This article has been updated to reflect the version that ran in print on March 23.
One hundred and forty-eight Division I men’s basketball teams are participating in postseason tournaments this season. Sixty-eight teams will compete in the NCAA Tournament, 32 in both the National Invitation Tournament and CollegeInsider.com Tournament and 16 in the College Basketball Invitational.
Coming off of two devastating defeats in a week by a combined three points, Yale (22–10, 11–3 Ivy) will not be one of those 148 schools.
“I was stunned and disgusted at the same time at how it worked out,” head coach James Jones said. “I just can’t understand how this team was not seen in a higher light.”
While the losses to Dartmouth in the regular season finale and Harvard in the Ivy League Playoff deprived the Bulldogs of an opportunity to break a 53-year NCAA Tournament drought, a trip to the NIT appeared within reach, if not probable, for the Ivy League co-champions.
Instead, the NIT passed on Yale, stunning players and leaving the longest-tenured coach in the Ivy League searching for an answer.
Jones contacted the acting director of the NIT, Reggie Minton, following the announcement, but the Elis’ head man was not satisfied with the response he received.
“He wasn’t able to give me an explanation of why we weren’t in,” Jones said of his discussion with Minton, who coached Dartmouth in 1984. “I doubt that many of the people who voted ever saw us play all season long, so I doubt they knew much about us. That’s the only thing I could come up with because, by virtue of our numbers alone, we should be in the tournament.”
Various ranking systems, including the Ratings Percentage Index, bolster Jones’s claim that this year was one of the best seasons in Yale’s history.
The Elis finished the regular season as the 63rd-ranked team in the nation according to RPI, a tool used by the NCAA Selection Committee to fill out the ubiquitous brackets over which much of America will obsess in the coming weeks.
Such rankings, paired with highlight road victories over the Crimson as well as the defending national champions the University of Connecticut, were mere bullet points on an impressive résumé for the Bulldogs. This season, Yale claimed its first Ivy title since 2002, won its most games since 1949 and sported the Ivy League Player of the Year in forward Justin Sears ’16 as well as the Ivy League Coach of the Year in Jones.
“I don’t understand how, after what we did on our résumé, beating UConn and beating Harvard and losing to Vanderbilt in double overtime, that didn’t carry more weight to the folks that were making the decision,” Jones said.
In an ESPN.com article about the NCAA and NIT selection committees, Andy Katz noted Yale’s omission from the tournament as “the one major snub in the NIT.”
But though Yale and many of its supporters were shocked to learn that the Bulldogs would not participate in postseason play, Yale’s season was not without flaws.
The Bulldogs did not have a single victory over a top-50 RPI school, as the values of wins over preseason No. 17 UConn and No. 25 Harvard were diminished by both schools’ failures to meet such lofty expectations. Their sole opportunity for such a résumé-boosting victory came against Providence, ranked 23rd in RPI, back in November. However, the Friars edged the Bulldogs by six points.
Moreover, Yale suffered four defeats to schools with RPIs below 150. These losses, to No. 226 Quinnipiac, No. 154 New Jersey Institute of Technology, No. 198 Columbia and No. 187 Dartmouth lessened the Bulldogs’ chances for postseason admission.
Even the Jan. 3 defeat to Vanderbilt was not particularly significant despite Vanderbilt’s status of being from a power conference school. The Commodores ranked just 101st in RPI, although they did earn an invite to the NIT and have reached the quarterfinals.
Such blemishes, paired with the limited visibility of the Ivy League — the Yale-Dartmouth matchup to potentially send Yale to the Big Dance was not televised anywhere — and a perceived bias against mid-major teams such as those in the Ancient Eight, were enough to doom the Elis’ postseason hopes.
“It’s tough because you definitely have to knock off a couple big name schools before the Ivy League season,” guard Makai Mason ’18 said. “I’m sure [visibility] plays a role but there’s nothing we can really do about that … Conferences that have big media contracts make it hard for us to compete and get the same spots as those guys get when they’re seen on TV competing against the best teams.”
Yale earned the unenviable position of being the highest-ranked team, according to RPI, not to be selected to advance to either March Madness or the NIT. In fact, the six teams immediately following Yale in the RPI rankings — excluding No. 67 Syracuse, which is ineligible for postseason play — will all be hosting first-round matchups in the NIT, meaning that they are among the top 16 schools in the 32-team bracket.
Furthermore, Yale is the only school in the top 80 not to have received an official invitation to a postseason tournament. No. 67 Syracuse voluntarily banned itself from postseason play in the midst of NCAA investigations regarding multiple violations. No. 71 Florida, No. 77 Toledo and No. 80 Massachusetts each declined invites to the two lesser tournaments: the CIT and CBI.
Several teams with lower RPIs from power conference schools earned entry into the NIT. For instance, No. 72 Illinois of the lauded Big Ten conference earned a No. 3 seed in the NIT while No. 84 Alabama of the Southeastern Conference will host Illinois despite having just fired its head coach. Those two programs, however, combined to go 18–1 against schools with RPI ratings below 150.
“No one is crying for the Yale basketball team right now but us,” Jones said.
While Yale awaited the announcement of the NIT bracket on the nationally broadcast selection show, the CIT and CBI committees each filled out their own pools without considering the Bulldogs.
According to Jones, the commissioners of each tournament believed Yale was a lock for the NIT and thus looked elsewhere for schools to invite to their tournaments.
“We were definitely all-in for the NIT. We really didn’t think about the CIT or CBI because we all expected to get into the NIT,” Sears said. “When we didn’t, we were kind of left scrambling to figure out what was happening, but coach Jones was saying that the CBI didn’t have any spots left for us.”
After a trip to the CIT championship game a year ago, Sears noted that he believed prior to the season that every game on the schedule was winnable and that playoff action was a given.
“I thought it was an expectation that we would be playing postseason basketball,” Sears said. “We didn’t even make spring break plans.”
Adding to the disappointment regarding Yale’s absence from the NIT is how the Ivy League’s lack of a postseason tournament contributed to the snubbing. For any Division I conference with a postseason tournament, should the regular season champion of that league fail to advance to the NCAA Tournament, it receives an automatic bid to the NIT.
Of the 32 Division I conferences, the Ivy League is the only one to not have a conference tournament at the conclusion of the regular season. As such, Yale’s share of the regular season championship did not warrant an automatic berth in the NIT and left the Elis’ postseason fate subject to the discretion of the NIT Selection Committee.
“I certainly think the Ivy system needs to be fixed. We’re well deserving of a bid, and we shoot ourselves in the foot [by not having a postseason tournament] and not giving ourselves an automatic bid,” Jones said.
Any such correction, however, will come too late for the Bulldogs to take advantage of this season.
“It’s a bit frustrating but I mean the Ivy League rules, they’re set in stone. They’re tradition,” Sears said. “There’s nothing we can change. Next year, we have to finish out games when it matters. We had our chances this year.”