With midterms in full swing, it is easy to forget that the calendar soon changes to March, and spring break is just around the corner. And with the break comes one of the most anticipated events of the year for the Ivy League: the second annual postseason basketball tournament in Philadelphia to decide the Ancient Eight’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
With just four games to go in the regular season, I break down Yale’s chances of making it to the Palestra and review the games most important in separating the cream from the rest of the crop.
Despite losing by double digits at Harvard on Saturday night, the Yale men’s basketball team has a lot to be excited about. After going 5–5 in their first 10 conference matchups, the Bulldogs sit in third place with a one-game cushion over several teams clawing for the final playoff berth. The Elis’ postseason odds currently sit at 70.4 percent, the highest they have been since the 71.1 percent they boasted on Jan. 6, before Yale had played a single conference game.
Perhaps most impressive, just two weeks ago, the Bulldogs’ chances sat just north of one-in-four, and the 45 percentage point gain over the last four games is by far the most of any team in the conference. Add in the return of star point guard Makai Mason ’18 and all of a sudden things look a lot brighter for the young Bulldog squad than they did two weeks ago.
Within a game of Yale in the standings at 4–6 sits Columbia (playoff odds: 52.7 percent), Brown (28 percent) and Cornell (26.2 percent). Defending Ivy League champion Princeton sits at a woeful 3–7, with just a 22.6 percent chance of even reaching Ivy Madness.
Because it has beaten Harvard, Columbia’s odds are nearly twice those of the teams it’s tied with in the standings. The Crimson currently sit in first place in the Ivy League, and if two teams were to tie for the fourth and final playing spot and split their head-to-head meetings, the deadlock would be broken by which has the most wins over the regular season champion. Columbia’s win over Harvard looks more valuable by the day. In my simulations of the remainder of the season, 51 percent end with a tiebreaker used to award the fourth and final playoff spot. Even more exciting, 26 percent of simulations end with a three-way tiebreaker used to award the final playoff spot
Without a doubt, the biggest surprise of the last few weeks has to be the decline of Princeton. The defending champions have lost six conference games in a row, and their seven Ivy losses this year are as many as it lost in the last three seasons combined. Just two weeks ago, the Tigers chances of reaching Ivy Madness sat at 94.1 percent. But if there is any team that can “flip the switch” and turn its luck around, it is Princeton.
Next weekend’s most important game — and by far the most important game of the season — is Brown at Columbia. Per my playoff swing factor metric, a statistic that measures the total change in all eight teams’ playoff odds based on the result of a given game, the Bears-Lions game registers a 101.6, shattering the previous season high of 77 and making it a pseudo-playoff game. For perspective, Yale’s games at Cornell and Columbia, which are crucial clashes in their own right, register a 58.4 PSF and a 64.8 PSF, respectively. Both Yale’s games in the Empire State are projected to be within a single possession, and with seasons on the line, the Bulldogs will not want to squander an opportunity to create some breathing room before the final weekend of the regular season.
A common complaint from Ivy League purists was that by adding a postseason tournament, the Ancient Eight has decreased the importance of its regular season games. Sure, next week’s Penn-Harvard battle for first place may not mean as much this year, but I’d submit the fact that seven teams have at least a 20 percent chance of playing meaningful basketball in March as a counterargument. What happens next is anyone’s guess, so take a seat, buckle up and ride the Ivy playoff rollercoaster all the way to the Palestra.
Luke Benz is the President of the Yale Undergraduate Sports Analytics Group. Contact Luke Benz at firstname.lastname@example.org