Heading into this men’s basketball season, many experts and fans expected a battle for the Ivy League’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. Someone just forgot to tell Cornell to give anyone else a chance.

A game past the midway point in the conference schedule, Cornell (16-5, 8-0 Ivy) is two games ahead of Brown (14-8, 6-2) in the conference standings and is poised to become the first outright Ivy League winner not named Penn or Princeton since the Big Red went to the tournament in 1988. They could also become the first team to scorch through the Ivy League slate undefeated since Penn did it in 2002-2003.

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The Ivy League title in basketball, both men’s and women’s, comes with an automatic bid to the American spectacle that is the NCAA Tournament. “The Big Dance” occupies much of March — hence “March Madness” — and that rather boring stretch in sports between the Super Bowl and baseball’s Opening Day. Millions of Americans, ranging from casual to hardcore fans, find themselves in office pools, hoping to somehow predict that year’s Cinderella story. This spectacle allows smaller basketball programs, like those in the Ivy League, to go on the national stage in hopes of pulling off a huge upset and cementing their place in college basketball lore. That, along with being crowned Ivy League champions, is the prize at stake each and every season.

Too Much Expected?

Yale (10-12, 4-4 Ivy), picked to finish second in the conference preseason media poll and to battle preseason favorite Cornell for the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, has been arguably the league’s biggest disappointment. Four games behind the Big Red through eight league contests, the Bulldogs find themselves in the league’s bottom half and virtually eliminated NCAA tournament contention.

After a tough non-conference schedule that included three road losses to current top-10 nationally ranked teams, the Elis hoped to translate that experience into league victories. But after a thrilling overtime victory over Brown (14-8, 6-2) on Jan. 19 to open their league schedule, the Bulldogs have surprisingly underachieved.

That win was followed by three losses, one at the hands of Cornell. Yale was overmatched from the tip, allowing Cornell to score the game’s first 10 points on the way to a dominant 66-45 win in New Haven.

Things looked up after reeling off three consecutive wins to go 4-3 in the league, but a loss Saturday night at the Palestra to a young Penn team (9-15, 4-3) has put Yale in a precarious situation. With nearly identical offensive numbers being posted in almost all major categories, the one glaring difference between this season’s Bulldog squad and the 2006-2007 version has been on the defensive end. This year, the Elis are ranked in the bottom half of the conference in points allowed per game, field goal defense percentage and defensive rebounding.

The Bulldogs will need to win out just to equal their last season’s Ivy League record of 10-4, but barring a major unexpected collapse from the top of the standings, 10-4 will most likely not be enough to win the league. The last Ancient Eight team to win the conference title with four losses was Penn in the 1986-87 campaign, so the Bulldogs are up against tough odds.

Two-Team Race

Cornell — currently projected to be a 13 seed in the NCAA tournament by ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi — looks poised to become the first team since the 2002-’03 Penn squad to scorch through league play undefeated. After escaping Cambridge on Friday night with an improbable 11-point comeback and one-point win over cellar-dwelling Harvard — a sign of a resilient team. This Cornell team may be one of the most dangerous Ivy representatives in the NCAA Tournament if they indeed do hold their standing. The Big Red will look to be the first team since the 1997-’98 to win an NCAA playoff game. Princeton earned a No. 5 seed and beat 12-seeded UNLV before ultimately falling to Michigan St. in the second round. Cornell has used relied on its prolific offensive attack on its way to the top of the Ancient Eight. The Big Red finds itself on top of the league in scoring, field goal percentage and free-throw percentage.

Next in line behind the boys from Ithaca are the Brown Bears, who sport a 6-2 league record. Although the Bears do not to anything particularly spectacular, they are holding their own in many categories on both ends of the floor. Brown finds itself in the top half of the league in scoring offense, scoring defense and free-throw percentage, among other categories. If the Bears are able to string together an impressive run over the last six games, they may make the race for the automatic bid a very interesting one. The Bears are in the midst of a five-game winning streak after losing two of its first three league contests to Yale and Cornell. By the end of this weekend, the picture should be much clearer when Brown goes on its toughest road trip to face third-place Columbia (12-11, 5-3) and Cornell on Friday and Saturday nights.

Postseason Possibilities

Since the Ivy League is the only conference in the country without a conference tournament to give out its automatic bid, the regular season proves paramount compared to other conferences. Add the fact that no Ivy squad has ever earned an at-large bid, and the conference schedule is ultimately all that matters. But the NCAA tournament is not the only possible postseason action for Division I squads. The National Invitation Tournament (NIT) invites 32 teams to participate in a single-elimination tournament each year. The last Ivy League squad to participate in the NIT was Brown in 2003. The Bears finished 12-2 in conference play that season to go along with a 17-12 overall record.

Although the NIT field has since been reduced from 40 to 32 teams, the possibility of postseason play for a second Ivy League team is greater than ever due to the formation of a third postseason tournament set to begin this season. The Gazelle Group, creator of the 2K Sports Hoops Classic, among other early-season tournaments, announced the formation of the College Basketball Invitational. This single-elimination tournament will consist of 16 teams not invited to the NCAA Tournament and will be direct competition to the NIT.

So even though Cornell seems to be running away with the Ivy League title and the conference’s automatic bid, other squads in the league are auditioning for postseason play themselves, albeit not the Big Dance.