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NEW HAVEN--This is no time for NIT-picking.
Yes, there were "NIT" banners at Yale's Payne Whitney Gym urging that tournament's selection committee to consider the Elis--Ivy League runner-up to Princeton--for its postseason tournament. Yale is unlikely to garner the bid, despite its 19-7 record, because of its easy schedule. Case Western Reserve, Swarthmore and Columbia aren't exactly the type of competition any national tournament wants to see its teams playing.
But the mere fact that any Ivy League team is being considered for the NIT is a huge change in this era when the league's automatic bid to the NCAA tournament has been in jeopardy.
And Saturday's Yale-Harvard game reenforces how much better the level of Ivy League basketball has improved just in the last year.
The Crimson entered this year as one of two favorites to win the title. Vastly improved, with its two best players, Ralph James and Ron Mitchell, returning from last year's 7-7 squad, it had unarguably the best recruiting class in the league headed by Tarik Campbell and Tyler Rullman.
But improving isn't good enough in the Ivy League anymore. Every team is improving--even Columbia, which finished 4-22 this year. Harvard has had trouble converting its talent into wins and Saturday was no different, as Dean Campbell and Travis McCready sparked the Elis to a 82-78 win.
"We're not playing against ourselves," HarvardCoach Peter Roby said. "There are other teams outthere playing, and they play pretty goodbasketball, too. You have to give [Yale] credit.They've proved all year that they're a qualityteam."
Yale stunned almost all of the Ivy Leaguepundits by finishing only one game away from anNCAA tournament bid, one game behind theformidable Tigers, who have not lost at home in 18games. The Elis were the first Ivy team to upsetPrinceton, topping the defending Ivy champs,39-37, in the first game of the season. And now,it has earned talk of an NIT bid.
"When you work, good things happen," Yale CoachDick Kuchen said. "It's not just ability thatmakes things happen. It's having that strongfeeling, the love for each other. These guys havethat and have accomplished things that no otherYale team has accomplished."
Roby will be the first to agree that it takesmore than talent to win in the league these days.Few would argue that he has the most talent-laden7-7 team in the league.
"We had the best recruiting class last year andthis year, it's important to continue that," Robysaid. "But we don't need to have a big recruitingyear for us to be competitive next year. We justhave to play better."
But Harvard has to play better than better,because every program is playing better. Whetherit be self-imposed pressure caused by the threatof losing its automatic bid or a better educationdrawing more serious athletes, the Ivy League--notjust Yale--has earned its NIT consideration thisyear.
"This is the best crowd we've had since I'vebeen here," McCready said. "It's great, the wordis out and hopefully, it'll still be out nextyear."
Graduating only its manager, Lisa Thomas, Yalehas to be considered the early favorite for thetitle next year. But Kuchen knows that it willtake more than the status quo to take home theautomatic bid.
"The players involved in the program have gotto get better," Kuchen said. "They have to improveboth skill-wise and in their understanding of thegame."
But before that, Kuchen has to wonder if histeam will get another opportunity to play thisyear. Roby knows the chances are unlikely, but healso knows he'd love to be in Kuchen's position.
"But Yale has to be careful that they don'tallow the disappointment over not getting apostseason bid to spoil the kind of year they'vehad," Roby added. "They've got everybody back,they beat everybody in the league. What's not tobe excited about?"
Not Ivy League basketball, that's for sure
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