Thursday, April 17, 2014
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The right way to crown a champion

The Ivy League's preseason men's basketball conference call offers a new chance to debate whether the Ancient Eight should have a conference tournament.

The right way to crown a champion

Considering how often I've written about Penn football and basketball on here, you've probably figured out by now that the Ivy League doesn't change its ways very much.

There are a lot of things the Ancient Eight does that I disagree with, most notably its refusal to allow its football champion to compete in the I-AA playoffs.

But if there's one thing I hope the league does not change, it is the awarding of its automatic NCAA Tournament bid to the regular-season champion.

It's a subject I've discussed plenty here on the blog before, and I'll go further into why I believe what I do shortly. But with a new season upon us, I figured today's conference call with the league's eight men's basketball coaches offered a good chance to get their views on the issue.

You can hear all of them in the audio player below; their remarks are listed in the order in which they appeared on the call. Here are some highlights:

Cornell's Steve Donahue, whose team was 14-0 in conference play last season:

I am for a conference tournament because I think it's the best thing for our student athletes. I just think it's an experience that they would relish. I do think we need to do it right. I would hate to split it up at different sites. I would like to have it at one site and just honor the season and have a great competition there. If that's not possible, then maybe it isn't a good idea. But if it's done the right way, I'm all for it.

Penn's Glen Miller, who spent seven years at Brown before coming to Penn:

Personally, if the athletes want a conference tournament, then I would definitely support it. We're coaching for the athletes and I would assume that they all want it, but you never know what they feel. My only concern is that when you are in a one-bid conference, I want to see the best team come out of it. You take a team like Cornell last year, who executed and played extremely well the entire and went 14-0, I think it would be a shame if a team like Cornell last year didn't go to the NCAA Tournament.

Yale's James Jones, in his 10th season in charge of the Bulldogs:

I would certainly be in favor of it; it would be great for everybody involved. If you take a look at the NIT, there's nobody in the tournament that looks like us in terms of the teams that get accepted. For us to sit back and think we're going to get a bid into the NIT is very difficult, but the only way is if our conference champion didn't get into the NCAA Tournament... In any event, it's something that I'm all for, but understanding the hurdles that would have to be crossed for us to get there, it's hard to believe it will ever happen.

Brown's Jesse Agel, who is about to start his first season as the Bears' head coach:

Having come from a conference that had it, I thought it was a great thing. And we have the tradition of not having it, so it's kind of neat that every single conference game is very, very important ... But personally, I would love to do it. I think it would be great for the kids to have something at the end of the season, and there's nothing like the excitement of a conference championship game.

Agel played at Vermont and served as an assistant to Catamounts coach Tom Brennan for 17 years before spending two years as an assistant to Craig Robinson, who took the Oregon State job over the summer.

Princeton's Sydney Johnson, who played for the Tigers from 1993 to 1997:

I'm undecided. As a player, I remember the disappointment that I had in terms of not moving on as a freshman and sophomore moving on to the post-season, and that really stuck with me... I think what needs to drive the conversation in terms of post-season play is what format are we talking about? Presuming Cornell wins the league, which is a terrific team [and] a terrific coaching staff, do we all go up to Ithaca? Do we go to Jadwin Gym or the Palestra, two great places to play, to host a tournament? Do we try to rent the Boston Garden?

On whether having byes in the tournament would affect his opinion:

I like the byes, and the idea that you have to reward a team like Cornell. If it's a one-bid conference, you've got to reward these teams that are showing excellence in the regular season... [If] you introduce a tournament, you've got to find a way where we're still rewarding the best team. I hope that doesn't get lost in the conversation.

Here's what I think.

There is a rising chorus of voices in college basketball that says that the regular season is irrelevant because all of the big games happen in the NCAA Tournament. Well, in the Ivy League, regular season games truly do matter.

Yes, they matter much more in January than they do in March for most of the league's teams. And yes, not having a tournament means the conference isn't guaranteed an appearance on ESPN at 2:30 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon for a tournament championship game.

But not having a conference tournament also means that the Ivy League's champion has truly earned its berth in the NCAA Tournament. If another team whose record and RPI are far worse than the regular season champion wins the tournament, that team's tournament seed - and chance of winning - will be lower.

For example, the 2002-03 Penn team that won the Ivy League with a perfect 14-0 record got a 12-seed. Had Ugonna Onyekwe and company lost in the first round of the conference tournament to 0-14 Columbia, who knows what kind of NCAA Tournament seed the league champion would have received.

I don't just believe in this for the Ivy League, either. I realize there are a lot of one-bid leagues out there who only get on national TV for their tournament championship game, and I realize that a number of mid-major conferences have benefitted from getting two good teams into the tournament instead of one great one.

But if it was up to me, every conference - even the BCS big boys - would give its automatic NCAA Tournament berth to its regular season champion.

I'm sure the BCS schools would be unhappy about the loss of TV and ticket revenue, but I'm also not against giving those schools two automatic berths if the regular season champion doesn't win the tournament.

I can't imagine a scenario in which a BCS-conference regular season champion wouldn't merit an at-large bid, so having this rule wouldn't affect the rest of the field of 65.

Now having said all this, there is one factor that counters a lot of the argument I've just made: the NIT. I thought Johnson and Jones argued that point very well, and given the way the NIT is structured now it has a lot of credence.

Johnson also introduced the question of where the tournament would be held, which is another huge kettle of fish to deal with.

Because the NIT gives automatic bids to regular season conference champions that do not win their tournaments, the Ivy League would stand a much better chance of increasing the number of teams that make the postseason if it had a conference tournament.

So a team such as that '03 Penn squad would have a postseason, and a team of that caliber would have probably done pretty well against NIT-caliber competition.

I'm still not in favor of the Ivy League having a conference tournament, but after today, I'm more willing to consider it now than I've ever been.

I would like to hear from the Penn fans out there and also from fans of the region's other schools that do play in conference tournaments. What would it mean to you if the Big East or Atlantic 10 gave its automatic berth to its regular-season champion? Do the Drexel fans out there think the CAA benefits from having a conference tournament?



A few other interesting quotes from this morning...

- Joe Jones on the news that former La Salle player and Philadelphia native Brian Grimes will miss the season after injuring his ACL at the very start of the team's first practice of the season:

He was going to be a big catalyst for us, there's no doubt about it. We've had a lot of guys get hurt in the past five year's I've been here, but when he went down in the first five minutes of the first practice, you should have seen the faces of his teammates. I think that's a telling tale of what we lost when he went down. I'm hoping he can come back and be as good as he was this past summer.

- Tommy Amaker on on having, as the New York Times wrote last month, "called five players into his office before classes began in early September and told them they no longer had spots on the team":

We didn't cut anyone... We were adjusting our roster and offered opportunities for [the] youngsters. That was all taken care of and was done through a manner with proper mechanisms and documented as such.

I ask this question because I genuinely do not know the intricacies of the rules around this sort of thing: what are the "proper mechanisms" at a school which does not have athletic scholarships from which players who leave teams might need to be released?

Of course there has to be a process of some kind, but Amaker's words struck me as a rather technical answer to the question.

- Glen Miller on the big disparity in endowment sizes between Harvard, Princeton, Yale and the rest of the Ivy League, a subject that is rather inside baseball as far as this blog is concerned but has been a subject of much discussion within Penn circles:

There is a lot of disparity in financial aid in this day and age, and I just think here at Penn we're going to do what we need to do to be competitive from a financial aid standpoint. Obviously, the schools that have the largest endowments are going to consistently come through with the best financial aid packages, but I think we all know what we're dealing with and we're trying to make a positive and not let it hurt our recruiting.   

This matters because without any athletic scholarships, schools can offer as much financial aid as they are able to in recruiting athletes, and the playing field is not necessarily level. Again, not something that matters to those of you who don't follow Penn closely, but I've been asked by some readers to report on whether the subject was discussed today.

Okay, that's enough. I'll talk to you again tomorrow morning from New York.

UPDATE: Thanks to the league office for posting the press conference audio on its website. It turns out I had accidentally put the Princeton sound file on the Yale playlist track, and that's now been fixed.



Jonathan Tannenwald Philly.com
About this blog
Soft Pretzel Logic is Philly.com's college sports blog, with a primary focus on the University of Pennsylvania. You'll also see coverage of the Big 5, other major college sports events in the region, and the annual Penn Relays track and field meet.

Reach Jonathan at jtannenwald@phillynews.com or 215-854-2330.

Jonathan Tannenwald Philly.com
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