Over the last half-decade, Ivy League basketball has grown quite a bit. Cornell made a Sweet Sixteen run in 2010, Harvard has recently emerged as a marquee name, and, this year, the league launched the Ivy League Digital Network. Three games were even on national TV this weekend. (I still think the league and NBCSN should try to rebrand their package by consistently televising an Ivy game every Friday night—as it is, just look at the lack of competition on recent and upcoming Friday nights, not only in college basketball, but also in all of sports. But that’s a discussion for another time.)
Even as the exposure continues, while I watched Harvard at Princeton on Saturday, I could not help but think back to 2011’s classic—Princeton’s Doug Davis hit a buzzer beater to give the Tigers a one-point win—and remember the ultimate way to create national buzz and exposure for the league: a conference tournament to decide the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
I am certainly not the first person to suggest this. The league considered such a proposition in 2012, but turned it down.
I appreciate the tradition of the 14-game tournament and the uniqueness and tension that it brings to the league. I also understand the concern for sending the league’s “best” team to the tournament as often as possible. But there is so much more to gain from a conference tournament.
First, there is the pure excitement that it would bring. That Harvard-Princeton playoff game in 2011 was as good as it gets. It was so dramatic that ESPN cut into its programming to show it live. Why not create such a spectacle every March and make it the dominant Ivy athletic event of the year? There likely would be financial rewards to come with that, too, but I would guess the league cares more about its national exposure than profits. Additionally, the championship celebration on the court would be far more exciting than celebrating in the library or in front of a computer screen like Harvard fans have had to do in the last two seasons.
If there are concerns about the conference winner being too random, there are ways to tweak the format to reward the better teams. I would never vouch for an eight-team tourney (which, given the logistical requirements of playing only on weekends, would most likely be unfeasible anyway). You can take the top four teams, give the top two seeds home-court advantage on Friday night, and then have the winners face off at a neutral site on Sunday. If you want to give the top seed even more of an advantage, you could make it a three-team tourney and give the top seed a bye.
Secondly, the winner of the 14-game tournament is not always the best and most deserving team to take the Ancient Eight’s spot in March Madness. For instance, this season, Yale is clearly an inferior team to Harvard, but still has a significant opportunity to win the conference.
In fact, Columbia highlights the flaws of the 14-game tournament most clearly. This year, the schedule forced the Lions to play five of its first six games on the road. The 2-3 road stretch basically ended their title hopes in a league where, this season, home-court advantage has had a huge impact. (Home teams went 13-2 in the first 15 Ivy games this season.) In addition to the randomness of the schedule, one arbitrary and controversial charge call in the Harvard game completely altered Columbia’s fortune. The team could have been a title contender, but instead, it now needs a miracle.
Similarly, only a handful of the final 17 games around the league will be meaningful. And this might be a recurring theme if Harvard stays a step ahead of everyone for years to come.
But most importantly for the league, an upset could facilitate the process of an Ivy team earning an at-large bid to the dance. At the very least, the regular-season winner would be guaranteed a bid to the NIT. Any postseason tournament appearance for the Lions or the other Ivies is huge.
Alas, without a conference tournament, after sweeping an Ivy weekend for the first time in five years and having accumulated more wins this season than in any of the past 35, Columbia’s only battle in its final two weekends is to make its achievements a little more dazzling, rather than contend for a tournament spot.
Ryan Young is a Columbia College junior majoring in economics-statistics. He is a sports broadcaster for WKCR. Roar Ryan Roar runs biweekly.