Who doesn’t love a basketball tournament? Buzzer-beaters, upsets, the win-or-go-home drama — it’s enough to turn casual viewers into bracket fanatics each March.
When I interviewed sports commentator Frank Deford ’61 a few years ago, he joked that it was only a matter of time before some proactive sports league ditched the regular season entirely and began its tournament on opening day.
Thirty of the 31 Division I college basketball conferences use tournaments to choose their representatives in the men’s and women’s NCAA Tournaments. The Ivy League remains the lone holdout — a distinction that seemed to be nearing its end last year when coaches prepared a formal proposal for a championship tournament. (For the record, Princeton women’s coach Courtney Banghart voiced her opposition in a Daily Princetonian interview, while men’s coach Mitch Henderson ’98 declined to comment.)
But in May, the league’s athletic directors rejected the idea. Robin Harris, executive director of the Ivy League, said in a press release that the current 14-game, double round-robin schedule was “the best model moving forward.”
Should the Ivy League reconsider adding a basketball tournament to determine which men’s and women’s teams head to the NCAA Tournament?
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The decision was refreshing for longtime Ivy fans who’ve come to treasure the “14-game tournament,” where every game counts and even the best teams tend to stumble once or twice. If you’re looking for fairness and balance, it’s hard to match the home and road games against each league opponent. Mega-conferences like the 16-team Atlantic 10 would love to have that kind of simplicity.
The end-of-season tiebreaker is equitable, too: a neutral-site playoff game that has provided indelible memories for Princeton, including a win against Penn in Pete Carril’s final Ivy game in 1996 and a one-point, last-second victory over Harvard in 2011. Would those games have seemed as special if they’d come at the end of a run-of-the-mill conference tournament?
There are reasonable arguments for adding tournaments (though “I would have liked our chances in a third game against Harvard last year” is not one of them). Tournaments guarantee an extra dose of national television exposure for the two finalists — a big plus in the recruiting world — and they tend to favor teams that are peaking at the end of the year, which in turn may help the league’s chances to succeed in the NCAA Tournament. Think of the Lehigh men’s team that shocked Duke in the opening round last March: Without a conference tournament, Lehigh, then No. 2 in its league, would not have had the opportunity to face the Blue Devils.
But the goal of sending an Ivy team to the second round is secondary. Rewarding the best team with that prized line on the NCAA bracket should be the first goal of any conference. The Ivy League does it right — and had the good sense not to repair what wasn’t broken.
Brett Tomlinson is PAW’s digital editor and writes frequently about sports.