The 2017-18 iteration of the Ivy League basketball season marks the second time that the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament will be decided by a postseason tournament. While the league’s Twitter account has switched the official basketball hashtag from #PathToThePalestra to #RoadToIvyMadness, making #MathToThePalestra a less effective pun, math and analytics still offer a valuable framework from which to examine the Ancient Eight going forward. Using a model built for the Yale Undergraduate Sports Analytics Group, I’ve simulated the Ivy League men’s basketball season 10,000 times, and have computed playoff odds for each team.
Yale’s chances of finishing in the top four, and thus earning a trip to Ivy Madness in Philadelphia come March, currently sit at 53.8 percent. A close loss in Providence to an up-and-coming Brown team dropped the Bulldogs’ playoff odds by 16.1 percentage points, down from 69.4 percent a week ago. As a result of splitting the home and home series with Yale, the Bears’ chances of making the Ancient Eight Tournament increased by 10 percentage points, from 27 percent to 37 percent. That was the second largest increase enjoyed by an Ivy team so far this season, trailing only Columbia’s 14.1 percentage point increase following a win against its Empire State rival, Cornell.
Despite having the fourth-best odds to reach the Ivy League tournament, Yale still lags behind conference leaders Penn and Princeton. Both the Quakers and Tigers are near locks to reach the Palestra, with playoff odds at 97.9 and 98 percent, respectively. “The Ps” have a combined 85.2 percent chance of representing the Ancient Eight in March Madness, with Penn (48.1 percent) slight favorites over Princeton (37.1 percent) due to the advantage that comes with playing the Ivy League tournament on its home floor. Despite the fact that Penn has already scored a win over Princeton in conference play this season, my model reports that the Tigers are the better team, and would favor Princeton by roughly two points on a neutral court. Clearly, Penn and Princeton are in a class of their own, and represent the toughest road weekend Yale or any other Ivy team will face all season.
Archrival Harvard sits between the Elis and the duo atop the Ivy League. The Crimson currently possess the third best playoff odds, at 78.2 percent, making Friday night’s Yale-Harvard clash at John J. Lee Amphitheater extremely important. I’ve developed a metric called “Playoff Swing Factor,” or PSF, which measures the relative importance of each game. To calculate PSF, I simulate the remainder of the Ivy League season after fixing the outcome of a game in question, and add up the differences in playoff odds for all eight Ivy teams under the two possible outcomes for the game. This weekend’s rivalry game registers a PSF of 50.4, making it not only the most important conference game of the weekend, but also the most important Ivy League game played all season. Bulldog fans can take solace in the fact that my model, which has correctly predicted the winner for all ten Ancient Eight conference games played thus far, gives Yale a 60.3 percent chance to beat Harvard and 84.6 percent chance to beat Dartmouth this weekend.
The weekend marks a big test for the Bulldogs. Win against both Harvard and Dartmouth, and the Elis will vault into the conversation for the league’s top seed. Lose both games and Yale will face an uphill battle to even reach Ivy Madness. Earn a split and Yale’s postseason chances will remain around 50–50. Given that the average four-seed in my simulations earns on average 7.5 wins and Yale averages 7.2 wins, the Bulldogs will be in very good position if they can protect home court on Friday and Saturday. These are the kinds of games that may well define the season, so if you haven’t been paying attention yet, now’s a great time to start.
Luke Benz is the President of the Yale Undergraduate Sports Analytics Group. Contact Luke Benz at firstname.lastname@example.org .