Ivy League basketball.
You probably know that the Ivy League is the only league left that has no conference tournament, and thus the regular-season champ gets the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. And since the Ivy League rarely has two teams worthy of an at-large bid (remember, there’s no conference tournament so there are no upset champs), it is almost invariably the case that the regular-season champ — and only the regular season champ — makes the tourney.*
This makes Ivy League hoops pretty unique, and pretty awesome. Like a throwback to the 70’s — when each conference was only allowed 1 tourney bid and most conferences didn’t have end of year tournaments — every game counts. It’s super refreshing. Every night plays out like a do-or-die playoff game; fall two games back in the standings and it starts to look really dire.
On top of this, following the Ivy League is a lot like following the NFL; because of league rules, almost all games occur on Friday and Saturday nights. There are eight teams, you play the other seven two times each, for a 14-game conference season. In effect, it’s six weekends of Friday/Saturday games, plus two random games against the team you are “paired” with. For example, Yale is paired with Brown. So each weekend, Yale and Brown either have home games against another two paired teams (like Harvard and Dartmouth) on Friday and Saturday night, or travel to play the same two teams on Friday or Saturday night. (Yale also has to play it’s pair team — Brown — twice. Those two games are split, usually one early in the season, one late).
The effect of this is that the standings “sync” the way they do in the NFL — nothing happens all week, and then over the weekend everyone plays the same number of games, and the standings adjust. It’s great. Unless, of course, it’s your team’s turn for the dreaded trip to Penn and Princeton.
Of course, this all leads to what happens last night. Princeton beat Penn in the season-finale “pair” game, creating a first-place tie between Princeton and Harvard. Which means the Ivy league has to have a playoff game, for all the marbles. There is so much to talk about here. Four observations:
1) The game is going to be played Saturday….in New Haven! In it’s infinite wisdom, the Ivy League decided that the fairest thing to do would be to play the game on a neutral court. And they sure got the most neutral court possible — a place where every single local fan hates both teams! Over at Deadspin, there’s a post that thinks the Yale fans will root hard against Harvard. And yes, there will certainly be a fair amount of Huck Farvard t-shirts and Harvard Sucks chants from the stands.
But anyone who follows Ivy League hoops knows that traditionally, Princeton (and, to a lesser degree, Penn) dominates the league to such a degree that things like the Harvard-Yale rivalry tend to be set aside in exchange for anti-Princeton fervor. You know, that fucking country club in New Jersey. And it’s not like Yalies love Princeton to begin with; the traditional Harvard Sucks t-shirt also has a back, and that usually says “…and Princeton doesn’t matter.” I guess the only thing that can be said with any certainty is that the “Safety School” chant will be employed quite a bit on Saturday.
2) The Deadspin post also features an email from a Harvard student that points toward a pro-Princeton conspiracy. This is common fodder in Ivy League hoops, the idea that the rules are bent in favor of Princeton and Penn. I was at Yale the last time there was a regular-season tie (2002), a three-way tie between Penn, Princeton, and Yale. By whatever monkey math they used, the result wast that Yale had to play a “1st round” game against Princeton, which took place at Penn, and then after Yale won, they had to play Penn at Lafayette (i.e. at Penn). Yale lost. Puck Fenn. Conspriacy, obv.**
3) There’s something fake about all of the Ivy League rivalries, anyway. Take the Harvard-Yale football game. Yeah, everyone wears their Huck Farvard t-shirts and stuff, but when you get right down to it, it’s more a joint celebration that looks at the outside world and says “Eff you, we disagree about who is better between us, but we know we’re both way better than the rest of you.” I mean, come on, who ever heard of a rivlary that features a massive joint tailgate between the schools, or where students from one school crash in the dorms and frats of the other. And it’s not like anyone in the Ivy League is going to be rooting against Harvard next week when they are playing Duke.
4) Harvard has never won the Ivy League, and hasn’t been in the NCAA tourney since 1946 (pre-Ivy League). It’s safe to say that they will get a lot of attention if they win on Saturday. Add on that Harvard’s women’s team is the only 16 seed to beat a #1 in the women’s tourney. And throw in that Princeton has routinely won NCAA games; heck, they’ve had the best player in the country (Bill Bradley) and been to the final four. But I guarantee you, if Harvard is holding the ball, a #16 seed down one with the clock running down, it will make Princeton/Georgetown 1989 feel like a snoozefest.
I guess what I’m saying is, root for Harvard. Puck Frinceton.
*One thing I do not know is how this meshes with the new NIT rules. Since buying the NIT, the NCAA has made a rule that any regular-season champ that doesn’t win it’s conference tournament is automatically given a bid to the NIT. This is a good development. Except it’s not clear how it affects the Ivy League. Do we never get to benefit from the rule, since the regular-season champ will always make the NCAA tourney? Or will the loser of the Harvard/Princeton playoff game get an NIT bid automatically? Most of all, should we even care; it is the NIT?
**After Yale lost the playoff, they got an NIT bid, their first post-season game in like 40 years. After beating Rutgers on the road in the first round, Yale got a home game for round two, which was played in the New Haven Coliseum to accommodate more fans than Yale’s small on-campus gym. Two days before the game, Yale’s president announced that the university was buying all the tickets up so that students could go to the game for free. By my calculation, it cost the school $100,000 to do that. Yes, there are advantages to being Yale.