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Men's Basketball Marches on to the Palestra

Town and Country
Sophomore forward Seth Towns, recently named Ivy League Player of the Year, finished the season with a 44.4 shooting percentage from beyond the arc.

If there’s anything we’ve learned from head coach Tommy Amaker while covering the Harvard men’s basketball team over the last few years, it’s to not dwell on things outside of your control. Amaker rarely discusses injuries to his players, instead focusing on those who are practicing and suiting up for games.

Just last weekend, the former Duke standout claimed that he did not know that Yale had defeated Penn—a result that gave his Crimson an inside track to an Ivy League regular season championship—until he arrived in the locker room following his team’s double-overtime win over Cornell. While we have the utmost respect for Amaker and the program that he runs here, we are going to completely ignore his example for the sake of this column.

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With the second annual Ivy League Tournament upon us, it’s time that the conference received some respect from the national media. When the idea of a conference tournament was announced two years ago, the benefits were obvious—extra revenue for the league through sponsorships and ticket sales, excitement around a new idea in a very old league, the opportunity for fan bases to converge on Philadelphia to support their schools, the increased meaning of regular season games for a greater number of teams, and, perhaps most importantly, added exposure for the conference, which would see its champion crowned in one of college’s basketball most iconic arenas on Selection Sunday in a game televised on ESPN2. This weekend, we’ll find out just how much that increased exposure will pay off.

For some background, Harvard and Penn enter this weekend as the top two seeds in the Ivy League Tournament after both ball clubs went 12-2 in conference play and split their two regular season matchups. Standing in the way of a rubber match between Amaker and freshly minted Ivy League Coach of the Year Steve Donahue are third-seeded Yale and fourth-seeded Cornell.

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The Crimson will take on the Big Red, a team that it has defeated twice this season—by three points in Ithaca and in double-overtime last weekend in Cambridge—in Saturday’s earlier game while the Quakers will square off with the Bulldogs—a team with which it split the season series and to which it fell by one on a buzzer-beater a mere six days ago.

Not for nothing, each game of the Ivy League Tournament will be played at the Palestra, Penn’s historic home arena and the Cathedral of College Basketball. While the Palestra is arguably the only venue in the conference that could host such an event, it provides an obvious advantage for the Quakers, which will be wearing their road uniforms in front of a home crowd if they face Harvard on Sunday. Penn went 11-3 at home this season, including a 7-0 mark in league play.

While the site of the Ivy League Tournament poses an advantage for the Quakers, we’re not going to argue with the Ivy League’s decision to use the Palestra. As someone who grew up watching dozens of high school and college games at the third-oldest college basketball arena in the country, I could not think of a better place to host this tournament. Plus, if you can’t win a conference game on the road in a hostile environment, you probably shouldn’t be playing in the NCAA Tournament anyway. And let’s be honest, if the conference championship were being played at Lavietes Pavilion, there would probably be more Penn fans than Harvard ones anyway.

What we are going to argue with is the lack of respect that the Ivy League is getting in the national conversation. Thursday’s Bracketology, which is usually extremely accurate, has the Crimson as the conference’s representative in the NCAA Tournament, seeded as a 16-seed playing No. 1-seeded Xavier in Detroit.

It’s not that the NCAA is naive of the level of play in the Ivy League—last year, Princeton entered the NCAA Tournament as a 12-seed and narrowly lost to Notre Dame in the first round. No one is going to argue that this year’s Harvard or Penn teams are as good as the Tigers squad that went 14-0 in conference play and did not lose a game for nearly three months, and most people would agree that the Ivy League is having a down year in 2017-2018.

As two people who watch more Ivy League basketball than 99 percent of college basketball fans, however, we can say pretty confidently that the Crimson and Quakers are better than their respective records would indicate. Some might argue that Ivy League teams made each other look good over the past two months, but there’s much more to this story than parity.

Ivy League Player of the Year Seth Towns spurned offers from Michigan and Ohio State to play for Harvard. Amaker reeled in a top ten recruiting class last season while both Yale and Penn have also been buoyed by stud sophomores this season. Princeton is bringing in one of the top point guards in the class of 2018 (Jaelin Llewellyn) next season while Cornell has one of the top pure scorers that the conference has seen in recent memory (junior guard Matt Morgan).

The Ivy League has a history of being extremely top heavy—the Quakers and Tigers won all but two of the conference’s titles from 1963-2007. That string was broken up by three straight crowns for the Big Red and a four-year stretch of dominance from the Crimson. But the Ivy League is no longer a one or two-team conference.

Sure, Harvard and Penn are the only two teams that the league would be excited to see play in the NCAA Tournament, but their matchup on Sunday in the conference championship is far from a sure thing. Morgan gave the Crimson fits last weekend while classmate Stone Gettings did the same in the teams’ first meeting in February. After battling injuries and mediocrity for much of the season, Yale rides a four-game winning streak into Philadelphia.

Harvard’s performance in nonconference play seems to be a huge turnoff for bracketologist Joe Lunardi and company, and for good reason. The Crimson went 5-10 outside of the Ivy League and suffered losses to George Washington, Holy Cross, and Manhattan. However, its play since conference games began cannot be overstated.

Like the Quakers, the Crimson went undefeated in league play at home and has played a consistent brand of basketball that has become a hallmark of Amaker and Donahue-coached teams. Operating through sophomore forward Chris Lewis and Towns, Harvard has ridden its young core to its first conference championship since 2015.

Penn sophomores Ryan Betley and AJ Brodeur are surrounded by an experienced and talent cast of role players, and Donahue has brought a renaissance of sorts to University City in his third season at the helm. Winning 12 games in a conference in which truly anything can happen on a given Friday or Saturday night is a feat in and of itself.

To say that the Crimson or Quakers would be one of the six worst teams in the NCAA Tournament’s field of 68 is laughable. The Ivy League is currently ranked 24th out of 32 Division I conferences when it comes to RPI and the league’s eight teams went a combined 42-64 in a challenging nonconference schedule. However, Harvard is currently seeded below Lipscomb (No. 165 in the latest Pomeroy College Basketball Ratings), 13-loss Iona, and Horizon League champion Wright State.

While two years ago the Ivy League had dreams of becoming a two-bid league sometime in the near future, it will need this weekend’s exposure to prove that it has not stooped to the level of teams in the SWAC, MEAC, and Southland conferences.

Back in early February, The Daily Pennsylvanian ran a column entitled “Penn men’s basketball is good, but is it great?”. Fast-forward a month and most pundits would agree that neither Penn nor Harvard would be described as great, but neither ball club deserves a 16-seed next week. Hopefully, the committee will be tuned into ESPN2 on Sunday afternoon.

Now to the picks:

No. 1 HARVARD vs. No. 4 CORNELL

We lied.

Here we were last week thinking that we had closed out the season and wrapped up all hateful commentary on the amalgamation of somewhat esteemed institutions that make up this league, but we somehow forgot that there was still a conference tournament to be played.

Rest assured, this is the last hurrah.

All season long, we’ve been quite cruel to the excuse of an institution that calls Ithaca home. And we intend to keep it that way.

A quick look at one of the Internet’s most reliable resources, Urban Dictionary, provided some valuable commentary on the school far above Cayuga’s waters. One was quite curt in its definition, saying quite simply, Cornell “is partially a state school.”

Others offered slightly more insightful commentary, describing how it was, “the only campus where you walk up a 45 degree incline in 45 degree weather to get a 45 percent on a test."

Amazing.

For reasons such as these, among others we’ve outlined through the course of this season, we’ve decided to make a call to arms in our last iteration of this column:

Remove Cornell from the Ivy League.

That’s right, Cornell can take its frigid weather and fish and hotel management elsewhere. Last we heard, the Horizon League is taking applications.

It’s also somehow in the Ivy Tournament with a losing record overall and in conference.

Pick: Harvard

No. 2 PENN vs. No. 3 YALE

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room—why the hell should the No. 2 seed get to play at home for the conference tournament?

We’re not asking for Madison Square Garden, but the fact that Penn gets home court advantage for both the men’s and women’s tournaments is borderline stupid.

Sure, it was an easy enough call when the Quakers were expected to be trash last season and the four seed this year, but it is just really, really, really stupid and plainly unfair.

Last season, the Quakers entered the conference tournament with a losing record and took a Princeton team that had gone undefeated in conference into overtime in front of what was largely a Penn crowd.

Had the Quakers won, the three and four seeds would have been playing on Sunday to represent the conference in the tournament.

We’re not sure who calls the shots in the Ivy League, but that should’ve been more than enough of a lesson in letting one of the schools in the conference host the tournament.

Stupid location aside, there’s a lot to be said about both teams in this matchup.

If there was an award for worst closeout to a game ever, Penn’s ending to last weekend’s game against Yale would run away with the crown. The last minute could deserve a whole story of its own, but in short, the Quakers were up three with just over five seconds to go and somehow lost. In regulation.

Pour one out.

The weekend didn’t end there for the Quakers, though. After clinching a share of the Ivy League title with their win against Brown on Saturday, the team returned to Philadelphia where they cut down nets at the Palestra at two in the morning.

No hate here, but someone clearly didn’t tell them that’s not how cutting down the nets really works.

For its part, Yale also struggled on Urban Dictionary, with the most reliable definition reading as follows, “(1) Unaccredited University in southern Connecticut. (2) Lock Manufacturer.”

We’d like to take the Bulldogs, but Penn clearly has a contact somewhere in the Ivy League.

Pick: Penn

No. 1 HARVARD vs. No. 2 PENN

If nothing goes too wrong this is the most likely matchup we’ll see on Sunday.

Cornell has about two basketball players and Penn is playing at home. As we call it a career, though, we have to admit these things aren’t objective and they never have been.

So if the committee is reading this, a No. 2 Duke vs. No. 15 Harvard game in San Diego on Friday night would be incredible. Thank you.

Pick: Harvard

—Staff writer Troy Boccelli can be reached at troy.boccelli@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Stephen J. Gleason can be reached at stephen.gleason@thecrimson.com.

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