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(More) March Madness

3.10.16


While winning five consecutive Ivy League championships from 2011-2015, the Harvard men’s basketball team twice participated in a one-game playoff to decide who would receive the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament: a heartbreaking 63-62 loss to Princeton on a buzzer beater in 2011 and a thrilling 53-51 win over Yale last year that ended when a last-second Yale attempt rimmed out.

From now on, if the Crimson is to receive the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, it will again have to win in a playoff format: the Ivy League announced today that beginning next March, the conference will have two four-team tournaments to decide which men’s and women’s teams will automatically qualify for the NCAA tournament. The inaugural event will take place March 11-12, 2017, at the Palestra in Philadelphia, an historic venue often referred to as “the cathedral of college basketball.” Both semi-finals will be played on Saturday, with the championship games on Sunday—the same day the field for the NCAA men’s tournament is chosen.

The decision, reached in a vote by the Council of Ivy Presidents earlier this academic year, has already prompted debate about whether the tournament will enhance or diminish the league’s rich basketball tradition, not to mention its increasingly high-profile product. For years, the conference was the only league that awarded its automatic NCAA bid to the regular-season champion—a format that created drama throughout the 14-game Ivy season and, many believed, increased the likelihood that the league would send its best teams to March Madness.

Speaking by telephone earlier today, Kathy Orton, a reporter for The Washington Post and the author of Outside the Limelight, a book on the 2005-2006 Ivy men’s basketball season, argued that transitioning away from this format comes at a price. “The Ivy League’s distinction,” she said, “always was that it alone was the only one that did not have a conference tournament, that rewarded its regular-season champion with the NCAA bid.” By moving away from that, the league is losing “the one thing that set it apart from everybody else in basketball.”

But others feel that adding the conference tournament enriches the increasingly competitive Ivy League basketball landscape. In a statement released via Harvard Athletics, Stemberg coach Tommy Amaker said in part, “This is a terrific opportunity to showcase the depth of our league—and to provide our student-athletes with the always meaningful experience of playing in the post-season.” Women’s head coach Kathy Delaney-Smith—who has the most wins of any coach in league basketball history—echoed this point, emphasizing, “These tournaments will be a great celebration of basketball. They provide us the opportunity to feature our league during a time of year when national attention is focused on basketball.”

Robin Harris, the Ivy League executive director, emphasized that by limiting the tournament to just four teams, the league will maintain the significance of the regular-season games. She also pointed out that because each team in the conference will be required to shorten its regular season by one non-conference game (and given that the tournament requires only two days), the new format will not detract from student-athletes’ academic responsibilities. “What we really focused on was how do we preserve the uniqueness and the integrity of the Ivy League,” Harris said, “and the model that we’re putting in place does that.”

The new tournament comes as the league has enjoyed growing parity and increased success on the national stage. For decades, Penn and Princeton enjoyed a stranglehold atop the conference, winning virtually every Ivy title from the 1960s onward. But beginning with Cornell’s three-peat from 2008-2010, Harvard’s run from 2011-2015, and Yale’s back-to-back championships (shared with Harvard last season and outright this year), that dynamic has changed. 

And the league has become competitive nationally. In 2010, Cornell reached the NCAA Sweet 16. The following year, when Harvard lost to Princeton in a one-game playoff, the Tigers lost narrowly in the NCAA tournament to a Kentucky team that reached the Final Four. And in its run of four consecutive NCAA tournaments, Harvard twice won opening-round games—and nearly pulled off a third upset last year when it lost to perennial power North Carolina by just two points. Ivy teams are clearly deeper and more nationally competitive than during the era of Princeton’s and Penn’s dominance.

Could a conference tournament interfere with this progress, allowing a weaker team that got hot in the tournament to knock off the regular-season champion and reach the NCAAs? Michael James ’06, a former sports chair for The Harvard Crimson and the curator of a popular Twitter account on Ivy basketball, said this risk is mitigated because two Ivy teams could conceivably get into the NCAAs. “This is no longer a league where the top team is the only one with a reasonable chance of looking respectable in the NCAA tournament,” he suggested in an e-mail earlier today, “and the conference tournament could provide the necessary boost toward letting this league really prove it by increasing the odds of getting a second team into the Dance.”

Many details about the conference tournament remain to be decided—including how a hypothetical tiebreaker would be broken between two fourth-place teams and where the tournament will be played after next year. The Palestra is certainly the most renowned Ivy League basketball venue, but basing the tournament there permanently might also create an unfair home-court advantage for the Quakers. Today’s announcement left the location of the tournament in 2018 and thereafter open.

Such details aside, the tournament represents, as Orton said, a “fairly seismic change” in the Ivy basketball landscape. Consider the implications for this year’s Harvard’s teams alone: if the tournament existed, both the men and women, who finished fourth and third in the conference respectively, would still have a chance to continue their seasons and compete for a post-season berth.

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