When the Palestra opened in 1927, tickets cost 55 cents and popcorn just 90. The arena was home not just to Penn, but to all of Philadelphia’s Big 5 teams: Penn, La Salle, Villanova, St. Joseph’s and Temple. The Palestra, a witness to more college basketball games than any other arena in the country, is steeped in basketball lore. Greats like Wilt Chamberlain, Lebron James, Kobe Bryant, and Jerry West have streaked between its lines and Hall of Fame coaches have written up X’s and O’s on the sidelines.
This year, the Cathedral of Basketball will again host the second annual Ivy League Tournament. It seems only fitting that the most storied of locations will host the tournament of the conference colloquially called the Ancient Eight.
Like many sites on Ivy League campuses, the Palestra really seems like a cathedral. The stones from which it was built form an impenetrable foundation. The chairs, or rather the benches inside, are the opposite of plush. Its walls rise high like those of a fortress. The skylights beaming upon center court remind you of Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library.
Okay, in truth, the Palestra is somewhat more like Morse College, but the point stands.
Nevertheless, some Ivy League fans have expressed concern about holding the tournament in the Palestra every year.
The court is Penn’s home floor. In Saturday’s second men’s semifinal, Yale will travel a few hundred miles south to compete, while Penn will walk a few feet. Our women’s team will take the same trip down from New Haven, but its semifinal opponent from Princeton will go a fraction of the distance. Our students might travel in large numbers, but like last year, the Palestra will be full of thousands of Penn and Princeton fans and probably even more random Philadelphians still drunk from the Super Bowl.
In some sense then, it is unfair to hold Ivy Madness at the Palestra, year after year.
Moreover, what are we to think about the tournament itself? There is no doubt that back-to-back days of back-to-back playoff games among the top four men’s and women’s teams generate a level of intensity that the regular season cannot match. But what does the presence of the playoffs mean for the regular season?
For decades, the Ivy League had been different from every other league. We did not have scholarships, our games were played only on weekends so our student-athletes would truly embody the first part of that title, and maybe most importantly, we crowned a champion based solely on a long and grueling regular season. In the other leagues, one team is crowned regular season champions, but another is the playoff victor. The latter earns the automatic bid. For the ACC, the regular season spans months; the playoffs are a five-day blip. Who then really is the league victor?
For most leagues, such as the SEC, the regular season winner is more than good enough to earn a bid in its own right. But a tournament in which the winner takes the automatic bid can make the regular season irrelevant in mid-major conferences like the Ivy League.
In 2015, Murray State went 27–5 during the regular season and 16–0 in Ohio Valley Conference play. However, the Racers fell by one point to Belmont in the Ohio Valley Conference championship game, and the selection committee left them out of the 68-team field.
Still, the Ivy League finds a way to make the regular season more valuable than other leagues do.
The women’s SEC basketball division has 14 teams and the men’s ACC has 15, yet every team makes the playoffs in both. And while the top seeds receive double-byes, the presence of every team in the tournament renders the regular season somewhat superfluous.
In our league, four of eight teams make the playoffs. This ensures that our regular season means a bit more. Nevertheless, the regular season means far less than it did when its eventual victor earned the automatic bid.
The Palestra is a home game for Penn, and the tournament’s very presence diminishes the value of the regular season. But do those negatives outweigh the positives that come from two days of unparalleled intensity? To each her own.
We are the No. 4-seed for women’s and the No. 3-seed for men’s. So, if we win this year, admittedly, I’ll probably say the playoffs are worth it.
Kevin Bendesky | firstname.lastname@example.org