Ivy League coaches’ roundtables: About the brand, not the players

In past years, the Ivy League office organized a teleconference call for the men’s basketball coaches, a few days after the preseason media poll. At those events, the coaches would talk about their teams, as well as answer questions from the Ivy League moderator and a small number of reporters. In addition, Reggie Greenwood, the league’s Coordinator of Officials, would discuss any rule changes for the upcoming season. This year, the league decided to do away with the call in favor of having roundtable conversations with the men’s and women’s coaches.

The two 30-minute videos, which were shot in New Haven on Sept. 5 (women’s coaches) and Sept. 12 (men’s coaches), focused on the general improved state of Ivy recruiting, the difficulties in scheduling nonconference games as an improved mid-major conference, the unique challenges in playing back-to-back Ivy weekends, the importance of the Ivy Tournament for late-season competitiveness, and the significance of the league’s partnership with ESPN.  What fans did not hear was anything related to the specific teams and players.

While the league deserves continued credit for putting the women’s and men’s games on equal footing, this new format is a missed opportunity to generate excitement for the upcoming season.  Instead of focusing on the talented players and teams, the videos come off as edited infomercials promoting the Ivy League to prospective high school athletes and corporate advertisers.

If the league had embraced the passionate, casual and potential fans of Ivy hoops, here are some of the things that could have been discussed:

  • KenPom listed the Ivy men as the fourteenth highest conference in the land. (Thankfully, the women’s coaches did mention that their conference is routinely ranked in the RPI’s Top 10).
  • The Harvard men, with its nationally ranked recruiting Class of 2016 now in their junior year, try to repeat as Ivy champs and get back to March Madness for the first time since 2015.  Assuming Bryce Aiken and Seth Towns return from major injuries, the Crimson are listed as one of the nation’s top mid-majors and a potential Cinderella in this year’s Big Dance.
  • The Penn men aim to repeat as regular season and Ivy Tournament champs, getting back to repeat NCAA Tournaments for the first time since 2005-2007.  The Yale men look for their 19th consecutive top-four finish, as well as a return trip to March Madness for the first time since 2016.  Princeton’s men seek a return to the Ivy’s top four, as well as its first championship, since the undefeated ’17 season.  Cornell will try for a repeat appearance in Ivy Madness, as well as its first title since its 2010 Sweet Sixteen run (when it was led by present Penn coach Steve Donahue).
  • The Princeton, Penn and Harvard women try to stay in the top three for the seventh straight season, while those three and and Yale try to replicate the top four in 2019.  Princeton seeks its first repeat championships since 2012 and 2013, as well as its first consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances since 2015 (following a 30-0 regular season) and 2016 (the first ever at-large Ivy bid).  Penn tries for its third title in the last four years, and Harvard attempts to get into the top spot for the first time since 2008.  Yale, the 2018 Women’s Basketball Invitational champions, will look to earn back-to-back upper division finishes and stay at home for this year’s Ivy Madness.
  • The Brown men, ranked fifth in the Ivy preseason media poll, will again enjoy the talent of Desmond Cambridge, the reigning Rookie of the Year and one of the top mid-major players in the nation.  The high-scoring Brown women, ranked number five as well, will try to build on last year’s record-setting 12-1 non-conference mark and return to the Ivy Tournament after a one-year absence with the help of Taylor Will, their top-five scorer (17.0 points per game) who missed the second half of last season with a knee injury.
  • The men’s side will return 12 of its top 15 award winners from 2018: Seth Towns (Harvard), Matt Morgan (Cornell), AJ Brodeur (Penn), Chris Lewis (Harvard), and Miye Oni (Yale) from the first-team; Cambridge, Devin Cannady (Princeton), Myles Stephens (Princeton), Ryan Betley (Penn), Mike Smith (Columbia), and Trey Phills (Yale) from the second team; and Justin Bassey (Harvard) from honorable mention.
  • The women’s side will return seven of its top 15 award winners from last season: Bella Alarie (Princeton) and Katie Benzan (Harvard) from the first team; Jeannie Boehm (Harvard), Shayna Mehta (Brown) and Rookie of the Year Eleah Parker (Penn) from the second team; Justine Gaziano (Brown) and Roxy Barahman (Yale) from honorable mention.
  • The league welcomes a five-star, Top 50 recruit, Camilla Emsbo of Yale, as well as a large number of three and four star first-years: Columbia’s Ike Nweke and Maka Ellis; Dartmouth’s Taurus Samuels and Wes Slajchert; Harvard’s Spencer Freedman; Penn’s Bryce Washington and Michael Wang; Princeton’s Jaelin Llewellyn; and Yale’s Matt Cotton and Isaiah Kelly.  Additionally, Harvard’s Noah Kirkwood, who is listed as a two-star recruit, may be the most talented of the group.
  • Cornell’s Matt Morgan looks to move ahead of John Bajusz and Ryan Wittman to become the Big Red’s all-time scorer.  Princeton’s Devin Cannady (the 11th best shooter in college basketball, per Jeff Goodman) is set to become the Tigers’s second highest all-time scorer, behind only Hall of Famer Bill Bradley.  Harvard’s Seth Towns (a favorite of Andy Katz) attempts to become the Crimson’s first ever two-time male Player of the Year.  Princeton’s Bella Alarie attempts to become the first Tiger to win back-to-back female Player of the Year awards since Niveen Rasheed in 2012-2013.

Following the announcement of a lucrative partnership with ESPN in April, the Ivy League shied away from going big, or even keeping the status quo.  First, they downsized the 2019 Ivy Tournament to the 2,800-seat John J. Lee Amphitheater in Payne Whitney Gymnasium (“The Cathedral of Sweat”) at Yale from the 8,725 seat Palestra (“The Cathedral of Basketball”) at Penn. Then, seven of the eight schools missed the opportunity to place their public scrimmages on ESPN+.  Now, the league keeps their coaches from talking about their teams and student-athletes, turning their media days into larger and extended versions of the executive director’s in-game interviews. If the Ancient Eight truly wants to improve its national profile in the revenue sports and compete with the high major conferences, then the league’s leadership has to stop playing it safe.  They need to promote its talented student-athletes, respect its loyal fans, and, most of all, embrace the words of Princeton coach Courtney Banghart: “Dare to be great.”

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