This is the Ivy League.
It is not the ACC, nor is it the Big East, or even the WCC. This is the Ivy League, and consequently, the level of play is, let’s say, different than it is in other more visible college basketball leagues. Because the Ivy League does not give athletic scholarships, and because of the long history of exclusion that is entrenched in the DNA of the Ivy League, watching a rivalry game between Princeton and Penn is drastically different between watching one between Duke and North Carolina — though the intensity and passion from a fan’s perspective may be comparable. This would be more or less fine — you know, if you’re comfortable with divisions of large swaths of people based on a system of elitism — but every year come March, one of the Ancient Eight schools gets thrown into a bigger pond with bigger fish.
The best college basketball players come together in March in the name of establishing who is the true top dog. The Big Dance, packed with juggernauts and Cinderellas, is a tournament with the sole aim to determine the nation’s best basketball team. Tournaments, by definition, are designed to determine the best contestant. Of course, sometimes the “best” team is not the highest-seeded. Since 1979 there has been only one year, 2008, when all No. 1 seeds made the Final Four. However, because of the size of the National Tournament, more often than not the winner is a team that had been dominant all year. Villanova is the lowest seed, No. 8, to win the whole tournament, and that was thirty years ago. By far, the highest concentration of tournament winners is made of teams seeded no lower than third. The sheer size of the NCAA tournament makes lower seeds beating higher seeds aberrations, and aptly names them “upsets.” This failsafe could not exist with a tournament with a drastically smaller pool of teams.
In steps the Ivy League. Every year, as is customary, the Ancient Eight’s winningest team that season gains an automatic bid to the tournament. Fantastic! The best Ivy team will have the opportunity to represent itself and the league against teams traditionally considered (sometimes for good reason) to be athletically superior. Cornell’s deep run into the Sweet Sixteen in 2010 was thrilling only because the Big Red were the best Ivy team and had a chance against teams like Temple and Wisconsin, ranked 12th and 16th in the country respectively, even though no one thought they did. They were outmatched in name alone, not necessarily in talent. The ability to actually compete with larger schools will be ceremoniously shot into the sun with the implementation of an Ivy League tournament.
Yes, I know you must be thinking, “Miles, why wouldn’t you want an exciting tournament at the end of the season? Are you some sort of monster?!”
Simple answer: yes. I’m the monster that wants to spare you from a 5-9 Columbia team waltzing into the tournament after flailing and languishing in its sloth-like pace of play, its insistence on hoisting up ill-advised threes like privileged fraternity kids throw up what they think are gang signs, and its unofficial crowning as the league leader in pump fakes, only to flip the switch and win three consecutive games. A team like Columbia (or Dartmouth, who is responsible for this play-in game on Saturday) can get hot at the right time and snatch the automatic bid from a more deserving team like Harvard or Yale. And if you are a true lover of the Ivy League and would like to see it flourish and expand, you don’t want just any team playing in March. Kyle Smith’s Lions could be as hot as a stolen blowtorch and they’d still get bounced in the first round. Teams like Yale and Harvard would at least have a chance to be competitive and represent the league well on a national stage.
An Ivy playoff kills the #2bidivy pipe dream. In fact, Kyle Smith is probably the biggest friend to any two-bid Ivy possibility because he, unlike so many other coaches, is willing to schedule tough out-of-conference opponents. Playing teams like Michigan State and Kentucky in close regular season games is more beneficial to the reputation of the Ivy League than getting blown out by a mid-major in the first round of the tournament. And no, the teams that go to the CBI or the CIT don’t do anything more for the propulsion of the integrity of Ivy hoops than you or I do. It really is Big Dance or bust, and the best way to do that is make sure you put your best metaphorical foot forward.
Basketball is an incredible sport. Let’s not hinder it with a combination of general mediocrity of Ivy-caliber teams and the arbitrary and unpredictable nature of the MLB playoffs. If for no other reason, no one wants to see Penn raising a banner in November to commemorate the drubbing they received at the hands of an underperforming Georgetown team in the name of Ivy parity.