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Ivy League Makes Case for Two to Tango at Big Dance

The Bigger Dance?
The Harvard men’s basketball team, shown on Selection Sunday in 2014, has been the only Ivy League team to hear its name called by the NCAA tournament committee each of the last four seasons, but this year, both Princeton and Yale are gunning for a spot in the Big Dance.

With its Friday loss to Yale, the Harvard men’s basketball team clinched something it hadn’t in half a decade—a losing record and a likely ticket home for the postseason. A team that has alternatingly under- and overachieved fittingly enters the final weekend with a decent shot at finishing the season fourth in the conference: exactly where it was predicted preseason.

In the ensuing power vacuum, the Crimson—winners of five straight league titles—has watched its better-dressed, poorly educated cousins fill the void. To be clear, the Princeton and Yale programs would bristle at any notion they are Harvard’s little brothers; Yale has taken out the Crimson in four of the past seven meetings, while Princeton was within a couple games of sharing the first three of those rings. Yet, while neither has dropped out of the league’s top half since 2011, they haven’t capitalized on their chances to take the throne.

This year has been a vastly different story. Entering the season’s final weekend, the statistics detailing what the Tigers and Bulldogs have done are nothing short of absurd. Since January 1, their only losses are to each other. The duo is 19-0 against the rest of the league, outscoring opponents by 15 points a game. The rest of the league has combined for one 20-point win against Ivy opposition: Yale and Princeton have seven.

This level of dominance is almost unprecedented in the Ancient Eight. If the season ended now, both would be among the best 10 league champions (by point differential) since 1970.

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And if the season ended today, both should be going dancing.

Yes, there are still games to be played. On Friday, Yale travels to Columbia—a nifty 9-0 against the non-YP parts of the League, but the Lions are like Marco Rubio when it matters most: sweaty, flailing, and falling vastly short of expectations. Princeton comes to Lavietes that same night, but with Harvard starting point guard Tommy McCarthy’s status in doubt, it’s hard to see an upset there.

Cross those barriers—as well as Princeton-Penn next Wednesday—and we will most likely arrive at a one-game playoff between two teams among the nation’s top 50, per KenPom. Since 2012, how many of those have been left out of the tournament? Only about 10 percent. Some statistical models that project the NCAA tournament have both teams in the fold, with the playoff loser hovering around the last at-large spot.

Of course, Princeton and Yale have to deal with this tricky issue of committee bias. It’s been systematically documented how the committee’s primary methods of evaluation (top-50 wins, RPI, etc.) favor teams from bigger conferences. Take Princeton. Since the second week of December, the Tigers have three losses—all to top-60 KenPom teams. The commonality: all those losses came on the road or at a neutral site.

This isn’t a surprising trend: over the past five years, Harvard has played nonconference games on the road against Colorado, Memphis, Kansas, Providence, Virginia, and UConn. Think any of those teams—all of whom, save Virginia, won by 12 or less—would come to Lavietes, where Harvard at one point won 63 of 69 straight games?

With the growth of statistics, we’ve come up with better ways to measure talent. We can tell you honestly that this a road win over Valparaiso is more impressive this year than a home one over Syracuse. We can look at a team like 2014 Kentucky, which had 10 losses entering the tournament, and note that the difference between it and first-seeded Wichita State was more like the difference between a two and a four seed than a one and an eight.

Not that everyone has realized this. ESPN’s personal walking, talking Joseph A. Bank mascot, Joe Lunardi, has Yale as a 13th seed in his tournament prediction. Providence, ranked behind both the Tigers and the Bulldogs in KenPom’s rankings, is a 10. St. Bonaventure, second in line to enter Lunardi’s bracket if someone drops, is a full 15 spots behind Princeton and nearly 20 behind Yale.

There’s a complicated upside to the inequity: it drastically raises the stakes for the season’s final stretch run. Yale’s senior class, headlined by Justin Sears, Nick Victor, and Brandon Sherrod—is looking to end a 54-year conference title drought. Bulldogs coach James Jones is the longest-tenured NCAA Division I coach not to make the Big Dance, and if he can’t do it this year—with Harvard down, Penn’s ascent nascent, and Sears and Sherrod giving him the league’s best frontcourt—when will he?

Down in Princeton, the story is fairly similar. Juniors Henry Caruso, Steven Cook, and Spencer Weisz were seniors in high school when Ian Hummer and the rest of the 2013 Tiger team crumbled down the stretch. Princeton hasn’t played meaningful games in March since. Yet, freshman Devin Cannady gives them the most dynamic bench weapon in the league, and the Rockets might be proud of how ruthlessly efficient this team is.

In just over a week, one team will see its dreams shattered. This leaves me conflicted: I’d like nothing better than to see both get their hopes crushed, but when the tournament starts, I will find it hard to argue they shouldn’t both be there.

—Staff writer David Freed can be reached at david.freed@thecrimson.com.

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