Hope for the best, but plan for the worst.
On Monday, Penn women's basketball could have a chance to secure the Ivy League's second at-large bid in history. The Quakers (22-5, 12-2 Ivy) surpassed preseason expectations to claim a share of the conference title with Princeton (20-9, 12-2) this season.
At-large bids to the NCAA Basketball Tournament are a rarity for Ivy League squads. Only one men's or women's Ivy basketball team since 1968 has received an at-large bid to the Tournament — the Princeton women's team in 2016, the year before the Ivy League Tournament was instituted. It's natural, then, to compare this year's Red and Blue squad with the 2015-2016 Princeton team.
The Tigers also went 12-2 in conference play, losing in January and March to Ivy champion Penn. On the surface, this year's Quakers have had a similar season to the 2015-16 Tigers: They both posted a 20+ win season and a 12-2 record in the Ancient Eight. At the very least, though, the Red and Blue will need to beat Harvard in the first round of the Ivy League Tournament to have a shot at an at-large bid.
Nonetheless, there are some stark differences between the teams. The at-large Tigers lost to Penn by just two points in each of their contests, while at-large hopeful Penn lost to Harvard by eight in double overtime and to Princeton by 15. Penn's loss to Princeton, especially given its recency, could hurt the Quakers' chances. The Tigers won 11 games by double digits in 2015-16, while the Red and Blue have won seven, with four of their wins decided by six points or less. In conference play, it seems like the 2015-16 Tigers have a bit of an edge.
The non-conference schedules of both teams should also be criteria on which the committee bases their decision. Princeton lost to Seton Hall, No. 10 Ohio State, and Dayton in 2015-16 while throttling Duquesne by 28 points — a team that advanced to the Round of 32 in March Madness. Penn, meanwhile, lost to then-No. 1 Notre Dame, NCAA Tournament hopeful Maine, and a struggling Villanova team. Perhaps more importantly, the Quakers didn't beat any probable Tournament teams during regular season play. Penn did stay neck-and-neck with Notre Dame throughout the first half and limited the high-flying Irish to just 75 points, 14 below their season average.
Looking at RPI rankings, there is some discrepancy between the two teams. The at-large Tigers were 36th in RPI, while the then-conference champion Quakers were 27th in RPI. This year's Red and Blue rank 60th in RPI this season. With this said, it is not uncommon for a team that ranks outside the top 50 in RPI to make the Tournament: Nebraska in 2018, Purdue in 2017, and Miami in 2015 all did so. These teams all have more conference recognition and play in more difficult conferences, however, which likely played in their favor.
This year's Penn team doesn't quite have the same resume as Princeton's 2015-16 team, which is where the bar has been set. This doesn't necessarily mean the Quakers won't be receiving an at-large bid, but it doesn't appear likely.
Judging by bracketologist Charlie Creme's prediction on ESPNW, Penn actually ranks higher in RPI than five of the eight next teams out. The pitfall of this argument, though, is that Penn has played easier opponents than the other at-large hopefuls.
Penn's low odds of earning an at-large bid make the Ivy Tournament that much more important. Chances are that if the Quakers want to advance to the NCAA Tournament, they will have to win a pair of games this weekend.
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