The inaugural Ivy League basketball tournament was awesome.
We saw the Palestra cram six games into a 48-hour span with everything on the line, and we couldn’t have asked for much more. Penn and Princeton men’s basketball played an instant classic, Harvard and Yale followed that up with a thrilling two-point game in another strong chapter of their similarly historic rivalry, and — most importantly — the league saw its most deserving teams advance to March Madness.
Without a doubt, the tournament was a success by any definition of the word. But was it the best move for the league to make? Ultimately, I’m still skeptical.
What had made the Ivy League special prior to this season was that the entire regular season was essentially the playoffs. That is, a loss at any point in the season to any given team could ruin a team’s championship hopes, which led to intensity during conference games that simply wasn’t featured elsewhere.
Take a quick look at the utter disbelief from Princeton’s men’s team after being upset by Harvard in 2016, or the complete elation that Yale showed after clinching that year’s conference title in a relatively boring win over Columbia, and it’s immediately obvious that the Ivy League’s weekend doubleheaders held a unique mystique.
With the #14GameTournament being no more this season, did the regular season passion fade away? Definitely not; we still saw some unbelievable contests, with the most recent one (Penn men’s basketball’s 75-72 win over Harvard to clinch fourth place) probably being the best. But with that said, even the conference tournament’s most staunch supporters have to agree that the previously existing intensity was at least shifted somewhat.
Being a Penn sports writer, I had direct access to the two individual teams that embodied the positive and negative impacts of the Ivy tournament better than anyone else — Penn men’s basketball and Penn women’s basketball.
Looking at the men, the Quakers displayed every reason the Ivy League tournament was set up. In the league’s previous structure, their season would have been meaningless once they started 0-6 in conference play — in fact, considering that no Ivy League team has won a title with more than three conference losses since Brown in 1987, it would’ve been meaningless long before that.
But with the Ivy League’s new structure, that one-month stretch instead became a playoff race for the ages — and speaking equally as a fan and a journalist, I’ll eternally be grateful that I witnessed it. Games like Penn’s February showdown at Columbia or that win over Harvard had emotion that they wouldn’t have approached in previous years, and the Ivy League tournament is solely to thank for that.
On the flip side, the Red and Blue women give every reason that the old structure was better. While the men pushed themselves to the brink of elimination quickly, the women were never in an ounce of danger, and that fact ultimately took away some of the fun from their regular season games.
In the previous alignment, any loss was a huge deal; it meant “holy sh*t, we might have just blown our title chance.” This year, the Quakers certainly weren’t happy after losing at Yale, but the biggest tangible consequence was “we marginally increased our chance at getting the No. 2 seed instead of the No. 1 seed in a tournament that we’re hosting anyway.”
For the same reason, Penn’s 62-60 win at Princeton in 2016 was one of the most unbelievable games I’ve ever seen — can you imagine if instead of “OMG, WE’RE GOING TO MARCH MADNESS”, the team’s thoughts were “oh boy, we have to do that again in five days?”
Every player and coach tries to say that the most important game is the next one, and in the old Ivy League structure, that was the case — when you literally can’t afford to lose a game if you want a championship, you show up with unparalleled emotion to every contest. But when you can afford to lose not one, not two, not three ... and still make it to the playoffs, the fourteen contests right before — at least for the top teams in the league — lose some of their magic.
Princeton women’s coach Courtney Banghart summed it up best, telling the Associated Press after her team’s 62-57 loss to Penn in January: “I haven’t been so un-nervous for an Ivy League basketball game in 20 years.” I’m tipping my cap to her for having the guts to say what several other coaches throughout the league undoubtedly felt. Those 14 words she said make my argument better than I ever could; when a game between the two schools that have combined for the past eight Ivy League women’s titles loses the emotion it previously had, something is wrong.
I’m not blind to the fact that this year brought some major positives. But is 48 hours of complete mayhem worth two months of games between the Ivy League’s best losing what previously made them so special? Even after an unbelievable debut to Ivy Madness, I’m still not sure.
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