Over the last decade, Ivy League men’s basketball has enjoyed a quasi-renaissance.
It all started in 2010 when Cornell — a perennial cellar dweller in the Ancient Eight — embarked on an unprecedented Sweet 16 run in the NCAA tournament that included victories over No. 5 Temple and No. 4 Wisconsin. While the Big Red eventually fell to John Calipari and his top-seeded Kentucky squad (headlined by current NBA star players such as John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe), Cornell sent a message that the Ivy League was a force to be reckoned with on the big stage and that the conference could hang with some of the best teams in the country.
In the 10 years since, Ivy teams have continued to knock on the door of another shocking postseason run. But when it comes to advancing past the opening weekend of the Big Dance, it’s been close but no cigar.
In 2011, Princeton suffered a narrow 59–57 loss to the Wildcats while Tommy Amaker’s Harvard squad shocked No. 3 New Mexico in 2013 and pulled off another first-round upset over Cincinnati in 2014 before falling to Arizona and Michigan State, respectively, in the next round. A year later, the Crimson nearly edged fourth-seeded North Carolina in a two-point defeat.
Yale, likewise, has demonstrated its formidability against Power Five competition with its first-ever NCAA tournament win over No. 5 Baylor in 2016 before losing 71–64 to Duke in the second round, in addition to a 79–74 loss to third-seeded LSU in the latest iteration of March Madness.
But why have Ivy League teams failed to enjoy the kind of deep and magical Cinderella runs we’ve been accustomed to seeing from other mid-major programs such as George Mason, VCU and Loyola-Chicago? The answer lies within the criteria of the NCAA tournament selection committee and usually reveals itself in the early stages of the season — a collective lack of high-profile victories in nonconference play.
Since 2000, every single Ivy League squad that earned the conference’s automatic bid has been seeded no higher than No. 11 in the NCAA tournament. Teams seeded 12th or higher boast a combined record of 4–7 while teams seeded 13th or lower lay claim to just a 1–13 mark. The simple answer to the Ivy champ earning a better seed: pick up quality wins out of conference before the Ivy slate commences.
With the 2019–20 season starting this week, I’m not sure there’s ever been a greater number of high-profile teams who are primed to get picked off by Ancient Eight foes this winter. Last season, the conference triumphed over quality competition such as Arizona State, Cal, Miami and Villanova. However, close losses such as Yale’s 109–102 double overtime defeat to Memphis and Cornell’s 63–55 loss at Syracuse hindered the Ivy League’s ability to boost its out-of-conference win percentage and conference Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) even more.
Coming into the season, the Ivy League is pegged by the RPI as the 10th best conference in the country out of 32 leagues. A quick scroll through all eight teams’ nonconference schedules will have any Ivy hoops fan salivating at the thought of notching Tier 1 and Tier 2 victories — the categories the NCAA uses to classify high-profile wins — against schools from the ACC, Big Ten and SEC.
Penn, who returns four quality starters, has winnable games at Alabama, Providence and No. 10 Villanova as well as a neutral-site matchup with UCF. Quaker head coach Steve Donahue, who led Cornell to the Sweet 16 in 2010, understands the importance of winning games like these better than anyone after his 2018 Penn squad — which went 24–9 overall and 12–2 in Ivy play — earned a No. 16 seed to the NCAA tournament only to be matched up against No. 1 Kansas.
Harvard, the preseason favorite, received votes in the inaugural AP Top 25 poll and most likely represents the Ivy League’s greatest chance of making a prolonged NCAA tournament run or even becoming a two-bid league should the Crimson be highly ranked and get knocked off in Ivy Madness.
Returning their top nine scorers from last season in addition to 2018 Ivy Player of the Year, Seth Towns, the Crimson is poised to play spoiler against top teams early on with dates against Texas A&M, Cal and UC Irvine. As much as I hate to admit it, Harvard may even sneak into the national rankings if it can get off to a 4–0 start in its first quartet of games, which all take place in the greater Boston area.
But the real X Factor that could elevate the Ivy League’s collective RPI to an all-time high is the question of whether Brown, Dartmouth or Columbia can take down a seemingly superior opponent in the first two months of the season. The three teams that usually comprise the bottom of the conference will take on quality competition such as Buffalo, Northwestern, Rutgers and St. John’s, and a single victory in one of those games — by any of those teams — would easily be a huge boon for the Ancient Eight as a whole.
Nonetheless, optimism remains high for an athletic conference traditionally associated with academic excellence. The Ivy League could very well prove its worth to the college basketball world in 2020 with a successful performance in nonconference play.
Joey Kamm | firstname.lastname@example.org