Regular season men’s and women’s champions in conferences that typically place only their automatic qualifiers in the NCAA Tournament face a special strain of March Madness.
Earning that automatic bid requires winning the conference’s postseason tournament; the regular-season titlists, no matter how dominant, face the crucible of winning on demand to earn a spot in the bracket.
The Ivy League, which has always awarded its automatic bid to its regular-season champions, is about to become a full-fledged, card carrying member of March Madness. This Saturday and Sunday in the Palestra in Philadelphia, the Ivy will stage four-team men’s and women’s tournaments with the winners earning the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
“We discussed having postseason tournaments for years and years,” Ivy League commissioner Robin Harris said. “I think what tipped the scales is that the quality of play has improved to the point that we’d benefit from having more teams involved.
“We’ll have six more men’s and women’s teams who will be involved in the March Madness tournament atmosphere than we would have had in the past.”
The men’s tournament’s top seed will be Princeton, which has won 17 in a row and finished 14-0 in Ivy League play, the 14th perfect season in conference play.
The Tigers’ “reward” will be a semifinal game with Penn – and, yes, the Palestra is the Quakers’ home court. Penn overcame starting 0-6 in Ivy play and has won six of its last eight.
On the women’s side, Penn won its second straight regular-season title and is 12-1 in conference play headed into Tuesday’s season finale against Princeton.
“There are many who still believe that the regular-season champion, the team that went through the round-robin schedule with the best record, has proven itself and should be the one to get the automatic bid,” Harris said.
The four-team formats were chosen to reward the top four teams in the standings and continue to place emphasis on regular-season performance.
The closest the Ivy had come to its own conference tourney madness occurred with occasional single-game tie-breaking playoffs to decide a league champion. In 2015, Yale and Harvard met in the Palestra with the Crimson taking a 53-51 decision. The electric atmosphere created by two quality teams battling for an NCAA bid helped lead to fully joining March Madness.
“The March Madness feel is something that’s been missing in the Ivy League,” Columbia women’s coach Megan Griffith told the New York Times. “Everybody gets that exposure now.”
Harris points out that the two days in Philadelphia this weekend will be the kind of “family gathering” celebration that other conferences experience. From a competitive stand point, it’s high risk, high reward.
The risk: Belmont (Ohio Valley), Monmouth (Metro Atlantic) and Oakland (Horizon) all finished on top of the standings but were eliminated from NCAA consideration in conference tournaments.
The reward? Penn, which lost twice to Princeton by double digits, earned a spot in this weekend’s tournament thanks to a tie-breaking 3-pointer in the final seconds to beat Harvard Saturday. In previous seasons, that outcome would have been mostly meaningless. Instead, the Quakers are still dreamers.
“More of our games matter at the end of the season,” Harris said. “We wanted to balance the tournament with four teams, make the regular season still matter while adding more opportunity and excitement to this time of year. We want the teams who make our tournament to feel like they’ve earned it.”
The Princeton men and the Penn women each need two more victories to make the NCAA Tournament. The excitement, anticipation and possible heart break is a major reason why the third month on the calendar is owned by college basketball. And now includes the Ivy League.
Wendell Barnhouse is a freelance writer based in Dallas. Follow him on Twitter at @WBBBPB.