For me, it’s a no-brainer. The Ivy League needs a conference tournament for basketball.
When you look at Ivy Athletics as a whole, there’s something left to be desired for those students who are fans of collegiate athletics. While an Ivy team will always make the NCAA Tournament, there isn’t anywhere close to the same excitement because, most years, that team gets decimated in the first round.
There’s one simple way to build that excitement — and it’s a tournament to end the season.
If you’re a fan of Ivy Athletics or happened to be on campus at the tail end of spring break last year, you might have witnessed the one-game playoff between the men’s teams from Harvard and Yale for the Ivy League title. As someone who has witnessed his fair share of basketball games at the Palestra, the excitement was palpable, even from the television broadcast.
Imagine that excitement, but for three games. The opportunities for storylines and intrigue between teams that have been historic rivals for over a century would be endless. And most of all, it would engage the fans.
It’s tough to expect students to make it out to a home basketball game every weekend and Penn Athletics clearly knows that very well. While there have been dozens of promotional attempts, nothing has succeeded in quite the same way that winner-take-all basketball at the Palestra would.
Now, you might argue that this sort of model invalidates the regular season — a 14-game slog filled with upsets and tension — but I think it augments the system perfectly. Look at every major sports league and then imagine them without playoffs. The Panthers may have been crowned champions a few weeks ago, and they may become actual Super Bowl Champions in two weeks’ time, but without watching them plow their way through other playoff teams, would we feel safe calling them champions?
The regular season still would hold significant importance, after all you still need to be among the best teams in the conference to make the tournament and seeding could be very important.
The other side to consider is the Ivy League’s commitment to academics, which is why it doesn’t allow its football conference champion to play in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs. In basketball, we already see the Ivy League take time off around finals in the winter, but extending the season for another weekend to allow for a tournament wouldn’t have any significant adverse effects on the students, the way a football tournament might.
In her tenure at Penn, Athletic Director Grace Calhoun has mentioned countless times the need to combat student apathy. We’ve seen how riled up campus can get about the NCAA Tournament — you quickly learn how many students have allegiances to other NCAA programs — and an Ivy League tournament could bring that same excitement into a league desperately searching for more.
I strongly urge the presidents of Ivy League universities, who have the ultimate vote in determining whether a tournament comes into existence, to consider the potential to build excitement around their athletic programs. Penn has a long tradition of athletic excellence, and while it is a long way from the Final Four appearance of 1979, bringing back a tournament setting can revitalize that experience.
Ivy League athletics strive to be different. There are no scholarships, a stronger academic focus and a distinctly different form of student-athlete. But one thing that other conferences get right is the conference tournament.
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