Ivy Tournament Not Just About Princeton-Penn

(Please read Kevin Whitaker’s excellent previews on Penn-Princeton and Yale-Harvard before proceeding:)

Wide-eyed and full of smiles, the Brown women’s basketball team arrived at The Palestra with their phones in hand to take in everything about their experience at the inaugural Ivy League Tournament Friday.

The Ivy League tried to make their tournament a bit unique by setting up The Palestra for open practices (like the NCAA Tournament does) the day before the controversial proceedings begin tomorrow. As you’d expect, most of the attention has gone to the men’s side of the draw, mostly the 237th all-time meeting between Penn and Princeton Saturday afternoon, which should have a near full house for one of the most storied college basketball rivalries in America.

What can be wrong with that? Well, depends on your perspective. In any other year, undefeated (in Ivy play) Princeton would be sitting around waiting for Sunday night to see where (likely as a No. 12 or No. 13 seed) they would try to continue the Ivy’s run of NCAA Tournament upsets next week. Now, they face a sometimes dangerous Penn team on its home floor, and if they get past that, possibly an in-form Harvard team that the Tigers barely defeated twice this season.

Of course, we’ve kind of run over that same ground with our tractors a few times now, and we know the opinions and angles from everyone involved. They haven’t changed, and most importantly, they won’t matter come Sunday when the Ivy League automatic bid is awarded to the tournament champion, whose relationship to the school that went 14-0 in the regular season may seem great, but – as in many of life’s cases – correlation will not imply causation, they’ll have to win two games here just like everyone else.

“I think it’s great for the league while all the excitement surrounding it,” Penn (and former Cornell) coach Steve Donahue said. “For all the years I’ve been in the league, one team experienced it, now four teams are. We’re thrilled it’s here at The Palestra and we’re excited to get going. We all are curious to see if it really is a home-court advantage. I was here when the Atlantic 10 had the tournament here with St. Joe’s, La Salle, and Temple all played here. There are five different schools here and we’re on Spring Break, it’s not like we’re going to have 7,000 students here. It’s a great venue for college basketball and it’s a great way to celebrate our league. If it wasn’t a great venue, no one would consider to put it here.”

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It is important, however, to look at an Ivy League Tournament holistically, as any conference should. After all, even if the Ivy has more “one-percenters” among its alumni than perhaps any other conference in America, the student-athlete experience (if you spit out what you were drinking in laughter when you read “student-athlete experience”, I apologize, but bear with me) should be much more inclusive than that.

Believe it or not, the Ivy League did have a women’s tournament from 1976-82 (plus one in 1986), although it had no bearing on the NCAA Tournament. At the time, the winner didn’t even get an auto bid for the AIAW Tournament, which was the premier organization for women’s collegiate athletics at the time, so they experimented with things like round-robin formats. Eventually the NCAA won the battle with the AIAW, and so the 1982 final between Rutgers and Texas was the last, which just so happened to be played at The Palestra.

It took until 1994 and the expansion of the NCAA Women’s Tournament to 64 teams (Title IX sometimes didn’t work as fast as you’d think) for the Ivy League to get an automatic bid, which just so happens to be the last and only time Brown got a bid. It’s been a struggle for the Bears in recent times (on both the men’s and women’s side), but Sarah Behn has put together an exciting young roster (with no seniors and usually starting four sophomores and a freshman) that won at Princeton and managed to sweep Columbia and Cornell on the final weekend of the regular season to get to 7-7.

In any other season, that would get a pat on the back from the athletic director and maybe a couple of paragraphs in the student newspaper, but in 2016-17, fourth place gets you a trip to Philadelphia and the party that is Ivy Madness (slogan probably needs some work, but hey, it’s their first time).

“Since I got to Brown three years ago, our athletic director was talking about how it’s going to happen,” Behn said. “When it finally got passed, it was so great, a tribute to all the hard work of all the athletic director and Jack Hayes. It was so great because I knew, although I’ve only been in the league a short time, it would make every game meaning more to all the players and fans. It’s a long-needed change that everyone benefits from regardless of who ended up here. “I do believe that we’re one of the best four teams in the Ivy League. One thing I’ve learned in life is that most of the time you earn luck, so we definitely belong here.”

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If you’re among the “Why is he spending so much time on women’s basketball?” crowd, first of all, I’m sorry, but that is your right not to watch (or read this). However, if you’ve ever maintained that a No. 16 seed has never beaten a No. 1 in the NCAA Tournament, that’s actually factually incorrect (I’m not making a “fake news” joke, sorry). In 1998, criminally underseeded Harvard – then winners of three straight Ivy titles – upset Stanford, led by Allison Feaster, who went onto the WNBA. The coach of the Crimson then, Kathy Delaney-Smith, is still in charge, now in her 35th season, also meaning she is the only one in Philly this weekend who can say it’s not her first Ivy League Tournament.

But even if I grant you the point, the Ivy League cannot think that way, its job is to try to create the best experience for their student-athletes, and a four-team tournament on both sides in the same location should go a long way toward doing that, even if the regular season now becomes just that much watered down.

However, making sure to account for confirmation and location bias, it seems pretty clear that most people involved with the Ivy League are glad this tournament is happening.

“I’ve been very clear and adamant in my position. If we’re going to have a conference tournament – and no one cares what I think, but – I’ve felt that we should have it here at The Palestra,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker, whose team stands to win at least one regular season title in the next few years, said. “This is an historic venue. It’s an amazing basketball venue and facility, amazing history and tradition as we know. So for me personally, if we’re going to do it, having this venue in our conference, we should rally around that and showcase it.”

Even the players who have the most to lose admit that it would be somewhat hypocritical to be against the tournament at this point.

“I think most of us have wanted a tournament since we’ve been here,” Ivy League Men’s Player of the Year Spencer Weisz of Princeton said. “I mean, the circumstances are what they are this year, but we’re still very excited to be in the tournament. It’s going to be a great weekend.”

Said Women’s Player of the Year Michelle Nwokedi of Penn: “There was nothing but excitement. I mean, to be part of the first Ivy Tournament is just awesome. My attitude hasn’t changed.”

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If the Princeton men lose to Penn Saturday, it won’t be 100 percent fair, and last year, it obviously wouldn’t have even happened. The same applies on the women’s side, instead of taking on upstart Brown, Penn would have already clinched its second straight NCAA Tournament berth (the Ivy actually got two last season, Penn a No. 10, Princeton No. 11).

One thing to remember, though. Both the Penn men and Brown women have plenty of young talent, so maybe they could be in a situation next season where they have won the regular season and will have to go to the Ivy Tournament (which hasn’t committed to a site next season yet) and win two games on a weekend in mid-March to qualify for the NCAAs.

Fair for them? Not really. Good for the conference as a whole? Yeah, probably. Sometimes the needs of the one (see: regular season champion) have to be sacrificed for the needs of the many.

And that’s the veritas.

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Golden Bally is happy to be here, if nothing else. #TMMLegacy

A post shared by Ray Curren (@goldenbally) on

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