2 team is than the one which went 10-4?

Let’s go even further. What if three teams are tied with 11-3 records? Most of the league cheered that result in 2002, when Penn, Princeton, and Yale each finished the season with that exact record. The excitement of the playoff atmosphere consumed the league. But what if Penn had found an extra point against Columbia during the league’s opening weekend. Likewise, what if Princeton had fallen to the Lions 49-48 on the final weekend of the season, rather than taking the contest by the same margin. It’s not hard to imagine a few bounces of the ball, and not any change in the level of talent, that could have provided those scenarios.

Under one set of “lucky” circumstances, the league is graced with the spectacle that is a postseason playoff. Under another, Penn is deemed the most worthy team at 12-2, and Yale and Princeton are sent home. Under both, the Quakers eventually move on to the Big Dance.

Getting back to the distinction between 10-4 and 12-2, if the goal is to send the team that has proven itself over the duration of the league season to the NCAA tournament, one would obviously choose the 12-2 squad. If the goal is to send the team playing the best basketball to the Big Dance, the choice is not so clear, as the 12-2 team could have posted a 5-2 mark over its last seven league games and the 10-4 squad could have put together a 6-1 or 7-0 mark over the same span, and vice versa.

If we wanted to put the best Ivy team in the tournament, why couldn’t we just take the record from the second half of the league slate. Surely, what matters more is how a team is playing within a month of the NCAA tournament, not how a squad performed in January.

There are tons of other random distinctions one could think of (record against the top half of the league, highest RPI, etc.) that could plausibly be defended as a determinant of the best team in the league.

The arbitrary system the Ivies currently use—and the one which was instituted first—is the record from 14 league games. Another random system would be a three- or four-team conference tournament. It’s obviously debatable which one provides the more level playing field for all the teams in the league, and which more consistently places the best Ivy team into the NCAA field.

Since the Ivy League prides itself upon its eccentric methods of dealing with questions relating to athletics, maybe it could break new ground by creating an amalgamation of the two, where, let’s say, all teams with at least a 9-5 or 10-4 record qualify for a conference tournament to decide the automatic bid. In terms of this season, such a rule would keep a Penn squad that has clearly distanced itself from the competition from having to chance its NCAA hopes on a given weekend. In other seasons, when the true “best” team isn’t as clear cut, the automatic run-off, in the form of a conference tourney, would kick in.

Is this random method any better or worse than the arbitrary 14-game tournament? Who knows?

Yet, in the end, such a discussion can’t be undertaken because one is considered sacrosanct and any other blasphemy.

—Staff writer Michael R. James can be reached at mrjames@fas.harvard.edu.

Tags