March 14, 2003

Put Some Madness Into the Ivy League

Print More

Ah, NCAA basketball championship week. If you’ve flipped by ESPN at all this month, you know it’s going on now, and if you’ve cared to watch the worldwide leader in sports, you’re wrapped up in it. Bracketology, the Big Dance, Digger, and Dickie V.

And one notable absence — the Ivy League.

Earlier this week, on Tuesday, Penn played Princeton in the final NCAA Division I regular season game of the season. It was a totally meaningless matchup, since the Quakers had already sealed the Ivy championship and the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament that comes with it.

Every other D-I conference has a postseason tournament to determine its champion — except the Ancient Eight.

Let’s face it. There’s nothing wrong with a postseason tournament. Not a single thing. But there’s a lot of greatness that comes with one.

Think of the excitement of postseason play, which only one Ivy team currently gets to taste. Think of the revenue it brings in for the league. The Ivy League can actually pull in television viewers — ESPN’s College Gameday show, which aired from Penn’s Franklin Field before the de facto Ivy football championship game, was the highest rated Gameday show ever.

Perhaps most importantly, an Ivy League postseason tournament would make the regular season more meaningful for more teams. Sure, the regular season is the ticket for the Penns and Princetons to advance to the NCAAs, but what about the Cornells, Columbias, and Dartmouths? A few losses into the season, and the rest of the schedule becomes a learning experience.

Now say that six of the league’s eight teams qualify for the postseason. Suddenly, a cellar-dweller like Columbia can string together a handful of wins at the end of the year and make it to the postseason.

So here’s what I propose. The top six teams advance to the Ivy tournament, with the top two receiving byes. The third team plays the sixth team, and No. 4 plays No. 5 in the first round. Then the teams are reseeded, and we have four teams in the semifinals, which whittles down to two and then one. That team gets to hang the Ivy championship banner and move on to the Big Dance. We’ll use a single elimination format, and play the games at a neutral site, maybe somewhere near New York City or Hartford, since that’s roughly the geographical center of the league.

Think about it. Instead of a meaningless game between Penn and Princeton this week, we could have had postseason action. How would it have played out?

Well, we’d have Princeton-Cornell and Yale-Harvard in the first-round action. The picks? Princeton over the Red — Cornell’s team is still too inexperienced — and Yale toppling Harvard. In the next round Yale, would fall to Penn, but Princeton pulls off the upset over Brown. The Tigers are a team that knows the heat of an Ivy race, and would come up big in postseason play. In the finals, Penn halts the Tigers’ run, and the Quakers complete an undefeated season against conference opponents. Just for kicks, let’s say Penn’s star senior, Ugonna Onyekwe, gets named tournament MVP.

Then I woke up.

That didn’t happen, of course. There were no exciting buzzer-beaters, no legendary overtime games, no playoff action. Penn beat the Tigers on Tuesday, 74-67, and nobody cared except for the players and their families, because the Quakers were already the Ivy champs. There is no opportunity for an upset in the postseason, and no tournament MVP to hand out.

So goes the Ivy League, the most tradition-laden conference in the nation. The only changes the league brings around now are inane things like preventing athletes from practicing for seven weeks out of the year. The teams don’t even get to play the same number of games that other programs do.

It’s time for the Ivy League to break with tradition in a good way — by making changes that excite the fans, energize the players, and bring in revenue.

That can start with a conference tournament, which each of the other 31 Division I conferences enjoy.

Archived article by Alex Fineman