The Ivy League: NCAA's Newest Top-10 Men's Basketball Conference

Climbing the Ladder
The Ivy League has jumped into the Top-10 in NCAA RPI conference ratings this season.
Ivy League basketball may not have reached prominence worthy of national attention, but it is sure knocking on the door.

Here is a quick snapshot through the numbers(as of Feb. 21), some of which have broken new records for the league:

Conference RPI—10th out of 32: If this Top-10 ranking holds to the end of the season, this would be the Ancient Eight’s best finish stretching back at least to the mid-1990s (when the last-known data is publicly available). The Ivy League finished as the 25th and 20th-ranked conference the past two seasons, a typical ending spot for this league historically.

Keep in mind that multiple bids in the NCAA Tournament are usually awarded to about 8-10 total conferences per season, of which include the “football” Power Five, Big East, American Conference, Atlantic-10, WCC, and MAC.

SRS(Simple Rating System): As measured by Basketball-Reference, SRS is a points-below/above-average rating that accounts for average point differential and strength of schedule. The Ivy League still sits at -1.09 points-below-average in this category, but this would be the closest to the national mean since the 1969-1970 season. Not counting 2018-19, the league’s SRS has been about 6.3 points below average dating back to the 1949-59 season, with an SRS below -3.1 in the past two campaigns.


Compared to other leagues, this season’s current result places it in 14th, which again would be a record-setting result.

Strength of Schedule/ Big Non-Conference Wins: Again in referencing Basketball-Reference’s metrics, the Ivy League as a whole has played its most competitive non-conference slate in the modern era. Excluding non-DI opponents, the Ancient Eight currently sits -1.55 points below the mean or 16th across the nation. The SOS rating itself is the closest to the mean in the 2000s, while only in 2014-15 did the league conclude with a ranking of 16 out of 32.

Compared to the history of this conference in which scheduling tough opponents was not considered a high priority, itching towards the top-15/top-10 is another area of progress for the Ancient Eight.

Additionally, this season has been notable for several upsets against highly-ranked programs which have had success in the NCAA Tournament in recent years. Below are some headlines:

Penn def. then-No. 17 Villanova 78-75, — Dec. 11.

Princeton def. then-No. 17 Arizona State, 67-66 — Dec. 29.

Yale def. Miami 77-73 — Dec. 1; def. Cal 76-59 — Nov. 9.

Harvard def. Saint Mary’s 74-68 — Nov. 24.

Brown def. San Diego State 82-61 — Dec. 29.

Of course, the league has had its fair share of head-scratching non-conference losses (including Penn’s loss to then-winless Monmouth) as well as two blowout showings at Cameron Indoor Stadium against the current No. 1-ranked Blue Devils, but its ability to continuously knock off Power Five teams will be critical to determining how far it can climb in the NCAA ladder.

KenPom Rankings: Currently, only Yale is inside the top 100 in KenPom, although Harvard had been sitting around the 80 spot mid-season before a tough stretch of losses to the likes of Siena, Vermont, and Dartmouth. The Bulldogs’ ranking (which is a remarkable 37 on RPI and 67 on NET) seats it above the likes of Georgetown, UConn, and Arizona, while Harvard is positioned above SMU, Vanderbilt, and Georgia.

The Top 4 Ivy KenPom rankings is at 119.25, with a total average of 162.625. Here is the current Ivy list:









Compared to last season, Yale and Harvard would both finish above last season’s victors in Penn, who concluded with a KenPom of 125 with the runner-ups in the Crimson at 141. The prior three seasons before that? The Ivy champions and runner-ups finished at 58 and 112, 47 and 70, 75 and 77.

From this perspective, the league still has a bit of ground to cover if it wants to fight for a chance at two bids.

Close Game Percentage: Although not a direct measure of league-by-league competitiveness, it is interesting to note that nearly half of all conference games have been decided by four points or fewer (or through overtime), as noted by the league office. This is certainly good news for executives over at ESPN, who just signed a ten-year broadcasting rights deal with the Ancient Eight. Moreover, it suggests growing competition and parity that will undoubtedly benefit the bottom-feeders, which as of date still remains Columbia, Brown, and Dartmouth.

One late-game thriller, Harvard-Columbia’s 3OT contest containing two buzzer-beaters, was awarded the ESPN Top Play of the Night and headlined SportsCenter. A nice perk to a season filled with plenty of fourth-quarter excitement.

Closing Reflections

Given this overall upward progression in the quality of play in the Ivy League, there will certainly be many exciting questions to ask in the near future: Does this conference deserve two bids in the NCAA Tournament? Should those on the caliber of Yale’s Miye Oni(who has already been receiving palpable interest from the NBA), Cornell’s Matt Morgan, even Harvard’s Bryce Aiken or Seth Towns explore bigger opportunities to play at the next level compared to their predecessors? Outside of the new ESPN deal and relative success of the Ivy League Tournament, will increased dollars in the conference equate to cross-conference improvements to facilities, recruiting, and spectator experience? These are exciting areas of interest to explore, and subjects that a conference coming into this decade would not even dare to ponder.

When asked about the growth of Ivy League basketball and the potential for two bids, coach Tommy Amaker shared his continued optimism:

“I’m hopeful and I think that’s all part of the grand vision and plan that we could potentially have multiple bids,” Amaker said. “...You are going to have a non-conference slate that’s going to have to be compared to some of the Power Five conference teams that are sixth, seventh, eighth in their league. That’s a tall order but we are on pace and path to maybe make something like that happen. It appears so. Hopefully, we keep charging and marching forward with the tournament and with opportunities that our league is being thought of as play certain kinds of games.”

In a league seething with optimism and potential — both statistically and descriptively — traditional basketball powerhouses should watch out, both in March, and in the near future.

—Staff writer Henry Zhu can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Zhuhen88.