The University of Pennsylvania men’s basketball team traveled to Michigan State over the weekend to commemorate the 25th anniversary of its trip to the Final Four. Although an Ivy League team’s appearance in the 1978-79 semifinals was one of the weekend’s main attractions, it took a back seat at the time to the championship game showdown between Magic’s Michigan State Spartans and Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores, which just happened to spawn the rivalry that saved the game of basketball.
Twenty-five years later, an Ivy League team is about as close to returning to the Final Four as Ariel Sharon is to Yasser Arafat (or George Steinbrenner to Larry Lucchino, depending on which border war analogy strikes your fancy).
Penn coach Fran Dunphy insisted before playing Michigan State that this was the 2003-2004 Quakers playing the modern-day edition of the Spartans and that the past was meaningless when it would come time to determining the game’s outcome. Unfortunately, he was all too correct. These days, the rich history of Ivy League sports (most visibly in football, but in basketball and other endeavors as well) has no bearing on the games of today. Not surprisingly, Penn got routed (although they did rebound to spank the inept Sycamores in the consolation game).
But Penn’s plight is far from unique in the world of Ivy League basketball. In fact, the Penn and Princeton programs have a national reputation that actually exceeds their true value these days. Since Princeton’s upset of UCLA in 1996, Princeton has been living off the reputation of its famed offensive (and it is truly aesthetically offensive) array of cuts and passes that has diffused into other college programs and even NBA squads such as the Sacramento Kings — where Princeton offense orchestrator Pete Carril is an assistant — and the New Jersey Nets. Penn, for its part, received an undeservedly high No. 11 seed in the NCAA tournament last season based on an impressive win at USC and an undefeated Ivy League performance.
While Penn and Princeton have had no success in the NCAA Tournament since Princeton’s win eight seasons ago, the league has still maintained a reputation as a solid and reputable mid-major conference. ESPN’s Andy Katz devotes his weekly column this week to the early-season “success” of Penn and Yale despite the fact that both programs have lost all four games against ranked opponents (Penn to Big Ten powers Michigan State and Wisconsin, Yale to UConn and Wake Forest).
Playing ranked teams tight is undoubtedly a start — it can only help with recruiting when high school standouts see Yale beating the No. 1 team in the country at halftime in a nationally televised game — but for the Ivy League to ever entertain hopes of becoming a mid-major along the lines of the Horizon League, it needs some of its teams to provide defining wins that might mean (perish the thought) nonconference champions building an NCAA at-large resume rather prepping for the NIT.
No, the Ivy League has never placed an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament. Yes, the league’s hesitance to adopt a postseason tournament might preclude that occurrence from ever transpiring. Would Penn have made the tournament last year if it had the exact same resume but then lost to Brown in the Ivy Tournament finals? Doubtful. Despite the fact that Katz offers the suggestion that playing an Ivy League team before New Year’s is becoming an increasingly difficult proposition, it remains to be seen whether these efforts will lead to a blossoming as a conference.
Aside from Penn and Yale, no Ivy team has done much to impress thus far, unless by impress I mean look mediocre or awful — in which case a bunch of teams could claim that they’ve been abundantly impressive.
Last year’s Ivy celebrity Brown — which reached the NIT — pulled off a clunker in its opener, losing by 40 to Texas. Thankfully, the Bears responded to that embarrassment in its second game by losing to Rider. The much-hyped senior-laden Cornell squad kept early-season juggernaut Georgia Tech close for 30 minutes before falling by 20. Luckily, it responded as well by beating Army — if only after falling to Colgate. Harvard, Dartmouth and Columbia are a combined 0-7.
Princeton is the league’s only undefeated at 2-0 coming off a respectable win over Holy Cross. But the Tigers have had a shot to build up their confidence before really testing their mettle with road trips to Duke and Oklahoma in the next month. If the early-season trend continues, the Tigers will keep the games close, put a good scare into the hosts and walk out respected losers. But if the Blue Devils and Sooners are paying as much attention to the early Ivy League “successes” as Wake Forest was, they clearly won’t be caught off guard by the Tigers.
It’s tough to say where all this is going. No Yale fan can realistically be disappointed by the losses to UConn and Wake Forest, and the UConn effort was especially heartening for fans and players both. The Ivy League season is an entity in and of itself. With no conference tournament, each game takes on added significance that is absent everywhere else in Division I college basketball. Each team’s ultimate goal is to win the league and just get a crack at a big program in March with a chance to be Cinderella.
But undoubtedly, programs are beginning to see games against major conference powerhouses more in terms of wins and losses than in terms of generating the revenue derived from acquiescing to travel in order to be a doormat. Ideally, columnists like Katz will be forced to write about major conference teams’ reluctance to schedule Ivy teams out of fear that instead of padding their win totals they will be suffering season-changing defeats. That would truly mark the emergence of Ivy League basketball.