Experts may not be picking an Ivy League team to win the national title in March, but Ancient Eight basketball has garnered its fair share of national attention recently.
Not considered a powerhouse basketball conference, the Ivy League has had a growing trend of success in the past few years. In 2010, Cornell made a splash at the NCAA Tournament. The Big Red reached the Sweet 16 and ended the season ranked No. 17 in the country. After that season, the Golden State Warriors of the NBA signed Harvard guard Jeremy Lin as an undrafted free agent. Lin’s three-minute appearance in the Warrior’s 109–91 victory of the Los Angeles Clippers on Oct. 29, 2010 marked the first time that an Ivy Leaguer played in the NBA since former Yale center Chris Dudley ’87 retired in 2003. Last year Harvard received an invitation to the 2011 National Invitation Tournament, but the Crimson fell to Oklahoma State 71-54.
This year, Harvard has garnered attention with its presence in the national polls. Crimson head coach Tommy Amaker’s squad is currently No. 25 on the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll. Harvard first cracked the polls Dec. 5 and has remained on the Coaches poll since Dec. 19. Harvard rose as high as No. 21 (No. 22 in Associated Press Top 25) on Jan. 2. Although the Crimson are only the second Ancient Eight team to appear in the polls since the end of the 1997-1998 season, and no Ivy League school has ever claimed the NCAA title, the success of the league is of no surprise to coaches throughout the country.
After Wake Forest pulled out a 72–71 victory over Yale Dec. 29, Demon Deacons head coach Jeff Bzdelik said he had respect for the Ivy League even before the close matchup.
“I think the Ivy League is a great league,” Bzdelik said. “I’ve been in the business a long time … Anybody who puts the jersey on at this level can play.”
Several Ivy League standouts are among the top in the nation in key statistical categories. Penn’s star senior point guard Zack Rosen is 26th nationally with 19.4 points per game, tied for 20th with 6.1 assists per game, and third in the nation with a .924 free-throw percentage.
Yale forward Greg Mangano ’12 ranks 19th in the country in scoring with 19.9 points per game and 14th with 10.6 rebounds per game. Bulldog guard Austin Morgan ’13 ranks just behind Rosen at fourth with a .923 percentage from the charity stripe. Eli Captain Reggie Willhite ’12 is 22nd in the nation with 2.36 steals per game.
This trio of Bulldogs has helped Yale’s team to 10 victories in its non-conference schedule for the first time since the 2001-2002 season.
It is unclear what factors have contributed to Ivy League basketball’s recent resurgence. A Dec. 22 New York Times article by Bill Pennington titled “Financial Aid Changes Game as Ivy Sports Teams Flourish” pointed to the increased availability of financial aid to students in the last decade as the reason that the Ivy League has become more competitive nationally. Yale head coach James Jones said that he is uncertain about the effect of financial aid on basketball recruiting.
“The numbers we recruit are so small, [it is] difficult to say,” Jones said. “I didn’t feel that financial aid packages [affected recruiting] … Maybe some kids.” Jones added that his main focus when recruiting is to “recruit outstanding student-athletes.”
Jones said the nature of recruiting is different in the Ivy League, as the coaches do more research — checking SAT scores, GPAs and class rankings — to ensure that the prospective recruit is academically qualified to attend the school before he pursues a student further.
Current Boston University head coach and former Columbia head coach from 2003-’10 Joe Jones agreed with his older brother James that recruiting is different in the Ivy League, but he added that financial aid is an important factor.
“I always had to recruit with money in mind,” Joe Jones said. “When I was [at Columbia] I would’ve certainly loved to [have scholarships].”
In his current coaching position at BU, a school that awards athletic scholarships, Jones said money is a concern only when his recruits are also being courted by members of the Ivy League.
In such cases, Jones said he hopes the school’s package cannot sway his potential Terriers.
“I’d be lying to you that I wasn’t hoping the package would come in [too expensive],” he said regarding financial aid offerings from Ancient Eight schools battling him for recruits.
The younger Jones agreed with his brother James that the Ivy League has a limited spectrum of recruits to choose from because of Ivy academic standards.
Joe Jones offered another way the Ivy League could enhance its national reputation — a conference tournament. The Ancient Eight remains the last Division I basketball conference without a conference tournament to determine which team is awarded the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
“That would really add to the experience for the student-athlete,” Jones said.
The leading Ivy League school from the regular season currently receives the League’s automatic bid.