When it comes to men’s basketball, the Ivy League is unique, but it looks like that’s about to change.
And it’s about time.
There are 32 athletic conferences in NCAA Division I men’s basketball. All 32 reward their respective victors with automatic berths to the NCAA Tournament (or “March Madness,” as it is more commonly known). 31 of them determine this victor with a postseason tournament, in which the teams, seeded in accordance with their regular season performance, fight to the death for a coveted trip to the “Big Dance.”
It’s amazing. In the many leagues that send only one team to the NCAA Tournament — the biggest conferences take up nearly all of the 36 at-large bids — the teams must survive and advance in a do-or-die scenario to even reach the chaotic, prestigious marathon of do-or-die Madness. Imagine if the Hunger Games had a series of "qualifying" bloodbaths in each district before the big show--- it shouldn't be too hard to imagine the sinister NCAA as the just slightly more totalitarian "Capitol."
One conference misses out on that fun. It’s our conference, of course. The Ivy League does not hold a conference tournament; the team with the best record at the end of the regular season advances to the Dance.
But reports last week indicated that the implementation of an Ivy conference tournament is under serious consideration. Ivy League presidents are expected to vote on the issue this month, and it’s very possible, even likely, that they will vote in favor of holding postseason tournaments starting with the 2016-17 campaign.
It’s a change that needs to be made. It benefits everybody — with one possible exception. In both 2014 and 2015, the MLB’s Pittsburgh Pirates finished with the best record among teams that did not win their division, qualifying them for the wild card. But, due to a rule change before the 2012 season, the Pirates had to face the second-best such team in a one-game playoff to earn the previously automatic fourth playoff spot.
Both years, Pittsburgh lost that game to the underdog. The team with the worse record won, and the team which would have secured an automatic playoff berth under the old rules went home with nothing to show for their regular season excellence.
Therein lies the one drawback of an Ivy conference tournament. It harms, or has the potential to harm, one of the eight teams: The team that was the best over the largest sample suddenly must fight for a previously guaranteed ticket to March Madness.
But that regular season champion would have the top seed and the easiest path to a conference tournament victory. If it truly is the best team, it should have no trouble staving off a few of its Ivy foes. And if the goal were to get the nation’s 68 best regular season teams on the big stage, the Ivy League and many other conferences wouldn’t have an automatic berth to begin with.
And, by God, would a tournament be exciting. Remember last year’s thrilling one-game playoff at the Palestra after Harvard and Yale finished the regular season with identical records? Or the playoff in 2011, where a buzzer-beater sent Princeton to the NCAA Tournament and the Crimson home in shock?
Usually, the champion is determined before the final Ivy game, and when two teams do find themselves alive on the season’s final day, they are rarely facing each other. Penn and Princeton traditionally face off in their respective season finales, but gone are the days where the Ivy championship was merely a two-team race between the Quakers and Tigers.
One-game playoffs, contests with everything at stake for both sides, are extremely rare. But the excitement doesn’t need to be.
A conference tournament benefits the whole league. While a tournament might “cost” a regular season champion a trip to the Dance at season’s end, the implementation of such a tournament would give all eight Ivy teams an improved chance of winning the bid heading into any given season. It benefits the fans of those teams, who have a reason to watch — and a reason for hope — from start to finish. It benefits the league financially. It generates, for everybody who watches or plays Ivy basketball, the memorable moments that college basketball is all about, moments the other 31 conferences have been generating for years.
It’s an easy call to make. And finally, those Ivy bigwigs calling the shots appear set to make it.
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