palestra

Penn coach Steve Donahue stressed the need for challenging road games as a means of getting his squad ready for Ivy play.

Photo: Ananya Chandra / The Daily Pennsylvanian

The Ivy League basketball tournament is finally here. … So what exactly does that mean?

Ever since the Ivy League was formed in 1955, it has always stood apart. No scholarships for athletes. Limits placed on athletics in favor of a traditional student-athlete model. The Ancient Eight has always been, in a word, unique.

And no basketball tournament. The 14-game regular season is all that people got and all that many fans wanted. Those in favor of the format trumped the fairness, the idea of a “14-game Tournament” which produced a better and more worthy champion than any other league.

But that is gone. In its place comes a four-team tournament coming to the Palestra next March 11-12 for both men’s and women’s basketball, giving the top four teams in the league a chance to win two games and make it in.

Whether it’s the format, the location or the whole idea of a tournament, there have been plenty of supporters and detractors. This column will take a look at some of the differing views from those in the league as well as what a tournament will actually look like in practice.

Format

There are very few buildings around college basketball that conjure up the nostalgia and excitement of the Palestra. It is certainly set apart from the other Ivy League gyms, able to both hold more fans and provide a better atmosphere.

For Penn coach Steve Donahue, it’s a no brainer that the games be held at the Palestra.

“[The Ivy tournament] is in this venue, which is critical,” he told the DP this March. “It makes our league unique that we can hold it in this venue … I worry down the road that it gets off of that.”

The Palestra holds a capacity of 8,722 people with the next closest Ivy arenas being Princeton's Jadwin Gym and Cornell's Newman Arena, which seat 6,854 and 4,473 fans. All other Ivy gyms fit between 2,100 and 2,800 people into the stands.  

However, Penn gets a strong advantage in having the tournament at the Palestra. Home court advantage in basketball is an element teams fight for, a factor that decides outcomes of important games. Yet unless Penn is the top seed in the tournament, there are those who question whether they should get that advantage, a group that includes Princeton women’s basketball coach Courtney Banghart.

Count Princeton assistant coach Brett MacConnell among those who are concerned with the format.

“I liked the idea of playing it at the home sites of the higher seeds,” MacConnell said. “I even thought that we might be able to do a Friday-Sunday. The one seed and the two seed host the semis and the highest remaining seed hosts the final on Sunday … if the higher seed were to host, that would continue to kind of add value to the regular season.

“But if you’re not going to play at the site of the higher seed, then I really believe that a neutral site would be the next best scenario because for as much as I’d love Princeton to be a pre-determined home site for a conference tournament in the future, I can certainly understand why people would have concerns about a team that could possibly be the third or fourth seed, for example, next year’s second, third or fourth seed, potentially having home games in the conference tournament.”

MacConnell has every right to be frustrated with the formatting. Compounding the issue for the Tigers is that they are likely to be a top seed next season with nearly the entire roster returning in 2016-17, including injured forward Hans Brase.

MacConnell added an observation that’s undeniably true: The conference tournaments that hold games at home sites end up with “incredible atmospheres.” Anyone who watched Stony Brook clinch its first NCAA Tournament bid this year on its home court saw a comeback victory spurred on by a raucous outpouring of support from the fans. That’s just one of many examples of strong home atmospheres in conference tournaments

The Palestra has seen similar crowds for big events. Last year, Harvard and Yale fans packed the arena for a one-game Ivy playoff. Donahue pointed out that the venue has hosted the Atlantic 10 Tournament, a league which at the time had three teams with home ties to the Palestra (St. Joe’s, La Salle and Temple). Despite the allegiances to those three teams, none of them received a distinct home court advantage.

Adding to Donahue’s case is that Penn’s Spring Break coincides with the dates of the tournament. This means fewer students on campus and less of a true home court advantage.

The Ivy League said there will be a plan to evenly distribute tickets among participating teams.

Donahue does understand how other coaches would be frustrated by Penn hosting the event.

“I think that’s a concern and I don’t blame them,” he said. “We’re going to review it I think every couple of years. My concern is, where else?”

While the location remains up for debate, a four-team format seems to be favorable among more coaches, particularly those who have been contenders for Ivy titles. Especially when compared to all eight teams in, a format which most people I spoke to were against.

But how would tiebreakers work for these four teams? The Ivy League said it will have a tiebreaking procedure in place, yet what it will look like remains to be seen.

One issue was almost exemplified this season. If Penn had won its last game against Princeton, it would have had the same Ivy record as Harvard, which would have slotted as the 4-seed in a tournament this year. They would have had the same records against the No. 1, 2 and 3 seeds. They split their head-to-head matchups. The only difference in their Ivy performances was that Penn swept Cornell and split with Brown while Harvard swept Brown and split with Cornell.

How you tell those two teams apart is beyond me.

Benefits

Arguing how the tournament should be composed will probably continue for a while. But there’s little doubt that the players and coaches are delighted by the idea of a tournament itself.

“I think everyone is excited,” Brown coach Mike Martin said. “I think everyone realizes this is best for the student-athlete experience. It’s the best thing for our student-athletes and I’m glad everyone realizes that.

“And it’s a great thing that when all eyes in the country are on college basketball in March, the Ivy League will have a chance to showcase itself. But that’s secondary to the student-athlete experience.”

While it is secondary to the actual experience, the Ivy League’s ability to present itself on a national stage in March before the NCAA Tournament begins cannot be understated.

The two Ivy tournament games could be opportunities to put your strongest teams on national TV, in front of alumni and general college basketball fans as well as the committee members that will be deciding seeds come Selection Sunday. A strong performance could help with the all-important yet undefinable “eye-test” that has kept the Ancient Eight’s hopes of getting two bids from becoming more realistic on the men’s side. (The women’s teams got their due with both Penn and Princeton making it to the Big Dance this March.)

But it still all comes back to the fact that the players themselves want to have the chance to join in on March Madness, even for just a couple days.

“The first thing for us was the fact that the players were really excited about it and they were really looking forward to the opportunity to play on that kind of a stage,” MacConnell said. “We all watch, during March, all these other conference tournaments and the excitement and energy of not only the crowd, but the audience, that it brings in from a television perspective. It’s something that I think our guys were really excited to potentially be a part of.”

“Every regular season game, every time you step on the floor, it’s meaningful,” Martin said. “This doesn’t change that, but it allows for obviously more teams to feel as though they’re competing for a championship up until the last weekend of the regular season.”

A tournament, at the very least, will provide a neatly done way to crown a champion. In the past, some titles have been foregone conclusions going into the last weekend of the year, making the ending somewhat surreal. Take what happened in 2010 with Donahue’s Cornell squad.

“We won our last championship up at Brown,” he said. “We couldn’t cut down the nets. We had a game the next day. It was anti-climactic. … There was no celebration of that accomplishment.”

Upping the League’s profile

One place where a tournament could truly help is in recruiting. The league did not seem to fare much better from standing alone on its regular season champ when it came to getting highly touted high school players who want to see the bright lights of March.

“There are just concerns because there’s a long-standing reputation for the Ivy League being unique, for better or worse, being unique,” MacConnell said. “Some other coaches probably negatively recruit against the Ivy League for its uniqueness and one of those [factors] likely had been the lack of a conference tournament.

“So I think from that standpoint, being more in line with the rest of the country will make recruits kind of feel like, ‘Hey Ivy League basketball is no different from these other conferences, these really strong conferences.’ It’s just another way now we’re in line with the rest of the country.”

Having the tournament nationally televised would also help get to recruits, showing high quality prospects that joining the Ivy League won’t stifle a player's ability to shine in March. As of now, the league is currently exploring its options when it comes to a TV deal for the games.

Martin echoed MacConnell’s sentiments about attracting high school talent.

“I would tell you that in no way does [adding a tournament] hurt recruiting,” Martin said. “I don’t think it makes the Ivy League any less unique. We still have a lot of other things about our league that separate us from the rest of the country and every other conference, but it won’t hurt recruiting. It’ll enhance recruiting in my opinion.

The only place where the Ivy League needs to be wary is how well it will be represented come the NCAA Tournament. After all, the Ivy League has won five tournament games in the last seven years, including Donahue’s Sweet 16 team at Cornell. Yale took Duke to the wire this year in its bid to reach the Sweet 16. While any team that wins a tournament game gets a certain payout, the league of that team also gets money as well, so putting your best team forward is quite lucrative.

So would a 4-seed in the Ivy Tournament that makes a run be your best team? In the example above, a Penn team that would have won just 14 games (if it beat Princeton and won an Ivy tournament) would likely be sent to a play-in game, possibly held just two days after the conclusion of the conference tournament.

Getting a second team into the Big Dance, presumably the regular season winner in this example, would solve that problem.

“I think our league continues to improve,” Martin said. “It continues to evolve. I think in many ways there should have been a conversation this year about a second bid for Princeton. But it’s going to be a challenge for our league or any league like us to get a second bid no matter what, but I can certainly see the scenario where [the Ivy Tournament] helps.

While two Ivy schools made it in women’s basketball, the men’s side has been a struggle with Princeton receiving ostensibly little consideration despite a strong resume. The higher profile an RPI of 39 brings to the table makes scheduling for Princeton in 2016-17 even tougher, making a two-bid Ivy that much tougher.

“It’s getting harder to even find an opponent willing to pay us for a guarantee,” MacConnell said. “So especially since teams know we’re going to have everybody back and we’re going to have Hans Brace back next year, so it’s even more difficult this year than it normally is because of the success we had and how much talent we have coming back, so that’s a major hurdle.”

But it’s not just Princeton. Ivy League teams can only play in multi-team exempt tournaments, or MTEs, two out of every four years, unlike the rest of the NCAA, which can play in those early season events every year. This puts the Ivies at a disadvantage when it comes to scheduling major conference teams on neutral courts.

The Ivy League also has two fewer non-conference games, but that appears to be less of an issue when the major problem is getting high quality games.

However, even though it may not provide the Ivy League with a golden path to a second bid, or give every team a chance to achieve glory in March, the Ivy League tournament is here to stay, bringing six games, three men’s and three women’s, that will be must-watch next March.

Just 317 days until tip-off. 

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