Basketball: Many support current system over Ivy tournament proposal
A movement is in place, however, for the Ancient Eight to join the rest of college basketball with a conference tournament. Ivy League coaches are creating a proposal for an annual playoff that would likely match the league’s current lacrosse tournament, which involves four teams and two rounds, the Harvard Crimson reported Friday. Princeton women’s basketball head coach Courtney Banghart confirmed that the issue has been discussed, adding that the proposal would likely include both men’s and women’s teams — much like the lacrosse tournament, which was instituted in 2010.
“We’ve discussed it as a league. The coaches have opinions, and they’re not all the same,” Banghart said. “The [athletic directors] make decisions; they use our opinions, but it’s really an administrator decision.”
Banghart said she was not in favor of a conference tournament.
“I’ve been in first place, I’ve been in seventh place, I’ve been in third place, so I’ve been in all areas, and I couldn’t be more black-and-white in my thinking that I don’t think any single-bid conference should have a tournament,” she said. “We need to make sure that our best teams are going to the [NCAA] tournament.”
Princeton has benefited from the Ivy League’s setup recently, as the Tigers have won the regular-season conference title and the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament for three straight years. However, as Banghart noted, they would likely have received an at-large berth this season even if they had lost in a conference tournament.
Player support for a tournament has been cited by some of its proponents. “I think more than anything else, if you polled or asked our players — not just our current players but former Ivy League basketball players — I can’t imagine that many of them wouldn’t be in favor of the opportunity to play in their postseason conference tournament,” Harvard men’s basketball head coach Tommy Amaker told The Crimson.
Several players, however, indicated a preference for the Ivy League’s current system.
“Personally, I’m not a fan of it. I kind of like things the way they are,” junior center Mack Darrow said. “I’m sure there would be some support, but personally, I’d kind of like to see the season stay put.”
Junior center Brendan Connolly, junior point guard Lauren Polansky, former forward Kareem Maddox ’11 and Harvard forward Keith Wright, the 2011 Ivy League Player of the Year, also said they would rather see the regular-season champion continue to receive the automatic bid. Cornell guard Chris Wroblewski agreed, though with less conviction.
“The league games are so intense that it’s nice to be rewarded for consistency over such a grueling schedule,” Connolly said in an email. “With the system we have now, it always seems like the best team, or at least a worthy team, is representing the Ivy League in the big dance.”
Sophomore guard T.J. Bray was neutral to the idea. Junior forward Ian Hummer said he was in favor of a conference tournament, as did Cornell guard Drew Ferry.
“I think it would be a great idea,” Hummer said in an email. “Being that one loss can put a team behind the eight ball, teams that have multiple losses would love another chance of going to the big dance.”
Men’s basketball head coach Mitch Henderson ’98 and Director of Athletics Gary Walters ’67 declined to comment.
Supporters of an Ivy League basketball tournament note the excitement and media attention surrounding the one-game playoff in 2011, when Princeton defeated Harvard 63-62 in front of a sold-out crowd at Yale’s Payne Whitney Gymnasium. Additionally, if a strong regular-season champion — such as the Harvard men or Princeton women this season — were upset in a conference tournament, it could receive an at-large bid, giving the Ivy League two teams and more exposure in the NCAA Tournament.
But historically, the Ancient Eight has rarely had a team worthy of at-large consideration. In most years, only the conference tournament champion would participate in the NCAA Tournament. Due to the volatile nature of single-elimination brackets, the league’s best team over the course of the season might not win the automatic bid. If Cornell had not represented the Ivy League in 2010, it is unlikely that a different team would have been able to match the Big Red’s run to the Sweet 16, which gave the conference lots of national attention.
“The only way we become relevant nationally is to win in the postseason,” said Banghart, who played and coached at Dartmouth before joining Princeton in 2007. “Believe me, I know how hard it is to win in the tournament — I’m living proof of that, I’ve been seven times. If we don’t send our best team, we’re decreasing the opportunity of that happening, and we’re becoming less relevant.”
While a tournament would produce excitement, it also might detract from the atmosphere of regular-season Ivy League play. The men’s team has played several thrilling conference games in the past two years, most notably against rivals Penn and Harvard, which might not have been as intense if they did not directly affect an NCAA Tournament bid.
“You really have to earn it. There aren’t any nights off, and I love that aspect of it,” Darrow said. “Basketball’s a funny game — there are some nights where your shot’s just not going down, and if that happens in a conference tournament championship game, after you’ve proven over the course of two months that you’re the best team in the league, then it’s kind of tough luck.”
“I don’t think a lot of people want it,” Banghart said. “I think we, as coaches, assume that it enhances the student-athlete experience, because they’re always ‘playing for something’ — you’re always on a journey to the end, you always have a chance. I think 97 percent of the time, one of the top two teams is going to win it.”
The proposal is likely to be considered at the Ivy League’s spring meetings in May, Jonathan Tannenwald of Philly.com reported this weekend. Banghart said she expects both sides of the issue to have support, adding that she did not believe the tournament proposal was “a lock.”
“If you’re trying to give the bottom teams in the league a chance to play for something in the end, are you growing your sport? Or are we just living in our Ivy League bubble and trying to make that bubble as comfortable as you can?” Banghart said. “I can live with whatever decision [the administrators] make, but I hope it’s informed, and I hope we think about it on a national level, and not what’s best for the sixth-seventh-eighth best team in the league. Let’s think about how to ensure that we’re a national, relevant league.”