Pour One Out for the Ivy League’s “14-Game Tournament”

The Ivy League officially announced a postseason basketball tournament today, to begin in the 2016-17 season. Though this has been expected for a few months, the news is historic, as the Ancient Eight has long been the only conference to award its NCAA tournament bid to the regular-season champion.

Is this a good or bad decision? I’ll get to that in a minute. But on a personal level, my first reaction is sadness.

Harvard celebrates its win over Yale in the 2015 Ivy League playoff. Starting in 2016-17, a sudden-death final will determine the league's NCAA bid every year. (Photo via the Ivy League)
Harvard celebrates its win over Yale in the 2015 Ivy League playoff. Starting in 2016-17, a sudden-death final will determine the league’s NCAA bid every year. (Photo via the Ivy League)

The “14-Game Tournament” was a common bond for fans across the Ivy League, and it produced weirdness that couldn’t happen anywhere else. It allowed Harvard to clinch its first modern NCAA berth from 250 miles away — and then do it again the next year. It made Gabas Maldunas the most hated man in New Haven.

It gave us endless fun with the #2BidIvy meme. Mid-major conferences can luck into an at-large bid if a dominant team falters in its conference tournament; that’s why #2BidMAAC wasn’t a thing even when there was a two-bid MAAC. But two Ivy bids required a team that didn’t even win the league outright to earn an at-large berth. For most of the modern era, that was unthinkable — so it was amazing when it became thinkable. #2BidIvy was goofy, but it was also a symbol of the league’s progress.

The conference tournament makes a two-bid Ivy more likely. But it won’t be #2BidIvy.

The Ivy League shouldn’t be unique for uniqueness’ sake, and certainly not for the sake of a dumb hashtag. So this is not an objection — it’s a lament. The tournament will bring some good things, but it will also take away some of what we found special.

On another level, I’m sad for college basketball in general. I don’t know if a single-elimination postseason tournament is good for the Ivy in particular, but I highly doubt that it’s ideal for all 32 conferences. The Horizon League reportedly tried to institute a double-elimination tournament last year, and I would love to see more experimentation and variety across the nation. Today’s news probably makes that less likely.

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Today’s release fleshes out a few details: The Ivy League will hold a tournament for both men’s and women’s basketball. Only the top four teams will be included; the release does not discuss how ties will be broken, but expect them to follow the lacrosse tournament’s rules. The playoff will take place on the Saturday and Sunday of selection weekend, and the first edition will be held at The Palestra (although future locations are TBD).

A few thoughts on the pros and cons:

It will sometimes send worse teams to the NCAA tournament, but not often. Every year, we hear about the Iona or Murray State who gets upset in their conference tournament and relegated to the NIT. That’s a bad outcome for the league, replacing a likely Cinderella with an uglier stepsister. The best team is more likely to win the regular-season title than a conference tournament, so a tournament will generally send worse teams to NCAAs. But research shows that the difference is not enormous — the best team is about 10-20 percentage points more likely to win the regular season than a tournament.

That’s especially true for the Ivy League, whose tournament will feature only four teams. The Ancient Eight is deeper than ever; in most recent seasons, no team worse than average nationally would have even qualified. Yale or Princeton (both top-70 teams) would be heavily favored to win a hypothetical tournament this year, having gone 23-1 against the rest of the league. If there were upsets, Columbia would be very dangerous in March Madness, and even Harvard played great against top-100 teams this year.

The difference between the top four seeds usually won’t be massive unless there’s a truly dominant team — in which case…

A two-bid Ivy League is a real possibility. Three of the last six regular-season champions — Cornell in 2010, Harvard in ‘12 and ‘14 — received 12-seeds in the big dance, and all would have been legitimate bubble teams if they had been upset in a hypothetical tournament. (Yale is on a similar track this year.) On the women’s side, Princeton would have surely earned an at-large bid in 2015. As the league’s recruiting and reputation keep improving, those cases will only become stronger.

A two-bid Ivy League is the league’s best-case scenario — twice as many players and fans get to experience March Madness. It will still be uncommon, but it will happen more frequently with a tournament.

Will a tournament give the league more exposure — or less? The tournament itself will get some interest — everyone loves Championship Week, and penning the schedule in advance will ensure a decent TV slot, which has been an issue with past playoffs. But the biggest regular-season games have also drawn national attention recently, because they directly affect who will appear in the nation’s brackets. Is it worth giving up the Ivy’s comparative advantage in January and February, just to join 300+ conference tournament games in early March?

It’s not very clear how players feel. Coaches have long cited widespread player support as an argument for the tournament. When I polled several players a few years ago, however, the majority were against it. The Yale Daily News quoted a couple players on the proposal last year, but most mentioned the downsides as well as upsides. One way or another, I hope players were consulted.

The tournament will be fun as hell. This is an obvious point, but one I think can get lost in some of the weeds. A tournament will steal some gravitas from the regular season. But it will also add three intense, high-quality playoff games every year, and that will be awesome.

If I were the czar of Ivy League basketball, I would probably hold off on a tournament, because I do like the Ivy’s regular season, and because it will be much harder to reverse that decision once it’s made. But I don’t think it’s a terrible thing. And if the conference continues its upward trajectory of the last five-ish years — raising its profile in general, and the chance of at-large bids — the benefits will be even greater.

One thought on “Pour One Out for the Ivy League’s “14-Game Tournament”

  1. As an Ivy League college graduate who goes way back — I saw Columbia in its own gym beat Bill Bradley’s Princeton in 1964 [despite 42 points by Bradley] — I have mixed feelings as well about this. There was something almost pristine that only the league champion got to go the NCAAs — no .500 or worse mediocre team ‘backed in’ by winning a conference tournament. But on the other hand it extends the season, and guarantees a very exciting seasonal conclusion as well.

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