Conference tournaments are a funny thing. They provide the best teams with a few extra games to show the Selection Committee that they are deserving of a top seed or a few days off before the NCAA Tournament begins. They give streaky squads the ability to turn a good run into the Big Dance or to shoot themselves out of an at-large bid and fall into the NIT. They give Gonzaga students an excuse to spring break in Las Vegas and Monmouth diehards a reason to road trip to Albany. Next weekend, for the first time, the Ivy League will be able to experience all of the excitement and quirks of one when its top four men’s and women’s teams converge on Philadelphia.
In reality, only two Ivy League teams have something to play for this final weekend before the excitement begins the following Saturday. Columbia and Penn both sit at 5-7 in conference play, tied for the fourth and final spot in the tournament. Harvard can talk all it wants about getting revenge against a Princeton team against which it self-destructed last month. And the Tigers can take pride in the fact that it would be the first Ivy League team to run the table in conference play since Cornell did so in 2007-2008. But for Princeton and the Crimson—the top two seeds in next weekend’s tournament—and Yale, the No. 3 seed, this weekend means virtually nothing in the standings. The 2016-2017 season will be remembered for which team brings it the following weekend at the Palestra.
However, the final conference eight conference games of the season will be very telling in terms of the Ivy League’s perception entering the Big Dance. The most obvious goal of adding three additional games at the end of the season was increased exposure. The Ivy League has been riding the wave of three NCAA Tournament wins by Ancient Eight schools over the past four years. In the future, a conference tournament could allow two Ivy League teams—a dominant regular season champion and a red-hot conference tournament champion—to get into the Big Dance. While the Ivy League will not be able to have the cake and eat it too this year, this weekend will be very telling when it comes to the implications for next Saturday and Sunday.
If Harvard beats the Tigers this weekend, the Ivy League Tournament will be serving the exact purpose the conference wants it to. Assuming that both schools take care of business on Saturday, a red-hot, two-loss Crimson team would be taking on a one-loss, chip-on-its-shoulder Princeton one at the Cathedral of College Basketball. You want to talk about storylines. A young, exciting Harvard team squaring off with a veteran, lull-you-to-sleep-then-drain-threes-in-your-face Tigers squad. Siyani Chambers and the Crimson’s Super Seven freshman class going toe-to-toe with Devin Cannady and Princeton’s jump-shots-for-days frontcourt. It’s commissioner Robin Harris’ dream and whichever team wins, the conference will be happy.
Things get a little murkier if Harvard plays a tight game with the Tigers on Friday but ends up falling short for a second time. There’s probably nothing better for the conference from a national perspective if an undefeated regular season champion from a mid-major conference wins its conference tournament and enters the NCAA Tournament riding a 19-game win streak. On the flip side, a three-loss team with the nation’s 235th-ranked strength of schedule would not get nearly as much love from the tournament’s selection committee. While Princeton is penciled in as a 13-seed at the moment by most bracketology sites and could move up to a 12 with four statement wins to close out the season, The Crimson would likely get in as a 14 or 15 if it falls to the Tigers this weekend and then wins nine days later.
The last team to go undefeated in conference play during the regular season and not make the NCAA Tournament was LaVelle Moton’s 2014-2015 North Carolina Central squad. If you don’t remember much about the Eagles, you’re not alone. Long story short, the team fell to Delaware State, the five-seed in the MEAC Tournament, and was bounced from the NIT by Miami the following week.
In fact, there are only two teams left with unblemished conference marks—Princeton and 27-5 Vermont, a team that beat Harvard 82-71 way back on Jan. 2. Since the America East is not the Big East and the Ancient Eight is not the Atlantic Coast Conference, both teams would be sent packing for the NIT if they did not win their conference tournaments. Vermont just won its quarterfinal against Maine 86-41 (86-41!) so we don’t know if we would bet against the Catamounts right now, but the Tigers cleaning up next weekend is no sure thing.
Sometimes, losing can be a much-needed wake-up call. Playing with a target on your back just intensifies the pressures of March. Gonzaga losing to BYU could be a huge blessing in disguise. It’s pretty hard to find weaknesses in your game when you’re beating San Diego 96-38. Gonzaga gets a few days off, Mark Few will have several days to yell at what we would say is a very talented team, the Zags, who will get to play virtual home games in Sacramento or Salt Lake City before a brutal one-hour flight to San Jose for the Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight.
We have especially fond memories of the 2003-2004 college basketball season. Jameer Nelson led an undersized, underappreciated St. Joseph’s team to a 27-0 regular season and a trip to the Elite Eight. Nelson was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated and head coach Phil Martelli was named AP College Coach of the Year. What many people forget about that team is that it was blown out by Xavier in the quarterfinals of the Atlantic Ten Tournament. You could play that game out 10 times and St. Joe’s would win nine, but two extra games before grind-it-out wins over Texas Tech and Wake Forest in the NCAA Tournament probably would not have benefitted St. Joseph’s. But that’s the Atlantic Ten, so St. Joseph’s made it in.
Princeton has not lost since Dec. 20 while Vermont has not since Dec. 10. Adding a conference tournament means that the Ivy League champion needs to win two games next weekend.
Two pressure-packed games with everything riding on them. Two
winner-take-all Ivy League games that, of all Ivy League players, really only the Crimson’s Zena Edosomwan, Corbin Miller, and Siyani Chambers have ever played in.
If the Tigers are to lose a game, it just need to make sure it happens before next Saturday.
Now to the picks: