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  • After resisting it for years, the Ivy League conducted a postseason men's tournament in 2017 and saw immediate benefits.
By Tim Balk
May 15, 2017

The Ivy League tends not to give in to peer pressure. It is old-school basketball in decades-old bandbox gyms, a conference largely frozen in time. The eight-school league forbids athletic scholarships and plays its conference games on the weekend (generally Friday and Saturday nights) so as not to interfere with classes.

But this season the Ivy League did something that, at least in relation to its general adherence to tradition, bordered on radical. Something every other conference had already done, many of them decades ago: It held its first conference tournament.

The conference merely stuck its toe into the waters of postseason play, rolling out a four-team tournament and leaving half the conference at home. Still, the league’s first tournament in March at The Palestra in Philadelphia was a resounding success.

On the first day of the tournament, regular-season champion Princeton knocked off fourth-seeded Penn in overtime, and Yale snuck by Harvard. The two games left Washington Post columnist John Feinstein gushing. “Every rebound was fought for,” he wrote. “Every pass was challenged.”

And the next day, Princeton topped Yale to win the conference title and earn the automatic bid once awarded to the conference’s regular-season champion. The Ivy League Athletic Directors met last week to evaluate the roll out and determine where to hold it next year, electing to keep it in Philadelphia for 2018.

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That the Ivy League would eventually give in after six decades of conference tournament abstinence was far from a foregone conclusion. In college basketball, conference tournaments bring benefits and drawbacks. They provide exposure and final opportunities to beef up NCAA tournament resumes. They provide an opportunity to make profits too, perhaps a less significant factor in the money-rich Ivy League. But for conferences like the Ivy League, which has never received an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, a league tournament also brings dangers for the league’s elite.

Though Princeton coach Mitch Henderson praised the new tournament after the nail-biting win over Penn, the fact remains that a loss would have caused the Tigers to miss the NCAA tournament in spite of an undefeated effort in their regular-season conference slate. And better mid-major teams than this year’s Princeton squad have fallen victim to the cruelty of conference tournament upsets and NCAA selection committees that favor major-conference teams.

In adding its tournament, the Ivy League surrendered itself to such possible future snubs. But the conference has grown deeper, better and more respected in recent years, and the league’s coaches seem to think the conference added its playoff at just the right time.

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The rise of Cornell, which won the Ivy League three straight years from 2008-10 and made a surprise run through March to the Sweet 16 in 2010, seemed to prompt a shift in the league’s fortunes. Steve Donahue guided those Cornell teams (he now coaches at Penn) and said he thinks the conference’s depth separates the Ivy League of 2017 from the Ivy League of yesteryear. “For years,” Donahue said, “Penn and Princeton were it.”

The Ivy League’s strength in terms of RPI has improved visibly of late. In the seven years since Cornell’s surprise run in the NCAA tournament, the Ivy League has had the 17th-best RPI, on average, in college basketball, out of 32 leagues. In the decade preceding the 2009-10 campaign, the Ivy League averaged the 22nd-best RPI.

Tommy Amaker’s Harvard program led the charge, bolstered in part by increased flexibility accorded by the school’s financial aid policy, which since 2006 has made attending the school free for students whose families make under $60,000. Though not an athletic policy, growing financial inclusivity has made things easier on Amaker and the rest of the conference’s coaches as their schools have followed Harvard’s lead.

There are still obstacles in the way of the league’s basketball growth: restrictive rules around redshirting and preseason non-conference tournaments among them. But, the conference has shown marked improvement in men’s basketball nonetheless.

Columbia coach Jim Engles served as an assistant coach for the Lions from 2003 to 2008 before landing a head coaching job at NJIT. When he came back before this season to take over the program in Morningside Heights, the level of play had improved significantly, he said. “There’s a lot of teams right now that are recruiting some very, very good players,” Engels said.

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Chris Szagola, AP

After a four-year stint at Boston College, Donahue returned to the Ivy League tasked with resuscitating a flailing Penn program before the 2015-16 season.  He said when the conference announced its decision to add a tournament, he felt “a little apprehensive.”

But after coaching his team into the tournament as a four-seed and then putting a scare into Princeton, he said he’s embraced the tournament, which gave his team a reason to compete down the stretch after losing its first six games in conference play.

The fact that every Ivy League team won at least four games in league play intensified the late-season scramble, and two wins separated last place from a spot in Philadelphia. Brian Earl’s Cornell team finished in a three-way tie for last place, but Earl noted his team wasn’t “really out of it until the bitter end.” Earl, who served as an assistant at Princeton for almost a decade before becoming the head coach of the Big Red before last season, said the new tournament is “good for the competition in the league, definitely, throughout the regular season.”

Ivy League executive director Robin Harris said the league made the decision to cap the tournament at four teams with the regular season in mind and that it seemed to work this year. “The competition for that fourth spot is really quite compelling,” Harris said.

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The four-team tournament setup is the only one of its kind in Division I college basketball, and the question remains whether the Ivy League will stick with it or eventually expand to all eight schools. Harris said earlier this month the conference plans to stay with four teams for at least the next two years.

Yale coach James Jones, who said he worked hard for the creation of the Ivy League tournament over the past two decades, originally envisioned all eight teams participating in the tournament. But he also said he liked the way the four-team tournament went in its first year, noting that it made the tournament more special for the teams involved and gave it a little more “bite.”

Even at its most exciting, the regular season slate falls short of the new conference tournament in a significant regard: its reach. Most Ivy League regular-season games are not broadcast on television, but the Ivy League tournament featured prominently in the final weekend before March Madness. ESPNU broadcast the two semifinal games Saturday, and the final Sunday appeared on ESPN2. Donahue said more people have spoken to him about the semifinal game against Princeton than “probably any game” he’s coached in his career.

For a league working to continue to build its basketball bona fides, more viewers could make recruiting easier for its programs, which could in turn improve the product and bring even greater attention to the league—and perhaps to its regular season, too.

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If the immediate promise of the Ivy League tournament is increased exposure and more regular-season excitement, the long-range shot at getting two teams into the NCAA tournament in a single season is a possibility perhaps less optimistic than it seems. At least that’s the view of Brown coach Mike Martin.

“I don’t think we’re far away,” Martin said, describing the possibility of a two-bid Ivy League. “There’s been a few teams in the last few years you could make the case that they were tournament-quality—at-large quality if they didn’t win the automatic bid.”

The idea is that if a strong Ivy League team lost in the conference tournament it could set the stage for two teams drawing bids.

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A factor militating against this possibility is the NCAA selection committee’s emphasis on strength of schedule. This March, Monmouth of the MAAC, Illinois State of the Missouri Valley Conference and UT Arlington of the Sun Belt all won at least 25 games before Selection Sunday. But all lost in their conference tournaments and missed the tournament. The Ivy League’s tournament opens its schools to similar outcomes.

Jones, for one, views the possibility of two Ivy League teams making the tournament with a heavy dose of skepticism, noting the Saint Mary’s team in 2016 that won 27 games and finished with a top-40 RPI but missed the NCAA tournament after losing to Gonzaga in the WCC tournament.

When the Ivy League announced its decision to add a conference tournament, Mike Greenberg railed against the news on ESPN’s Mike & Mike, arguing that the league had been the only remaining conference “doing it right” in not having a tournament.

“The team that has three good days could undo everything that has happened over the previous three months,” Greenberg said on his show.

But while Jones appeared somewhat disenchanted with the choices of the NCAA selection committee, he spoke with absolute positivity about his conference’s new postseason tradition. A tradition that promises many heartstopping games and heartbreaking finishes to come. Sure, a teams might occasionally get robbed of an NCAA tournament bid, but Jones said he thinks the benefits are clear.

“It’s better for everybody in the league, having a tournament,” Jones said. "There’s one team that would maybe lose out on an opportunity, but there are three other teams that have more of an opportunity to go. And there are a number of different players on teams that didn’t make the league tournament that are still fighting, that still have something to work for."

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