For Love Of Ivy
The Ivy League race is a purist's dream, without a tournament to dilute it
The last conference season that matters is headed for the most gripping finish in its 48-year history and not a second of the drama will be seen on national TV. Such is the beauty—and the curse—of the Ivy League, the lone holdout of the 31 conferences to award its automatic NCAA tournament bid to its regular-season champion. If Perm and Yale both win their remaining league games, and Princeton wins all but its rematch with Penn at the Palestra in Philadelphia, there will be a three-way tie for first place, and an unprecedented playoff will be used to determine who will get the league's berth in the NCAAs.
In an age when many conference tournaments are lamer than ever (does 16-13 Iowa really deserve a chance to salvage another underachieving season by winning the Big Ten tournament?), the Ivy race is a hoops purist's dream. So why do all but one of the Ivy League's eight coaches want to abandon the current system and adopt a postseason tourney like everyone else?
The answer requires lessons in history and philosophy. History, for starters, because Penn and Princeton have monopolized the league by winning 31 of the last 33 Ivy tides. "I want to do what's best for the league," says Penn coach Fran Dunphy, a surprising tournament supporter, "and this would give kids who play on the other teams a reason to keep plugging away." As for philosophy, ponder this question: Does a league exist if it never appears on ESPN's Championship Week? "We recruit against coaches who tell kids, 'The Ivy League doesn't have a conference tournament. They're not even on ESPN,' " says Yale coach James Jones. "Let's give our guys an opportunity. Talk to the people at Princeton. They're the big snag."
In truth the league's school presidents would decide the matter, and they shown no interest in increasing missed class time. Tigers coach John Thompson III, the lone dissenter among Ivy coaches, makes perfect sense when he says, "If you're going to send one team to the NCAA tournament, you should send your best team over the length of your conference season." After all, fairness is paramount in the Ivy League, which is so blessedly equitable that league rules include provisions for breaking an eight-way tie. (Only then would there be a league tournament.)
While even John Nash might have a hard time computing the odds of that scenario occurring, the prospect of a scintillating postseason m�nage � trois should be enough to captivate the Ivy League's beautiful minds. In games played on a neutral court, Princeton would face Yale, with the winner playing Penn two days later for the NCAA berth. (The Quakers would get the bye thanks to their 3-1 record against the other two first-place teams.)
In other words it would be a playoff for the ages. "Hey, Fran," Jones told Dunphy minutes after Penn's 72-63 win over the Elis last Saturday had evened their season series. "Let's play again." More power to them if they meet in a playoff, but otherwise why diminish the last regular season that matters for another meaningless conference tournament?
Fight for Final NCAA Bids
Surprises on The Bubble
Michigan State has spent the last few weeks struggling to stay in the hunt for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, but it wasn't until early last week, as the Spartans were preparing to face Minnesota, another Big Ten club hoping for a bid, that coach Tom Izzo mentioned the b word to his players. "I told our guys, at some point you have to beat these other bubble teams," Izzo says. "Before then I didn't want to mention it, because we're so young, but right now you have to put everything on the line."
Michigan State helped its tournament chances by defeating the Gophers 74-55 last Thursday and three days later further bolstered them by knocking off Indiana 57-54 to improve to 17-10 (8-6 in the league). Jockeying for a bid late in the season is an unfamiliar position for the Spartans, who have gone to the last three Final Fours, but Michigan State is one of several teams dealing with such surprising circumstances.