Should Ivy League basketball have a conference tournament?

It’s the eternal topic of Ancient Eight debate: Should the Ivy League, like every other Division-I conference, have a postseason tournament to decide its automatic NCAA bid? The pros and cons of small-conference tournaments have become a national conversation this month, as a horde of 1-seeds lost during Championship Fortnight, depriving the NCAA tournament of many of the best mid-majors. In response, some have argued that other leagues should follow the Ivy’s lead and send its regular-season champion to the Big Dance.

Within the Ivy League, there has been some momentum in the other direction — most recently in the spring of 2012, when the coaches formally proposed a four-team basketball tournament (modeled after the conference’s lacrosse tournaments, which were instituted in 2010) that was ultimately rejected by the league’s athletic directors. With two powerful ADs, Princeton’s Gary Walters and Penn’s Steve Bilsky, retiring this year — and with four new presidents, who ultimately have to sign off on any tournament proposal, having taken office since 2012 — the idea may resurface in coming years.

This won’t be a #HotSportsTake for or against a conference tournament. My own feelings are esoteric enough to be of no real value — I’m personally neutral to the idea in the long run, and my hunch is that it would be a slight positive for the league overall, but I don’t actually want to see it happen until a #2BidIvy happens the hard way under the current system. But I do have thoughts on some specific arguments for or against a conference tournament:

A tournament would send the best team less often (but not by as much as you might think). The logic is pretty simple — the best team is more likely to come out on top of a 14-game, double-round-robin season than a two- or three-game tournament. And it’s undeniably good for a conference to be represented by its best team, which has a better chance of advancing in the NCAA tournament.

According to research, however, the difference between a tournament and a conference season isn’t actually that large. Ken Pomeroy found in 2010 that the best team (by his ratings) won the regular-season title 68 percent of the time and the conference tournament 58 percent of the time. Using a more rigorous and Ivy-specific simulation, Michael James (@ivybball on Twitter) estimated a similar effect, with the best team about 10-20% more likely to win the regular-season title than a tournament. The truth is, in some years, the best team doesn’t win the regular-season title (see: this year’s WAC); in others, such as the 2011 or ’13 Ivy Leagues, it’s not even clear who the best team is, so either method is likely to yield a reasonable contender.

This is still a real argument against a conference tournament — the best team would win the automatic bid less frequently, probably on the order of once or twice a decade. The best example, of course, is Cornell’s Sweet 16 run in 2010. The Big Red was clearly the Ivy League’s best NCAA representative, but it almost certainly wouldn’t have received an at-large bid, and it would’ve had only about a 70-75% chance of winning a conference tournament.

A tournament would also make two bids more likely. Of course, for the very best teams, there would be another lifeline: An at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. A two-bid Ivy wouldn’t be such a novelty in this world — there’s a reason you didn’t see any #2BidSunBelt hashtags last year — but teams like 2012 or 2014 Harvard, 1998 Princeton or 1994 Penn would have had at-large-caliber profiles with an Ivy tournament loss. That’s especially true in the 68-team era, in which the committee has looked favorably on league-winning mid-majors, such as 2012 Iona, 2013 Middle Tennessee State and, perhaps, this year’s Green Bay.

In fact, Green Bay shows why it can be impossible to tell whether a tournament helps or hurts until Selection Sunday. The absolute worst-case scenario for a mid-major league is for the 37th-best at-large team to lose in its conference tournament, but the best-case scenario is for the 36th-best at-large team to do so. In the former case, a team with the ability to make a deep NCAA run never gets the chance. In the latter, however, that team still makes the tournament — and its conference gets a second bid, a second game on national television, and another revenue share.

It’s harder to estimate the effect of a conference tournament on multiple bids, but given the Ivy’s recent history, I’d suggest the league would get a second bid once a decade or so. Given the uncertainty in both estimates, my opinion is that the best-team effect and the two-bid effect roughly cancel each other out (though if the Ivy as a whole keeps improving, two bids will become more likely).

A conference tournament is not unfair. As mentioned above, there is a practical argument that the regular-season champion is more likely to be the best team. But there’s also a more emotional or moral anti-tournament argument — the feeling that a regular-season champion team with the most regular-season wins deserves to advance to the NCAA tournament, and that it’s unfair for them to lose that right in a single-elimination playoff.

I understand where this argument comes from, but I don’t find it convincing. Sure, a 14-game regular-season sample is larger and more predictive than a two-game tournament. But the goal isn’t just to pick the truly best team, or even the team that played the best; if it was, we would incorporate non-conference results, margin of victory, and any other information about each team’s performance.

More to the point, the entire ethos of March — and of the postseason in any sport — is not to reward the best team, or the team that proved itself over the course of the season; it’s to crown a champion with entertaining head-to-head games or series. Connecticut clearly wasn’t the best team over the course of the 2010-11 season, but I don’t think anyone would say they didn’t deserve their championship after winning the NCAA tournament. Why are conference tournaments different?

Players aren’t clamoring for a tournament. In 2012, Harvard coach Tommy Amaker told the Harvard Crimson, “I think more than anything else if you polled or asked our players, not just our current players but former Ivy-League basketball players, I can’t imagine that many of them wouldn’t be in favor of the opportunity to play in their postseason conference tournament.” But when asked several Ivy players that year, I found more against a tournament than for it.

The sample was admittedly small and nonrandom (though it did include Amaker’s own Keith Wright, who was against a tournament). And while player opinion shouldn’t be the only factor — I do believe athletes should generally have a much larger say in college athletics, but in this case, I suspect players in any league would support their status quo — it shows that there certainly isn’t overwhelming demand for change among the athletes themselves.

A tournament would be fun as hell. Imagine if Harvard was scheduled to play Columbia in a semifinal tonight, with the winner taking on Yale or a surging Princeton tomorrow for the Ivy’s automatic bid? Wouldn’t that be awesome? (A tournament would surely be four teams, and probably played in the #1-seed’s city, if not necessarily its home gym; that model has worked well in men’s and women’s lacrosse.)

Will a conference tournament detract from the regular season? I’m still not sure what to think of this question, even though it might be the most important factor. I don’t identify with any other conference (or, truthfully, any other pro or college sport) quite like Ivy League basketball, so I don’t feel like I’m in a great position to judge this. I do think some excitement would have been lost from this season’s Harvard-Yale games, or the overtime games each played against others while sharing the lead, if a conference tournament was waiting after the season.

But the regular-season title would still have some meaning, and the stakes would be higher for other games. With a four-team tournament, Columbia, Princeton and Brown would have been fighting for the final two spots on this season’s final weekend, while Harvard might have been trying to lock up an at-large safety net. I don’t know if maximizing the extrinsic “meaning” of each game should really be the ultimate goal, but from that standpoint, a four-team tournament with the #1-seed hosting isn’t a bad alternative to winner-take-all.

Does the Ivy League have a comparative advantage right now? Two years ago, Columbia coach Kyle Smith — at the time, the leader of the coaches’ tournament proposal — told me, “I think we’re naive if we don’t think that having our product on those national TV opportunities on ESPN makes a difference … Especially on Championship Week and tournament time, that’s a window for people to see it. We usually go silent during Championship Week. I think it’s another opportunity for us to be seen.”

This is pure speculation on my part, but I wonder if Smith had it backward. Sure, Championship Week is a big time for college basketball, but will adding conference tournament games #300, #301 and #302 really give the Ivy League lots of exposure? A buzzer-beating finish would certainly get attention, but otherwise, I have a hard time seeing the Ivy League being a big draw for the casual hoops fan, especially since it would likely happen when major-conference tournaments are reaching their apex.

But right now, in a sport for which March Madness is king, the Ivy League is the only conference playing games in January and February that will directly determine who shows up in fans’ brackets. Even with less general interest in college basketball, I feel that the Ivy League should be able to leverage those games to get more attention before Championship Week even begins.

Shortly after Smith’s comment, the Ivy League announced a two-year basketball contract with NBC Sports Network. Given the explosion of national sports networks and the rising interest in mid-major leagues, it’s likely such an agreement would have happened with or without a conference tournament. Still, exposure is less of a concern for the league now than it was two years ago — and I wonder if the Ivy might be able to get more of it in February than in the first half of March.

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2 Responses to Should Ivy League basketball have a conference tournament?

  1. New Approach says:

    Here’s an overly simple solution, but one that has merit from many standpoints. Declare Harvard the Ivy champion in perpetuity. All eight teams play a double round robin and then the top four teams of the other seven non-Harvard programs conduct a playoff amongst themselves, with the usual advantage of home court for the highest seeded team. The winner of that mini-tournament then plays Harvard for the automatic bid. In most years, Harvard will win the single game playoff and go to the NCAA tournament. But every once in a while, Harvard will slip up in the playoff but still be eligible for an at-large bid. That’s when the Ivies will finally get their coveted second bid. In every case, the League champion will be Harvard until the conference AI policy is modified.

  2. tigerclarkc says:

    “March Madness” is king in this sport for the same reason that D1 power conference football is so popular: MONEY. The purpose of conference tournaments is to raise revenue, especially in multi-bid leagues. “Exposure” and “leverage” are terms of little relevance to policy makers in our League, and that is as it should be. Participation in the NCAA tournament is a wonderful reward for a season of excellent play. Even an ardent fan of the Princeton Tigers, as I am, would blanch at the prospect of going to the tournament with a 2-0 record in the proposed Ivy tourney after an 8-6 record in the 14 Game Tournament. I believe the talent level across the League is quite high, as is demonstrated, ironically enough, by the fact that 5 of our teams are still playing. My answer to the question posed by this essay: no.

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