Every year, as “One Shining Moment” plays during the introduction to the NCAA tournament, Ivy League teams often feature in the footage broadcast. Whether it is the upset of defending champion UCLA by Princeton in 1996, or the near-upset of top-seeded Georgetown in 1985 by the Tigers, our league certainly has a storied history in basketball. However, for anyone else, perhaps jealous of our coverage, this spotlight may not be reflective of our current ability to beat opponents. The situation deserves a closer look.
The last time an Ivy team won a first round tournament game was 1998. Since
Princeton’s win over UNLV that year, a 2-seed, three 3-seeds, seven 4-seeds, and countless 5-seeds have lost in the opening round. You may counter that the performance of Ivy teams in the first round is not completely accounted for by the number of wins. Many times the league has come close, you may say. But the evidence isn’t supportive of the point. The closest that the Ancient Eight has come to advancing to the second round in recent history was in 2006, when Penn lost to second-seeded Texas by eight. A survey of the rest of the tournament bracket that year shows 14-seed Northwestern State upsetting Iowa 64-63, and 15-seed Winthrop losing to Tennessee by just two.
Analyzing the period from 1998 to 2003 doesn’t help the cause of the Ancient Eight either. During that five-year span, the Ivy League received much more respect from the selection committee, receiving an 11-seed three out of five years. Those three teams lost to their 6-seed opponents by 14 twice, and came within single digits only once, when Penn lost to Cal 72-65 in 2002. Considering that 11-over-6 upsets are commonplace, those performances are pedestrian at best.
The academic standards of the conference have definitely risen since the glory days of the Ancient Eight, making it harder for Ivy schools to attract the best talent. But this isn’t a new development; it has been decades since the conference was a powerhouse in basketball, and the Princeton team that upset UCLA in 1996 did so as a 13-seed.
What, then, explains the drop in performance? One reason may be that the men behind the upsets are gone. It has been 12 years since Carril last coached the Tigers, and his trusted assistant Bill Carmody left for Northwestern just four years later. Current Georgetown coach John Thompson III compiled an impressive record while at Princeton, but his tournament performance while coaching the Tigers left much to be desired—Thompson’s team went to the Big Dance twice, losing by 22 and 15 in those two trips.
Another reason may be the continued, relentless increase in the price of a college education. The current price of Ivy League tuition is nearly 10 times greater than what it was when Penn went to the Final Four in 1979. For many top recruits, a basketball scholarship may be their only ticket to higher education. A recruit would have to think very hard about playing in the Ancient Eight, should the school not offer him a similar financial aid package.
There have been many changes to the college basketball landscape in recent times, and many of those changes have not been to the benefit of the Ivy League. With the barring of high school players from the NBA draft, the depth of talent in the NCAA is the deepest in years. The age of the $100-million athletic juggernauts is in full earnest, and teams often see returns on their investment in basketball very quickly. And the Ancient Eight is entering this period of uncertainty without longtime stalwarts of the conference. It is up to the eight teams of the conference to figure out a new identity for the league.