The Ivy League is renowned for its tradition, but in the realm of men’s basketball, old ways seem to crumble quickly. Harvard, once considered a non-threat to win the Ivy League—not having done so since 1946—has won two titles in a row and made its first appearance in the NCAA tournament in over 60 years this year. Now, systematic as well as competitive change could be on the horizon. Last Friday, the Crimson learned that coaches are proposing plans for a four-team, two-round tournament. The winner of this tournament would represent the Ivy League in the NCAA tournament. Currently, the Ivy League is the only conference with its automatic bid to March Madness given to the regular season championship rather than the winner of a playoff.
The creation of such a tournament has the potential to be a very positive force in elevating Ivy League basketball. However, until the Ivy League can become a multi-bid conference—capable of sending more than one team to the NCAA via at-large bids—such a move would be fundamentally unfair. Simply put, the Ivy League should ensure that its best team participates in March Madness. A series of upset-prone elimination games, while garnering considerable attention for the conference, would imperil this.
To be sure, there are many valid reasons to advocate the creation of a tournament. The Ivy League would generate a lot of interest, bolstering its status in the basketball world at large. Harvard’s dramatic loss to Princeton in a special elimination game two years ago was broadcast to a national audience. In the long run, the increased visibility created by the playoffs would facilitate the recruitment of star players to our roster. However, the immediate gains from a tournament seem more commercial than competitive, with programs able to cash in on broadcast rights and ticket sales. The conference’s teams should not risk an unfair outcome for the sake of increasing the size of their wallets.
Harvard’s basketball program has undergone a remarkable ascent in recent years, demonstrating that the hype generated by a tournament is unnecessary to achieve success on the court. For instance, coach Tommy Amaker has been able to draw, without playoffs, recruiting classes that rank among the top in the nation. Meanwhile, Jeremy Lin ’10’s surprising success in the NBA has shown that Harvard basketball players are capable of competing at the highest levels—and can be expected to increase the burgeoning interest in the program.
As quality continues to improve across the board in Ivy League basketball, two teams from the Ancient Eight might make the NCAA in a matter of years. At such a time, revisiting the notion of a conference tournament would surely be warranted. However, until that scenario becomes a consistent possibility, the Ivy League should keep its current structure for the sake of fairness.