How to represent the Ancient Eight

With the impending Harvard/Yale playoff on Saturday at the Palestra, we are bound to hear even more in the coming days about how the Ivy League is the one conference that stands alone in lacking a conference tournament. Proponents of the current system argue that it guarantees that the best team represents the league following the double-round robin, while proponents of a playoff argue that it will better position the league to get an elusive second team into the big dance (#2bidivy!) and allow teams to fight their way into the tournament despite not being one of the best.

The problems facing the implementation of a playoff are numerous, most notably the staunch opposition of many on the administrative side as well as fans who believe in the league’s tradition as the most virtuous of all virtues.

It’s also important to note that there is likely no undo button with an Ivy playoff. Once a playoff is implemented, be it two teams or four, it is likely to only grow from there instead of returning to deciding the auto bid through conference play. History has shown across all sports and all levels, playoffs always expand and almost never contract.

With all of that in mind, I wanted to look at what the league would put forth in a typical four- team playoff and how it could affect the league’s ability to not only get a second team into the NCAA tournament or merely stick them with a worse representative with none of the upside. I decided to take a look at the last five years (beginning with the expansion of the NCAA Tournament to add three at large bids) of Ivy basketball and what a playoff would have or did look like in each one.

2010-2011 2011-2012 2012-2013 2013-2014 2014-2015
Princeton (12-2) Harvard (12-2) Harvard (11-3) Harvard (13-1) Harvard (11-3)
Harvard (12-2) Penn (11-3) Princeton (10-4) Yale (9-5) Yale (11-3)
Yale (8-6) Princeton (10-4) Yale (8-6) Princeton (8-6) Princeton (9-5)
Penn (7-7) Yale (9-5) Brown (7-7) Columbia (8-6) Dartmouth (7-7)

Looking through each year’s potential playoff shows the excitement and potential danger for the league by instituting a playoff. The Princeton/Harvard race in 2011 culminated in one of if not the most exciting playoffs the league has ever seen, with Princeton beating Harvard by one at the buzzer on Dougie Davis’ leaner. Considering Harvard and Princeton had nearly identical résumés and only one Ivy team made the 2011 NCAA tournament, it is highly unlikely if both of those teams had been upset in a four-team Ivy playoff that either one would have received an at-large bid. The last at-large team was UAB, who was upset in the C-USA tournament and had a KenPom rating of 65, slightly ahead of Harvard’s 69 and Princeton’s 75 (not that the committee is known for their use of Ken Pomeroy’s statistics, but this is just for the sake of a rough look).

2012 had the league’s strongest potential playoff of the years I looked at, with all four teams winning at least nine conference games. Harvard was awarded a 12-seed in the NCAA tournament that year, and with an RPI of 35 including a notable nonconference win at Florida State, the Crimson would have had a good chance at an at-large bid if they were knocked off in an Ivy tournament. The 2013 Ivies only produced one participant in any postseason tournament, so it would truly have been Harvard or bust had a tournament taken place. The race for fourth would have been compelling, as four teams would have been within two games of the final playoff spot going into the league’s final weekend. Finally, Harvard dominated the league last year going 13-1 and only losing four games on the season as a whole going into tournament play. The Crimson had an RPI of 46 and a KenPom rating of 32, and with teams 2-5 bunched closely going into the final slate of games, it would have made for a thrilling stretch run and tournament.

This year sets up best for what we have to look forward to this weekend: with the top two teams playing each other and likely deciding the title when they meet. The teams in third through seventh place are poor and while it would be exciting for fans of the teams, the idea of any of them winning the tournament would terrify those in the Ivy offices in Princeton.

Looking back, a playoff would not be perfect for the league every year, but in every sport with a playoff there are, at times, undeserving or fluky champions. It is the risk one takes when signing up to have a tourney decide a champion. Ultimately, belief in whether or not a playoff could help the league in the biggest way comes down to the fickle minds of the NCAA tournament selection committee. Mid-major at-large selections have actually been trending downward over the course of the last decade, even with four years of more at-large spots to hand out. There is no guarantee 2012 or 2014 Harvard makes the tournament even with their great cases if they were knocked off in an Ivy tournament.

A tournament would undoubtedly appeal to coaches, who could point to Ivy tournament appearances as signs that they’re competing in the league more than they actually are, and fans could do the same. The tournament could also be a carrot to potential TV partners, giving them the opportunity to broadcast the first edition of an Ivy conference tournament. It would give each team in the league relevance beyond the point where it is clear they cannot compete for the regular season title.

It would also give the conference more than a minuscule hope of putting a second team in the big dance, yet it would go against everything the league stands for in terms of upholding its traditions. It’s a risk which has plenty of downside, but perhaps even more upside to encourage Ivy presidents and executives to make it the future of determining the Ancient Eight’s representation in the NCAA tournament. Regardless of whether the future playoff would for four, eight, or some other amount of teams, everyone can be happy with Saturday’s two-team edition deciding this year’s champion.

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