A two-bid Ivy League?

Harvard's reign atop the Ivy League will be challenged by Princeton this year, but could the loser still make the NCAA tournament?

Harvard’s reign atop the Ivy League will be challenged by Princeton this year, but could the loser still make the NCAA tournament?

Before the season, several Ivy League teams were battling for the title of Harvard’s top challenger. But one month in, there’s no longer any debate as to who is the league’s #2 team: After an overtime victory over Penn State today that included a 20-point comeback in the final 10 minutes, Princeton is 8-1 with two road wins against top-100 opponents. Its only defeat came by three points, at Butler, sans top player T.J. Bray; with an endless array of three-point shooters and a brutally efficient version of its eponymous offense, Princeton has exceeded anyone’s expectations to date.

Not only do the Tigers look like a legitimate threat to Harvard’s two-year reign atop the Ivy League, but their non-conference success has led to something even more interesting — real dreams that the Ivy League might send two teams to the NCAA tournament for the first time ever.

Two factors have kept the Ancient Eight from ever earning an at-large bid in the modern era. First, unlike every other conference across the nation, the Ivy League does not hold a postseason tournament. Instead, the regular-season champion — which usually has the best NCAA profile — earns the league’s automatic bid. Second, for most of the last three decades, the conference hasn’t been very good. From 2000 (as far back as I can find data) through 2010, the Ivy League ranked better than 18th only once in conference RPI (14th, in 2002), and it spent most of those years in the mid-to-high 20s. So when the league did produce great teams (1994 Penn, 1998 Princeton, 2010 Cornell), they were rarely challenged over the course of a 14-game regular season.

In recent years, though, the league as a whole has improved considerably — allowing for a couple of close two-bid calls. In 2010-11, Harvard tied Princeton for the Ivy title, but lost the automatic bid on a playoff buzzer beater. As it stood, the Crimson had an RPI of 35 on Selection Sunday, the best of any team excluded from the field — and its profile included a three-point loss at Michigan without Kyle Casey. If Casey had been healthy in that game, or if Harvard had found four more points another way, the Crimson would have entered the bubble with a 24-5 record and an RPI possibly in the twenties — a very tough profile to leave out.

The very next year, Harvard could have again earned an at-large bid if things played out differently. Harvard and Penn each had two Ivy League losses until the Quakers lost their season finale at Princeton. If Penn had won that game, then beaten the Crimson in a playoff, Harvard would have had a 26-5 record, an RPI somewhere around 40, a neutral-court victory over 3-seed Florida State and the “eye test” points that come from having had a top 25 ranking earlier in the year. That would have almost certainly trumped the profile of Iona, which earned the final at-large bid.

Still, even in its strongest years, the Ivy League has never really had a team in serious bubble discussion, never mind one that actually earned an at-large bid. So you’ll have to excuse some of us for starting the #2BidIvy campaign a wee bit prematurely, given that Selection Sunday is more than three months away.

Let’s start from the wildest scenarios and work our way backward: There is no doubt that a two-bid Ivy League is mathematically possible. If Harvard and Princeton both win out in non-conference play, split their head-to-head games and tie for first place at 13-1, and if Princeton wins the playoff, Harvard would be a no-brainer at-large selection: It would be 28-3, with a win at UConn, an RPI in the mid-20s*, and probably a national ranking for most of January. (Heck, if every single result falls right, a three-bid Ivy might be possible, depending on your definition of “possible.”)

*2014 RPI estimates are based on RPIforecast.com’s projections.

That’s simply not going to happen. Harvard and Princeton each have two tough non-league games in the next three weeks, and everybody in the conference except Cornell has shown at least flashes of spryness. (No Ivy team has gone 13-1 since Cornell in 2010, when the league was much weaker overall.)

A more realistic scenario looks like this: Harvard and Princeton each enter Ivy play with two losses, then tie for first place at 12-2 in league play. (That happens to be Harvard’s exact Pomeroy projection, though a few games above Princeton’s expectation.) The resulting playoff, with an automatic bid on the line, might be the best Ivy League game of all time. But would the loser get into the Big Dance anyway?

If that loser was Harvard, I think the answer is yes. The Crimson would be 26-5, with a likely RPI in the high 30s. Certainly, a win at UConn in January would make that profile stand out, and last year’s tournament victory and this year’s preseason hype wouldn’t hurt, even if those factors shouldn’t officially affect the selection process. But if Harvard doesn’t beat UConn, it wouldn’t have a top 50 non-conference win, and there aren’t even any sure candidates yet for top-100 wins.

Meanwhile, Princeton would have a tougher time earning an at-large bid, with a 24-5 record that doesn’t include any marquee games. Bucknell and Penn State could be top-100 wins — both on the road, to boot — and the Tigers’ RPI would also likely be in the high 30s, but Princeton will be an under-the-radar team all year, which will hurt them in the “eye test” (which, too often, is a euphemism for “are they on national television all year?”).

These would definitely be bubble profiles — but they’re profiles that have been on the good side of the bubble in recent years. Last year, Middle Tennessee State (28-5, 28 RPI, #15 conference) made the cut with no top-50 wins; the year before, Iona (25-7, 40 RPI, #17 conference) did the same. With the caveat that few teams have met these criteria, in the last four years, the only team with six or fewer losses and a top-50 RPI to miss the tournament was … Harvard in 2011.

That might not be a coincidence. I think an Ivy League bubble team (particularly if it’s Princeton) might be held to a higher standard for two reasons. First, I don’t believe everybody on the selection committee will see the Ivy League for what it is now: a legitimate top 15 league and one of the best true mid-major conferences in the nation. The postseason success of Harvard and Cornell has helped the Ivy’s profile, but old impressions are hard to break.

Second, it seems to me that the MTSU and Iona selections were, to some degree, efforts to reward teams that got “screwed” by the conference tournament system. Many people think it unfair when teams have a great regular season, win their conference, and then get upset in a one-and-done conference tournament — the “Small Conference Entertainment Complex,” as Andy Glockner wrote last year — and while I have no proof of this, I think that may have factored into the bubble decisions. Of course, the Ivy League has no conference tournament — so even though Harvard or Princeton would have also had a great regular season, won (a share of) its conference, then been upset in a single-elimination playoff, I doubt it would receive the same boost.

But if that bubble discussion happens, whatever the result, it will be great for the Ivy League. So although it’s still a longshot right now, let the #2BidIvy hashtag roll.

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