FRONDORF: Another Ivy tournament plea

As routine as the dawn of spring and the end of college basketball’s regular season, the first week of March inevitably brings with it the arguments as to why the Ivy League should institute a season-ending tournament for men’s and women’s basketball. It is my goal — nay, my civic duty — to make sure the controversy is revived this year. We cannot let the dream die.

For the uninitiated: 31 Division I teams earn automatic bids to the NCAA tournament, one for each eligible conference. Thirty of these conferences bestow their auto-bid upon the winner of a conference tournament conducted at the end of the regular season. The Ivy League is the lone exception — it awards the bid to its regular season champion.

Last year, as reported by The New York Times and The Harvard Crimson, the eight Ivy League coaches proposed a tournament including the top four teams to award the conference’s automatic NCAA berth. On May 10, 2012, the athletic directors of the Ivy League inexplicably turned down the proposal during its annual meetings.

Why would the ADs so quickly reject this new format? Let’s the take the possible reasons one by one (in order to, of course, justify a tournament):

1. The classic “We must protect the sanctity of Ivy League education!” argument: The gist of this argument is that adding more games to a team’s schedule will take away from their education back on campus. It’s the reason why hockey and football play shorter seasons than other Division I teams, and it already forces the basketball teams to play most games back-to-back on Fridays and Saturdays.

At face value, I have no problem with this line of reasoning as it applies to other sports. However, it doesn’t transfer to the measly maximum of two games that would be added under the coaches’ proposal. If the tournament were to be played this year, it would almost assuredly take place March 15 and 16, the Friday and Saturday after the regular season ends. Every Ivy League school (except those nonconformists at Brown) is on spring break that weekend. So what’s the issue? Excepting the Bears, no one is missing any additional educational days. And if you polled the members of the Ancient Eight basketball teams, I’m sure they’d be willing to give up part of their spring vacation to play for a shot at the NCAA tournament.

2. The “The Ivy League regular season is so meaningful. Every game matters!” argument: This is the classic fallback of traditionalists. Everyone likes to delude themselves into thinking that the regular season is the best in college basketball, giving it inappropriately epic names like the “14-Game Tournament” and arguing that the regular season matters more because any game could determine your tournament fate.

Tell that to any men’s team this year not named Princeton or Harvard. Most teams were eliminated weeks ago — Yale was the last straggler to be officially eliminated last weekend. Can we really say that the second half of the season really matters to any of these teams? I’ve been told that Yale has the chance to play spoiler this weekend by upsetting first-place Princeton, and isn’t that so exciting? No, it’s really not. It would be a whole lot more exciting if Yale were trying to hold on to a tournament spot by finishing in the top half of the league.

In fact, adding a tournament for the top four teams will make the regular season even more meaningful because more teams will be more involved for the entire season. When teams have the chance to play for one of four tournament spots, more late-season games will be important. Going into this weekend, only last-place Dartmouth would not have a shot of making the tournament. Literally every weekend game would be meaningful.

3. The “The lack of a tournament ensures that the best Ivy team plays in the NCAAs!” argument: This idea is the most reasonable. 2010’s Cornell team made it to the Sweet 16, and 2011’s Princeton squad came within two points of knocking off No. 4 seed Kentucky in the first round. If a weaker team had played their way in through an Ivy League tournament, those teams would have diminished chances of pulling off the same upsets.

But it can also be argued that the current procedure doesn’t always admit the best team at the moment. Teams with momentum entering the NCAA tournament often perform well, and right now, a top Ivy team like Harvard doesn’t look so good as it stumbles to the end of the season. And yes, there will occasionally be unexpected winners, but isn’t that part of the fun?

There’s a lot more to be said on this issue. For one, an Ivy League tournament would also guarantee more national media exposure for teams — every current conference tournament final is aired on a national network. But for now, rejecting the dated and persistent arguments against a tournament is enough to show that it has promise. Let’s make it happen.

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