Courtesy of the Daily Princetonian

Though Ivy League schools make for unlikely Davids, they play the role every year in March Madness.

March 20, 2019

The Cinderella Conference: A History of the Ivy League in the NCAA Tournament

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Ivy League schools are not considered underdogs very often, but they are in one place: the NCAA tournament. Although the Ivy League has not had the success of some other conferences, it does have a history of playing the upset.

The tournament of 64 teams (plus four play-in games) annually includes an Ivy League challenger in the competition for college basketball supremacy, as an automatic bid is given to the Ivy League champion each year.

Overall, the Ivy League is 43-85 in the NCAA tournament. At 10-7, Dartmouth has the best record in the tournament and is the only one with a winning record, but the Big Green hasn’t been invited to the dance since 1959. The worst record belongs to Princeton — the school with the most appearances at 13-29.

Tournament success is not common for the Ivy League schools, but the conference has had some great moments and teams — Princeton in the 1990s, Harvard in the 2010s and Cornell’s Sweet Sixteen run in 2010.

Before the tournament expanded to the current 64-team format in 1985, the Ivy League saw the only three Final Four appearances in its history. The most recent of these took place in 1979, when Magic Johnson and the Michigan State Spartans defeated Penn on their way to college basketball immortality.

In 1965, Princeton made it to the national semifinals behind star player (and eventual Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer) Bill Bradley and his 30.5 points per game, but lost to Michigan and didn’t move on to the final.

The only Ivy League team to play in a national championship game was Dartmouth in 1944, when there were eight teams in the whole tournament. Dartmouth lost the game to Utah.

Since the expansion to 64 teams, the Ivy League has a collective record of 8-37. Typically, the Ivy League champion is a significant underdog, landing between a No. 12 seed and the bottom No. 16 seed.

Twice, an Ivy representative has been seeded as a favorite over its first-round opponent — Princeton both times. The Tigers lost as a No. 8 seed in the No. 8-No. 9 matchup in 1991 and won their first-round game as a No. 5 seed in 1998 before losing in the Round of 32.

Once the tournament expanded in 1985, the Ivy eight suffered a ten-year drought without a single victory. A notable game in that stretch came in 1989, when No. 16 Princeton almost upset No. 1 Georgetown but lost 50-49. That Georgetown team had future Hall of Famers Dikembe Mutumbo and Alonzo Mourning on its squad.

The conference earned its first victory in the Round of 64 when Penn upset Nebraska in 1994. That win began a stretch where an Ivy representative won its first game three times in five years. Following Penn’s triumph, Princeton defeated No. 3 UCLA 43-41 in 1996 and beat UNLV as a favorite in 1998.

After 1998, the Ivy League went 11 tournaments without a victory. Penn, Princeton and Cornell traded representation for those seasons, and would lose to teams laden with future NBA players.

The winless streak ended in 2010, when Cornell won not one but two games, becoming the first Ivy team to reach the Sweet Sixteen since the full field of 64 was created. Led by Jeff Foote ’10, the Red — a No. 12 seed — defeated No. 5 Temple 78-65 and then No. 4 Wisconsin 87-69. Cornell’s unprecedented run ended in a loss to Kentucky, a team that had eight future NBA players including perennial All-Stars John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins.

Three years later, Harvard got in on the tournament success. A No. 14 seed in 2013, the Crimson bested No. 3 New Mexico before losing to No. 6 Arizona in the Round of 32.

The next year, Harvard returned to the tournament as a No. 12 seed, upsetting No. 5 Cincinnati 61-57. Like the previous season, the run would stop there, as the Crimson ended their season with an 80-73 loss at the hands of No. 4 Michigan State.

Harvard almost caused another upset in 2015, but No. 4 North Carolina narrowly escaped its game with the Crimson by a score of 67-65.

Most recent of the Ivy League upsets came in 2016, when No. 12-seeded Yale proved victorious over Baylor 79-75. The Bulldogs would then lose to a Duke team boasting five future NBAers, including Grayson Allen and Brandon Ingram.

Starting in 2017, the Ivy League Tournament determined which team received the automatic bid for the tournament. Before that, no conference tournament took place and the regular season champion — the team with the best in-conference record — would represent the conference.

Last season, Penn came out the Ivy League as the lowest possible No. 16 seed. Although the 2018 tournament did see the first No. 16-seed upset a No. 1, it was not Penn, as the Quakers lost to Kansas.

This year, Yale defeated Harvard in the Ivy League Championship Game and is moving on to the NCAA tournament. The Bulldogs were placed as the No. 14 seed in the East Region. Top seeds in that region are Michigan State and tournament-favorite Duke, with highly anticipated NBA prospects Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett.

The Bulldogs start their tournament run against number No. 3 seed LSU, a team that won its conference’s regular season championship, but lost in the first game of the SEC tournament. Now LSU’s head coach has been suspended, casting doubt on the Tigers’ ability to advance in the tournament.

Yale and LSU face off on Thursday at 12:30 p.m. The game will be played in Jacksonville, FL and can be viewed on TruTV. Maybe we’ll see some Ivy magic.