The Ivy basketball competition for men and women is about to commence in earnest with the ultimate goal for all teams a trip to the NCAA Tournament. Unfortunately, the focus for too many fans will be the race for fourth place rather than the quest for first.
Ivy officials, coaches, and administrators are well aware that I am strongly opposed to the Ivy Tournament as the vehicle to select the League’s automatic bid to the NCAAs. My opposition is based primarily on my belief that for a one-bid conference, the grueling, 14-game double round-robin competition is the best and fairest way to select which team is most deserving to advance. After considering all factors, fairness to the players and coaches should be the ultimate decider.
Those in favor of the tournament point to the following:
· The tournament provides more visibility, including ESPN exposure, to men’s Ivy basketball. This is valid.
· It gives teams that get off to a poor start, and might be eliminated early, a second chance. This argument always bothered me as it is the responsibility of the coach to keep his or her team motivated and improving as the season progresses, possibly playing the role of spoiler.
· It would increase the possibility, for the men, of a second bid. Untrue. In actuality, it would probably decrease the chances.
· Finally, the regular season winner would be crowned the Ivy champion and get a bid to the NIT. I have participated in numerous NCAA basketball tournaments as a player, coach, and administrator and I can tell you this would be a very hollow consolation prize.
Recently, I attended the Penn-Princeton game in the Palestra and the wonderful celebration of the 1979 Final Four team. Can you imagine what Penn’s basketball history would look like if that team got knocked off in an Ivy Tournament? Or if the same fate came to any of the great Penn and Princeton teams that dominated the Ivies for decades? Or the Cornell Sweet 16 squad? Most recently, a quality 14-0 Princeton team could have — and should have — lost to the No. 4 seed Quakers in the inaugural tournament. For that team not to have advanced, and almost knock off higher-seeded Notre Dame, would have been a shame.
If you can get past the philosophical issue, you get to the logistical ones. Format. Location. Hosting the men and women at the same site.
Robin Harris and the Ivy Office, along with the folks at Penn, did a fantastic job putting on the first two events at the Palestra. But I never met a coach who would be willing to give a squad the home court advantage on an annual basis, so this year it moves to Lee Amphitheater, capacity 2800. In time, when the newness wears off, the tournament will suffer the same fate as those of other mid-majors and attendance and attention will wane. The Power Five conferences host their tournaments, not because they determine their automatic bid, but to create a spectacle that brings in millions of dollars. That is not the case for the Ivies.
Over my 30-plus years as an Athletics Director I would hear complaints from coaches and staff about particular policies or procedures. I always listened and would respond, “Give me a better idea.”
Here’s a better idea.
If there must be a tournament, include three teams for men and women. On Saturday, have a doubleheader featuring the No. 3 seeds vs. the Nos. 2. On Sunday have a doubleheader with the winners facing the regular season champs. This will not only give the champion an earned advantage but will make the regular season race much more compelling.
Have the tournament annually in the Palestra. Leadership should emphatically tell the coaches, for a host of reasons, that the Cathedral of College Basketball is the best and only site to host such an event. If Penn doesn’t qualify, no issue. If the Quakers come in first, they have earned the home court advantage. If they come in second or third they have to win two games as opposed to one for the regular season champ to earn the automatic bid. This at least mitigates, to some degree, the advantage.
On Saturday night have an Ivy League banquet, open to the public, to honor the players and coaches of the year awardees, show a video saluting the 16 legends selected from the eight schools, have Brown alumnus Chris Berman serve as emcee, and invite a keynote speaker like Princeton alumnus Bill Bradley. All players and coaches from all schools would be required to attend. Everyone would get the opportunity to see and hear just how wonderful the Ivy League is and the Tournament would be a true weekend celebration of Ivy basketball.
Steve Bilsky was Penn’s Athletics Director from 1994 to 2014. He graduated Penn in 1971 and was an All-Ivy guard for men's basketball and is a member of the Penn Athletics Hall of Fame and the Big 5 Hall of Fame.