March 17, 2006

Ivy Hoops Deserve A Tournament

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I apologize in advance for beating a dead horse, as I wrote about this very topic last year.

But yesterday, as I watched teams from the Horizon and Big Sky conferences earn first-round upsets, I couldn’t help but get angered by the fact that our beloved conference’s stupidity is sinking it deeper into NCAA basketball obscurity.

Tomorrow, Penn will take the court against Texas and will surely lose. It will be the eighth straight year that the Ivy League champion has bowed out in the opening round.

So, I pose the question – why are our peers from the Patriot League (namely Bucknell) and other mid-majors gaining national exposure while the Ivy League is earning respect at the same rate as Ashlee Simpson’s singing voice?

I have one solution to this problem – an Ivy League tournament. Last season the Quakers were one game better than they were this season and earned a 13 seed without playing a single team in the top-25 in the country. This season Penn played back-to-back games against No. 1 Duke and No. 3 Villanova, and took the Wildcats down to the wire before falling by seven at the Palestra. But the Quakers are a 15 seed this season.

Why is this point relevant in a discussion about an Ivy tournament? The bottom line is that our conference has become a laughingstock. While all the other teams in The Dance were battling conference foes to earn a bid, the Quakers were squeaking out wins over Yale (by two) and Brown (in overtime) before losing to Princeton to end their season. Not exactly a great momentum boost going into a contest against the Longhorns.

The bottom line is that, for some reason, the Belmonts and Bradleys of the world are surpassing the Ivy League in basketball prestige. Obviously that’s not of much concern to the Ancient Eight elitists, but still, isn’t there any way that we could market ourselves better to quality athletes? Should Cornell be content being a national power in such niche sports as hockey and wrestling? I love to watch those sports, but come on, I’d watch underwater basket weaving if it was competitive.

Please don’t get me wrong – Penn was the class of the league this year and deserved to make the tournament, but why shouldn’t we put our top teams through the gauntlet of the league before facing top national competition? For some odd reason, we allow our teams to get rusty before the tournament, playing meaningless games against teams who know that their postseason chances are about as good as Michael Jackson’s chances of being normal again. For the last two weeks of the season, nobody wants to go see Columbia, Dartmouth, or even Cornell games. It’s like watching the Knicks, except without the Garden, Knick-City Dancers, and beer concessions. So what’s the point?

There are other conferences of eight teams that run successful postseason tournaments every year, using various formats. Personally, I feel as if a league tournament can be easily suited to cater to the regular-season champion.

If I were king for the day, the top-2 seeds would get byes into the semifinals (which they would host on their respective home courts), while the bottom four teams duke it out to play the No. 3 and No. 4 teams (who would host the quarterfinals). Then, the finals could be hosted by the best remaining seed to determine the league’s automatic bid. Can any one of the Ancient Eight athletic directors tell me why this already isn’t in place? I’d love to hear the argument.

Last year when I wrote about this, plenty of people gave me feedback about how the current system gives the bid to the conference’s best team. Well, yes and no.

I’ll explain by simulating the system I just proposed. Okay, so in the first round Brown would host Dartmouth and Harvard would welcome Columbia, while Cornell and Yale awaited the winner. Say the top seeds prevail. The Red would host the Crimson and the Bulldogs would host the Bears.

Therefore, all Penn and Princeton (the best teams in the regular season) would have to do is beat Yale and Cornell, respectively, to earn the chance to play for a tournament berth. I’m sure that doesn’t sound like such a tall task to those teams. And even if the Quakers and Tigers lost in an exciting end-of-the-year event, would it be that big of a deal?

Maybe for once in our lives we can see a team other than Penn and Princeton get hot and have a shot at a top-ranked opponent. The last time that happened was Cornell in the 1987-88 season.

So even though I’ll be gone next year, I urge the league’s athletic directors to finally right these wrongs and put Ivy League basketball exactly where it should be – on the map.

Chris Mascaro is the former Sun Sports Editor. He May Be Tall will appear every other Friday this semester.

Archived article by Chris Mascaro