February 24, 2005

Ivy Hoops Needs a League Tourney

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In 49 years of Ivy League men’s basketball, there have been six seasons where a team other than Penn or Princeton has won the outright league title. Six — since the 1956-57 season. It’s like the Ivy League is the American League East in baseball — Penn and Princeton are like the Red Sox and Yanks and then there are the rest.

The last time another team won the conference was in the 1987-88 season, when our beloved Cornell lost to Arizona in the first round of the NCAA tournament, 90-50.

So the question becomes — why is this? Why, if the Ivy League has the same recruiting rules and the same regulations in terms of practice and game schedules, do two teams dominate the league every year?

Well, every selection Sunday, 31 of the 65 teams seeded for the NCAA tournament get there because they received an automatic bid after winning their respective conference. Thirty teams get automatic bids because they won their conference tournament. Only one gets in because it won its conference’s regular season — the Ivy League representative.

Every year, while other mid-major conferences gain national exposure for their programs on ESPN and ESPN2 to see who’ll receive an automatic bid to the dance, Penn or Princeton is usually running away with the Ivy crown. Meanwhile, the rest of the league plays out the rest of their schedule as if they were the Devil Rays at the beginning of September.

One of the league’s views on the matter is that because the conference is just eight teams, every team gets to play every other team twice during the season, and if there is a clear favorite in the league after 14 games, that team should get the automatic bid.

This idea sounds good on the surface, but let’s get realistic. Four other conferences — the Big Sky, Mountain West, Patriot League, and West Coast Conference — all have just eight teams and run a successful postseason tournament every year.

The Ivies could easily adopt an eight-team tournament, where the first seed plays the eighth seed, two plays seven, etc., on a neutral court, as the Mountain West does at the Pepsi Center in Denver. Or, it could have an eight-team tournament where the locations of the first two rounds are rotated on a year-by-year basis, but the championship game is hosted by the best remaining seed, like in the Patriot League. It could even put more weight on the regular season by having only six teams make the tournament with the top two seeds getting a bye, and the regular season champ getting to host the semifinals and finals, as in the Big Sky. Or, if the league would want to take things a step further, it could have the bottom four teams from the regular season duke it out to make a six-team tournament where the top two seeds get a bye to the semifinal round like the West Coast Conference. What I’m trying to say here is that anything would be better than nothing.

The Ivy League could easily host a six or eight team tournament the weekend of March 11-13 at the Pepsi Center in Albany. Think of that. One weekend, Cornell students could make the short trip to Albany to see if their second-seeded Red could beat Penn to advance to the NCAA tournament. Then, the next weekend, those same students can watch their first-seeded hockey team try to win the ECACHL en route to a number one seed in the Frozen Four. Pretty cool, huh? I sure like the prospect of that.

Right now, our only hope is to win the rest of our games and get help from Penn’s remaining opponents. Why does a solid Ivy League season have to go to waste? If Penn is so good, why can’t they prove it under the pressure of a tournament?

To be honest, I don’t even know if a tournament would change that much. What I do know is that it would spark much more excitement about Ivy League basketball — not just here, but on every campus in the league which can have at least a glimmer of hope come March each year. I know this might be against the rules of the Ancient Eight — but it could be fun.

Wouldn’t the conference want to try to represent itself as best it can in the national tournament? I know they are attempting to do that with the current format, but I’d rather have a team that is hot going into the tournament than a team that put all its energy into beating up league opponents, only to fall flat in the first round.

Don’t think that is the case? Ivy League teams have reached the second round just three times in the past 20 years, with each of those squads — the 1993-94 Quakers, and the 1995-96 and 1997-98 Tigers — losing in their second round contests.

Yes, the caliber of Ivy League teams is not as good as some of the power conferences, but every year there is a Southern Illinois, Valparaiso, or UAB that makes a Sweet 16 run. And by the way, the 97-98 Princeton team had 27 wins during the year, was ranked as high as seventh in the nation and closed the year at number nine, before falling to Michigan State in the second round.

Well, enough of this. It is no use talking about this issue anymore. The only things I can realistically wish for now is that we win the rest of our games and I get to interview my life-long idol, Bobby Hurley when he is here Saturday night doing color commentary for the YES network. Penn self-destructing and the hockey team winning the Frozen Four, will have to be left to fate.

Chris Mascaro is a Sun Assistant Sports Editor. He May Be Tall will appear every other Thursday this semester.

Archived article by Chris Mascaro