Sports | Sports Columns

YOUNG: Ivy League needs a conference tournament

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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.

sports@columbiaspectator.com | @RYoungNY

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Hiram posted on

Actually, Columbia is fighting for a spot in one of the three secondary post-season tournaments, and has good prospects for selection if it finishes strong. You said as part of you argument that Yale is clearly inferior to Harvard and is in position to win the league championship. A single game upset of Harvard by Yale in a tournament would be more likely than superior performance over the current 7 week long "tournament". So the idea that you'll get the best representative is not a great argument for a tournament. Giving a late blooming team a better chance, same for a team with a significant injury and a lack of depth, and increasing fan interest in lesser teams are better arguments. After all is said and done, though, the 14 game tournament is the best way to identify the best team taking into account depth, coaching, consistency, etc. And downplaying luck and a short-term hot hand.

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Ryan posted on

To clarify two points that didn't make it to the final edit of this column:
Looks like Columbia should be in position to get a post-season tournament bid to CIT or CBI, which is huge for program, but not quite the same as still being in contention for a NCAA spot.
Since a team that pulls off an upset in a conference tournament may be the "hottest" team in March, it might actually have a better shot at making noise in the NCAA tourney.

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George Clark posted on

Mr. Young is the most recent advocate of a post-season Ivy tournament, trotting out specious cliches in an effort to deal with his grief caused by an egregious referee's call that has cost the Lions the title. "Pure excitement" is a good one, as opposed to "impure excitement" I suppose. "National exposure" for the Ivy League is another beauty, although I question its relevance for universities that decline more than 90% of their applicants for admission. The chance for an "on-court celebration" for the winners' fans is particularly desirable, I guess, but hardly an adequate justification for his goal of a post-season affair.
While he suggests that the Ivy champion is "not always the best and most deserving team" he offers no evidence to support the assertion. Using the Yale team this year as his example because it remains alive in the title chase, despite its "clear inferiority" to Harvard, begs the question. Perhaps his position might carry a little more persuasive appeal if Yale does win the championship. To do that, of course, Yale must defeat a clearly superior team twice. And that might not be enough, after the Lions embarrassed them last week. (If Yale does beat Harvard twice I will forgive Jones and his players if they object to the "clearly inferior" label Mr. Ryan has pasted upon them.) I have been following the League for 50 years. I can remember no "undeserving" champion. In 1996 Princeton and Penn tied for the title, although Penn had won both games against the Tigers during the season. In fact Penn had won 8 straight over 4 years. Naturally, the Tigers won the playoff game and then upset UCLA in a poetic finale to Pete Carril's Hall of Fame career. Forgive me if I shall always believe the Tigers deserved to be there.
Why is it so hard to come to grips with the fact that the object of playing basketball in the Ivy League is to win the league championship. Participation in the NCAA tourney is a reward for a whole season of excellent work. Players know this when they choose to enter an Ivy school. Aspiring to more participation in what is nothing more than a commercial enterprise (in which the performers go unrewarded, but THAT is clearly a discussion for another time) is antithetical to the principles upon which the Ivy League was based many years ago.

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Hiram posted on

Ryan, responding to your most recent post, we can have a legitimate difference of opinion on whether a team that gets hot in a post-season tournament has more claim to the league championship than a team that has been a winner over the current 8-9 week, 14-game long haul. I think it's the latter, myself. Would it be fair to say your justifications for the tournament are not really related to rewarding the most deserving team, but rather to finding the team that might do best in the NCAA tournament, and increasing late season fan and player interest? A separate question: would you change the regular season, so every tournament game would not be the third time teams meet in a single season? If not, do you think a third game will say something about the relative ability of the teams that the regular season home and home series did not? I think with the home and home format, the losing teams have been given every chance to prove themselves. One improvement I would agree with is separating all the travel partner home and homes, like Penn and Princeton have done, so no one plays the same team twice in 8 days (as Columbia and Cornell do). If you are stuck with a league-leading, early blooming partner and a key short-term injury, you can be be at an unfair disadvantage before the league season really gets going. Maybe have a season-ending travel partner Saturday?

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Ryan posted on

Send me an email and I'll be happy to discuss further. rdy122[at]gmail.com

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