What happened last year: A season after Harvard was a hard-fought one and done in the NCAA Tournament and Yale was snubbed by the NIT, the Ivies had a much better go of the postseason in 2016. Yale earned a No. 12 seed in the Big Dance and upset No. 5 Baylor before nearly sustaining an incredible comeback against No. 4 Duke in round two. It made for a memorable narrative – the Elis, absent from the NCAA Tournament, beat the Bears at their own rebounding game, with a meme-friendly moment after the game.
Yale’s win marked the fifth NCAA Tournament win for the Ivy League since 2010, bringing the league to an impressive 5-7 mark (.417) against substantially higher-seeded competition. The Ivy has proven it can hang with high-majors time and time again, and analytic databases such as KenPom have shown that the league should be nabbing higher seeds in the tourney than it has been this decade.
On the women’s side, #2bidivy became a glorious reality, with both Ivy champion Penn and at-large Princeton making the tourney.
Going back to the men, Princeton made the NIT, although badly underseeded, and Columbia ran the table to a CIT Championship.
All in all, an outstanding postseason showing, with ample evidence of an even brighter future.
Makai Mason became a one-man March Madness highlight reel as a sophomore with his 31 points and clutch play versus Baylor, even though he’ll miss this season with a foot injury. The Ancient Eight enjoyed the most entertaining Ivy Rookie of the Year race in recent memory, with Dartmouth’s Evan Boudreaux, Cornell’s Matt Morgan and Princeton’s Devin Cannady all immediately showing a capacity to take over games.
What’s new: An Ivy League postseason basketball tournament at the Palestra, making it the last conference in Division I to hold one to determine its guaranteed-bid NCAA Tournament representative. The move allows the league to showcase its ascending strength, and the Ivy announced last week that the Ivy conference tournament championship game will be held Sun., Mar. 12 on ESPN2, with the two tournament semifinal games to be held on ESPNU the previous afternoon.
What’s also new is a league ranking of 14th among all 32 Division I conferences in KenPom, three slots higher than the Ivy finished last season. The league is poised to get even better this season, and the analytics prove it.
The Ivy is also teeming with blue-chip freshmen like Penn’s A.J. Brodeur (who posted 23 points and 11 rebounds in his debut Friday night), Harvard’s plethora of anticipated frosh phenoms (including Bryce Aiken, who scored 21 points in his debut), and Yale’s Jordan Bruner, with several more highly touted recruits to join the conference next season.
Offense: The Ivy League is going on the offensive this season with increased visibility via the Ivy tournament broadcasts, as previously mentioned. But the league is also televising 34 Ivy home games, as well as broadcasting road tilts such as Harvard-Stanford (Friday night’s Bill Walton Spectacular in Shanghai), Harvard-Houston and Princeton-BYU on ESPN2.
Ivies will enjoy a regional television presence as well, including CSNPhilly’s slate of Penn men’s home games against Villanova, Lafayette, Drexel, Princeton and Yale, and the Penn women’s hosting of Princeton.
All games are available through the Ivy League Digital Network app on Apple TV and Roku in addition to desktop, tablet and mobile devices, and a four-month subscription for access to all Ivy League basketball games is $49.95. Not a bad deal, its value raised by the superior talent the league has seen in recent years relative to earlier in the millennium.
Emboldened by this momentum, the upper-echelon Ivies in particular are scheduling ambitiously, taking on high-majors even if they can’t draw them to their home arenas. Princeton went undefeated at Jadwin Gym last season but couldn’t attract big names there with all of its playmakers from a year ago returning, so the Tigers decided to hit the road, with trips to BYU, VCU and Honolulu (to play Cal and Hawaii) planned. Harvard went to Shanghai to tussle with Stanford and will square off at Houston, while Yale is headed for Washington, Virginia, Pitt and Temple. Penn, meanwhile, will visit Miami on Saturday.
If #2bidivy is to happen, the Ivies have to assemble high-quality nonconference schedules, even if they have to pack their bags way more than they should. For the most part, they are doing the best they can.
Defense: There are still some points on which the Ivy League must defend itself.
Most schools permit student-athletes to sit out more or all games in a season for another year of athletic eligibility, allowing students to stretch out their four years or requirements over five years or enroll in graduate school. Ivy League policy currently states that students are expected to use all four years of eligibility for varsity sports in their first eight terms of enrollment and the first four seasons of that sport.
A waiver needs to be approved by the league following requests to use eligibility in a ninth academic term or fifth season.
The league’s rules are intended to value academic endeavor over athletic competition, but all it’s doing is regulating a hypocrisy that less significantly, weakens the league’s talent level by encouraging graduate transfers.
Another issue the league still faces is parity, even if it’s not the Penn-Princeton duopoly it used to be. The 2010s have been the HYP era, with Harvard notching four consecutive NCAA appearances, Yale posting two straight Ivy championships and Princeton adding Big Dance appearance and consistent upper-tier runs at the title. It’s been mostly lean years for programs like Brown and Dartmouth that continue to struggle with limited resources. Penn and Columbia find themselves at crossroads early in the tenures of new coaches, and it’d be great to see those two schools add to the strength of the league instead of staying a tier below the HYP trio.
Intangibles: The Ivy League is in a good place right now. It still deals with pointlessly self-rendered disservices like a cap of two multi-team exempt events per four years, and the aforementioned student-athlete forceouts. But the Ivy’s on the up and up. It’s a good thing that the league as a whole has a brighter future than any one of its member programs. Let’s hope that continues.