AROUND THE IVIES: Yale, Princeton Fight for Title in Final Weekend
It’s the final weekend of Ivy League play, a strange time in Cambridge. Amidst a bevy of thesis deadlines, getting drunk on the steps of Widener has become, like multi-paragraph Facebook orations on our country’s future, oddly popular. On the horizon, eliciting more freshman apprehension and nervousness than an ABC party, is Housing Day. The momentous week will close with the official beginning to #SpringBreak2016, a tour de force in hedonism where the only acceptable attitude is a slight shrug.
The stakes couldn’t be higher in Ivy League play, however. After escaping Dartmouth last weekend, Yale is a road sweep of the Gentleman’s C’s away from at least a share of the league title. Princeton, which comes to Lavietes tonight, can at a minimum force a playoff by taking care of business in its three remaining games against the league’s middle class. For a pair with two combined losses—both to each other—in 2016, a playoff feels less likely and more inevitable.
Yet coming into the weekend, the pressure of the race appears to be weighing on both teams. The Bulldogs, which haven’t made the tournament in 54 years, needed last-minute heroics to avoid a devastating loss to Dartmouth at home on Saturday. With captain Jack Montague on leave, Yale is perilously thin at the guard position. The Tigers, coming off their second close scare with Columbia, have flirted with danger all season—using two crazy comebacks on the road to stave off near-defeats. With a team that has never been in this position, road games in Cambridge and Hanover loom as possible stumbling blocks.
For the rest of the league, the final two games are just about playing spoiler. One could say that the Lions remain mathematically alive for a share of the title, but their title hopes are maybe better viewed as Schrodinger’s cat: science tells us they are alive, but common sense knows better. Columbia’s best opportunity comes Saturday, when it hosts the shaky Bulldogs with a chance to send its superb senior class out on a high note. Given its recent string of good performances, the Lions might be a favorite were it not for its penchant to treat close games as prime opportunities to sack-tap its fan base.
Therein lies the rub of the 14-game playoff: no other conference has such tension built into the finish or such monotony woven into the journey.
For three weeks now, the other five teams have been ostensibly eliminated from the playoff race. Columbia, Yale, and Princeton are a combined 25-0 against the rest of the league, winning those games by an average of 14.6 points. It has been 13 years since a Brown-Dartmouth tilt actually affected the league’s title race.
Against this backdrop, the call for a conference tournament has grown fiercer. While change is usually suppressed in the Ivy League by arguments for history and Ancient Eight exceptionalism, insiders indicate that a four-team playoff is almost a certainty next year.
These logistics have yet to be hashed out, but the timing looks brutal. Since Penn and Princeton close every season out four days after everyone else, the tournament would need to be played in a quick and abbreviated two-day window before Selection Sunday. Like many Ivy traditions, the Quakers-Tigers game made more sense a decade ago—when it often decided championships—than, say, last year, when Princeton’s student newspaper simply decided not to cover the event.
The reasons for the tournament are less than compelling. It’s true that a conference tournament gives every team a shot at the title, but what kind of shot is that? For every case of the 2008 Georgia Bulldogs, a team that went 4-12 in conference and rode a stirring conference tourney to the title is … well, 100 cases of the 2009 Georgia Bulldogs, a 12-20 team whose most promising prospect was the unforgettable Trey Thompkins III.
Likewise, a mid-major conference like Ivy League should want its best representative at the Dance. By KenPom, the best Ivy League team has gone to the tournament each of the last 13 years, something you can’t say for comparable leagues like the Horizon or the MEAC. The league, which is a Siyani Chambers three from having split its last 10 Tournament outings, deserves more respect, and occasionally sending its middle class to the Dance will only hurt its reputation.
Yet the most compelling argument in favor of the playoff turns this logic straight on its head. By putting its four-team playoff right before Selection Sunday, the Ivy League will get a national spotlight it can’t have the first week of March. At a time where everyone is watching basketball, the Ancient Eight can edge its way into the national conversation. As I wrote yesterday, the league is already slighted nationally—inserting a tournament would drastically increase the chances of an at-large bid.
If the 2010 Cornell team or the 2014 Harvard team—probably the two best champions of the last decade—had lost in this tournament, they surely would have deserved at-large bids. Had they not gotten them, Dick Vitale—the first, but sadly not last, pioneer of “how I feel for those kids”—would simply never let the committee forget it.
For one more year, however, there is no need to worry about conference tournaments. This weekend is about Yale, Princeton, and the seniors playing their final home games. Well, at least the first two.
On to the picks: