February 14, 2002

Ivy M. Hoops Back in Big Time

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For ages the Ivy League has been the doormat for other men’s basketball conferences — a place where opponents cleaned the dirt off their schedules and left with winning records. It was a place where backups could get good minutes and coaches could try new schemes. Need to boost your team’s confidence? Schedule an Ivy League team. Such was the curse of residing in the Ancient Eight.

But this season, the Ivy League has fought back.

Facing a number of traditional powerhouses on the road, Ivy teams recorded several stunners: Yale beat Clemson and Penn State; Brown beat Providence and Rhode Island; and Columbia played UCLA tough on the road, recording a massive second-half comeback before falling by only nine. Cornell wouldn’t shy away from Syracuse, Notre Dame, Georgia Tech or Richmond. Some have speculated that a healthy Red squad could have upset the Orangemen and the Yellow Jackets.

Penn beat all five teams in the Philadelphia region, including Temple and Villanova, for the first time ever, and Princeton nipped at the heels of Maryland and St. Joseph’s. The Ivy League’s success added up to 59 non-conference wins, shattering the previous record of 50.

“We had an unprecedented season,” remarked the Ivy League Council of Presidents Assistant Director, Brett Hoover. “We had a number of good wins and a lot of those games were on the road. We blew the [non-conference win record] out of the water.”

As a testament to the Ivies’ strength, the league now ranks 15th in the nation — up from 28th a year ago.

“It has been an intense, exhilarating season,” extolled senior college basketball fan Alex Sarlin. “It has shown the country that Ivy League sports have come a long way.”

There has been much speculation as to the reasons for the League’s meteoric rise. New coaching staffs have graced the programs of Brown, Cornell, Princeton and Yale, and with them have come a number of blue-chip recruits. Brown courted Joseph Forte, Cornell picked up Chris Vandenberg — one of Canada’s top players — and Penn is already receiving playing time from Tim Begley.

“The talent level is remarkably higher than it has been,” said Hoover. “The 3-point shot has been utilized well in big games. There are a lot of good players in the league and people will pay attention. [The success] has raised an awareness for the league.”

“Overall we’ve done a really good job in recruiting players,” agreed Yale head coach James Jones. “Most of the teams have juniors and those kids have been starting for two years. The league has just gotten better.”

“It’s a talented league this year,” added Dave Faucher, now in his 11th year at Dartmouth’s helm. “There are a lot of good teams which is a true indicator of the league’s strength. A lot of programs have upgraded and there is more talent out there. There’s a good player on every team.”

Another reason for the league’s rise has been its upgraded schedule. Every team has decided to play members of the traditional powerhouse conferences. This idea benefits each team in a number of ways. First, teams can strut their “stuff” on a national stage often in front of a national audience. Second, each team has the opportunity, at least, to record an upset. And third, it helps sign recruits who are looking to play against some of the bigger names around the nation.

“Each school is trying to upgrade its schedule,” noted Cornell head coach Steve Donahue.

Certainly Donahue is no stranger to this idea as his team played one of the toughest opening schedules in the nation.

“The young coaches in the league want to go out and have the opportunity to win and they’re working hard to make sure that gets done,” Jones said. “You want to challenge your team. If you go out and play at Clemson in front of 13,000 people, or Penn State in front of 11,000 people, and then you go to play a Penn or a Princeton, it’s not a big deal anymore. You’ve been tested.”

With this kind of success, national attention in terms of post-season appearances is not out of the question. The league sends its conference winner to the NCAA tournament every year. But for the first time ever, the league may have the opportunity to send two teams to the Big Dance — an idea postulated by Dick Weiss of the New York Daily News.

Penn, which holds the league’s highest Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) at 67, could feasibly get through the league without winning the title and yet be selected as a wild card for the NCAA tournament. Currently, the Quakers are third behind first-place Yale.

“There is a potential for three teams with 20 wins,” noted Hoover.

In such a case, one of the three could be invited to the NIT.

“I would love to see that happen,” Hoover exalted.

“It would be great,” said Sarlin.

“I look around the league and everybody’s coming back,” Jones added. “So now you’re in a situation where teams are even better next year. So I certainly believe the league will have opportunities to send multiple teams into the postseason.”

Whether or not its recent successes result in national attention remains to be seen. One thing is for certain: Ivy euphoria is on the rise. How long it lasts depends on how much fight the league has left in it.

Archived article by Sumeet Sarin