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Change in the air?

Ivy League may add postseason tourney to its lineup

Posted: Thursday February 22, 2007 9:22AM; Updated: Thursday February 22, 2007 9:22AM
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While reading through yet another brilliant article written by Pete Thamel in the New York Times, I was struck by a brief item that appeared in Pete's college basketball spotlight column on Sunday. The item contained a quote from Brown coach Craig Robinson (aka Barack Obama's brother-in-law) indicating a postseason tournament in the Ivy League may be in the offing. "It's closer than I would have ever imagined it," Robinson said.

The Ivy is the only conference in Division I that does not have a tournament. That means its regular season champ gets the league's automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. While I've always appreciated the traditionalist logic behind that policy, I also believe the league is missing out. Conference tournaments are a blast. They bring all the players, coaches, writers, fans, alumni, bands and cheerleaders to one colorful setting, where something truly meaningful (an NCAA berth) is on the line.

I checked in with Ivy League commissioner Jeff Orleans to see how close this really was to happening. While Orleans began by cautioning it's "less [close] than Craig's comments might have suggested," he did tell me the conference has taken its first tangible step toward launching a tournament. A subcommittee of four athletic directors has been assigned to research the idea and come up with different models of implementation. The group will present its findings at the league's athletic directors meeting in Cooperstown, N.Y., this May. "In the past, the directors have just talked about this idea in the abstract," Orleans said. "This is the first serious detailed consideration they've undertaken."

It would be easy to pan this initiative if it were being driven by greed. But the reality is, an Ivy League tournament would be more likely to lose money than net a profit, at least in the beginning. The tournament would do better financially if the league used a format placing all the games at the site of the higher-seeded teams (which would guarantee higher ticket sales), but then they would lose out on the fun of having all eight schools assemble in one place.

Naturally, the main argument against this is it would unfairly require a team to win three games in three days after it has proven it is the best team by winning the regular season. Not surprisingly, the two most vocal opponents of a postseason tournament in the past have been Penn and Princeton, which have combined to win 38 of the last 40 regular season titles. Now that Princeton's fortunes have faltered the last couple of years, and Fran Dunphy is no longer the coach at Penn, there is some indication those two schools have become more malleable. Orleans also told me the NCAA's decision to extend postseason NIT bids to all Division I teams that won their leagues' regular season title but lost in the tournament has made the idea more palatable.

Of course, even if the Ivy League's athletic directors vote unanimously in favor of having a postseason tournament, they would still have to get the idea past the presidents. Remember, this is a conference that doesn't hand out athletic scholarships. Academic concerns are so paramount that conference games are scheduled on Fridays and Saturdays. Jamming a Thursday-Friday-Saturday tournament into the last weekend of the season would mean missed class time, not to mention lots of logistical headaches.

For any piece of legislation to pass, six out of the eight Ivy presidents would have to approve. Thus, it might behoove the AD's to begin by floating a trial balloon at the presidents' spring meeting to hear their concerns. They could then go back to the drawing board to try to address those concerns before asking for an up-or-down vote next year.

If the Ivy League does decide to have a postseason tournament, it will no doubt be wistfully characterized in many quarters as the end of an era, if not a sign of the apocalypse. I can't say I'd be thrilled if it happens, but to be honest, I wouldn't mind going. It's always nice to see college kids having fun this time of year, and I bet I'd see some really exciting basketball.

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