Last weekend, several upcoming deadlines began to seem much closer than anticipated for students across the Ivy League. Sunshine and warm weather radiated reminders that spring break was less than two weeks away, while students trapped in the library were hit with the unwelcome onslaught of papers and midterm exams. For me, it was the realization that the Ancient Eight basketball season was nearing its end that came as somewhat of a surprise.
A mere seven weeks ago, conference play was just getting under way, and #MathToThePalestra, our quest to break down each team’s odds of reaching the inaugural Ivy League tournament in Philadelphia, was still in its nascent stages. With one week left in the regular season, we’d like to reassess where teams stand and explore what permutations are necessary in this weekend’s games for the Yale men’s and women’s basketball to teams to reach the postseason.
Let’s begin with the men’s team, whose path to the Palestra is straightforward. With a 7–5 record in Ancient Eight play, the Elis currently sit in third place behind 12–0 Princeton and 10–2 Harvard, and two games above fourth-place Penn and Columbia, both 5–7. Yale will clinch the third seed with a win at John J. Lee Amphitheater in either of its final two games. The Bulldogs host Cornell on Friday night and Columbia on Saturday — two teams Yale defeated on the road earlier this season. Even if the Bulldogs are swept during the season’s final weekend, they will still make the Ivy League tournament provided that Penn and Columbia do not both win their final two games. Overall, our model gives Yale a 98.5 percent chance of reaching the Ivy League tournament, where they are likely to face second-seeded Harvard for the third time this season.
Assuming the Bulldogs reach the Palestra, the final Ancient Eight playoff spot is likely to go to Penn or to Columbia. The easiest path for the final spot is for either the Quakers or the Lions to win more games this weekend than the other. Should the teams finish with the same record in conference play, Ivy League tiebreaking procedures would be invoked to determine the final playoff spot. The first tiebreaker applied is head-to-head record. If tied teams have equal head-to-head records, the teams’ records against the top team in the league are computed, followed by records against the second-best Ancient Eight team, and so on, until the tie is broken. After all of this, if teams remain tied, the Ivy League would select the team with the best average analytical metric, such as the KenPom.com rating and ESPN Basketball Power Index. After thoroughly crunching the tiebreakers, we find that Penn has a 58.8 percent chance to make the Ivy League tournament compared to Columbia’s 42.7 percent chance. In a rare three- or four-way tie at 5–9 between the Quakers, Lions, Dartmouth and Cornell, Dartmouth would win the tiebreaker and secure the final golden ticket to Ivy Madness. We estimate the odds of such scenario at less than 0.01 percent.
On the women’s side, with a weekend left in the Ivy season, the playoff scenarios get pretty complicated. With Penn, Princeton and Harvard having clinched their berths, Yale, Cornell and Brown are jockeying for the fourth seed. As outlined here, Yale needs to win its two games on the road against Cornell and Columbia and then get help. Since the Ivy League breaks ties first based on head-to-head record and then based on the record against each seed from one to eight, the Bulldogs will be rooting for the Quakers to earn the top seed, as that scenario would give Yale the tiebreaker over Brown and Cornell — the Elis are the only one of the three teams to defeat Penn. Amazingly, every game played this weekend has an effect on the Bulldogs’ playoff chances.
Still, Yale’s most important games are its own. Our model gives the Elis a 40.7 percent chance on the road against Cornell and a 51 percent chance against Columbia. If they lose either, they are eliminated, but if the Bulldogs manage a sweep this weekend, their playoff odds jump to 93.9 percent. One thing to note is that our model is based on past performance and does not account for any changes in a team’s skill level since the last game. However, on the season’s last weekend, not all teams may exert the same level of effort. If teams that have clinched a playoff spot rest their starters for the playoffs, the game odds may be somewhat different. All in all, our model gives the Elis a 19 percent chance, the Big Red a 71.3 percent chance and the Bears a 9.7 percent chance.