Be thankful for Ivy League basketball

It’s Thanksgiving, and our cups runneth over with sumptuous Ivy hoops results.  

Last Monday, the Penn men’s team gobbled up a nationally ranked Villanova team at the Palestra.  A day earlier, the Princeton women’s team visited Middle Tennessee State, the defending Conference USA champions, and pulled the rug on the Blue Raiders’ 49-game home court winning streak.  Five days later, the Tigers came within a whisker of upsetting No. 3 UCLA at Pauley Pavilion.  

Last Saturday, the Columbia men, picked to finish last in the Ivy League, toppled Temple, 78-73, in an upset that virtually no one even seemed to notice.

But wait, there’s more.  The Brown women’s team, picked to finish sixth in the Ivy League this season, lowered the boom on Providence and Georgetown in back-to-back games.  The Bears may not win the Ivy crown, but apparently they are contenders in the Big East.  

The Cornell men are 4-1 (1-0 against the Atlantic 10), while the Princeton men’s team is undefeated at 4-0 with a neutral site triumph over Rutgers of the Big Ten and road wins over two, tough CAA teams and Duquesne of the Atlantic 10.  The Tigers are currently rated the No. 66 team in the nation by KenPom, one spot ahead of St. John’s and 13 spots ahead of Indiana.

Yale’s men were expected to be good again this year and so far they have delivered with impressive wins over Loyola Marymount and Colgate.  Meanwhile, no one knew what to expect from the Harvard men, but after starting the season 4-0, including wins over in-state rivals Massachusetts and Northeastern, no one wants to play Tommy Amaker’s squad.  

The Crimson women have been equally impressive with wins over Boston College and UMass.  

I could go on.  The Columbia women’s record after four games is only 2-2, but the Lions already have wins over Seton Hall and Towson and came within four points of taking down Duke.  

These results and a bevy of others yet to come, reveal the bounty of stellar teams, players, and coaches in today’s Ivy League.  

Consider that just a few months ago, the Princeton men were celebrating the league’s first berth in the Sweet 16 since the miraculous Cornell team of 2009-10.  And the Princeton women advanced to the second round in the NCAA Tournament for the second year in a row with yet another win over a ranked power-five opponent.  Would anyone be surprised if the Princeton women made an even deeper run this year?  

And what about the Columbia women’s historic run to the WNIT title game last season?  There hasn’t been this much excitement about basketball in Morningside Heights since Jim McMillian led the Lions to the round of 16 in the 1968 NCAA Tournament.

Prior to the start of this season, I made a prediction that the Ivy League wouldn’t be as competitive this year as it was a season ago.  I was concerned that the loss of key players around the League, such as Jordan Dingle, Tosan Evbuomwan, Kayla Padilla, Ryan Langborg, and many others, would diminish the conference’s depth.  

The early returns indicate that I was wrong. The league is a virtual cornucopia of outstanding teams, players, and coaches, with new, highly talented players seemingly streaming onto Ivy campuses every year from around the world.   

Keep in mind that all of this is happening in the midst of tectonic changes in the world of intercollegiate athletics.  Yet while the power-five conferences are convulsed by the emergence of NIL deals, the transfer portal, and conference realignment, the Ivy League has remained largely unaffected by all of this chaos, notwithstanding the loss of several key players to the transfer portal earlier this year and a potentially disruptive labor dispute involving the Dartmouth men’s team. 

To what can we attribute this age of success in Ivy League basketball?  Some will say the league’s leadership deserves credit for acting with caution in response to all of the changes in big-time college sports and remaining true to the Ivy principles of amateur athletics.  My sense is that the Ivy has thrived in spite of this attitude.  

In my mind, there are three reasons why Ivy League basketball has entered a new golden age.  

First, the league is blessed with outstanding coaches from top to bottom, and this is true for both the men’s and women’s teams.  

Second, the emergence of streaming services, such as ESPN+, has provided mid-major conferences, like the Ivy League, a platform to display their wares to a worldwide audience, which in turn provides every Ivy recruit the opportunity to see Ivy hoops before they make a commitment and to be seen by scouts and basketball aficionados once they enter an Ivy program.

Finally, I think Princeton coach Carle Berube hit the nail on the head when she explained at Ivy League Media Day why the emergence of NIL deals hasn’t had a big impact on her program: “I think that people understand what we’re about,” she said.  “You definitely have your opportunities here and in the Ivy League to pursue NIL things, but this is really about the 40-year, 50-year investment in this education and in this experience.  [It’s] not so much what can you get for me during these four years, but what does Princeton set you up for in your future.”

Perhaps all of the tumult and uncertainty in the world today and in college sports in particular has enhanced the value not only of playing sports in the Ivy League, but coaching there as well.  How else can you explain why talented leaders like Berube seem to have gravitated to the relatively calm waters of the Ancient Eight?  

All of that said, no one should take for granted how special these times are for coaches, players and fans of Ivy hoops.  I’m a firm believer that the Ivy League should not bury its head in the sand and resist change merely for the sake of preserving tradition.  The loss of several outstanding players to the transfer portal earlier this year is but one warning sign that even the gothic structures inhabiting Ivy campuses can’t keep out all of the changes roiling the world of big-time college sports.

But for now, we should all be thankful for the bounty of great basketball on display in the Ivy League.  Happy Thanksgiving to everyone in the Ivy hoops community.