Ivy League to introduce conference basketball tournaments

Say goodbye to Ivy League basketball as we've known it since the conference was founded in 1954.

Beginning next March, the Ancient Eight hoops season will conclude with conference tournaments for the first time ever. The announcement was made official by the league office Thursday morning.

No longer will the 14-game full round robin determine the league's champion and NCAA tournament participant. Instead, the top four teams in the standings will travel to the Palestra for a knockout competition.

This keeps some amount of significance for the regular season, but not the historically high standard that has required excellence and consistency over the entire campaign.

Both the men and women will crown their champions this way - and they'll be in the same building, which will give fans an opportunity to see all the games in one place. 

The championship games will played on Selection Sunday, and the semifinals will be played the day before. In 2017, those dates will be March 11 and 12.

"The decision to add the tournament was made because we've developed a format that our schools could agree upon, and one that features the regular season and preserves the value of the regular season on many levels," Ivy League executive director Robin Harris said after the announcement was made. "Every game still does matter, because you're qualifying for the tournament and then you're also qualifying for seed... We're still going to have a regular-season champion - that's not going away. It's who our automatic qualifier is that will be determined by the tournament."

In other words, the Ivy League will still officially call its "champion" the team that wins the regular season title. That's not something you see in other conferences which have tournaments.

And if that team doesn't win the tournament, it will get an automatic NIT berth as happens in other conferences.


Harris noted that adopting a tournament "allows us to be part of March Madness." That was a short quip among the many other things she said, but it shouldn't be overlooked.

For many years, almost every basketball coach who has taken the helm of an Ivy League program - with the notable exception of those in charge at Penn, and sometimes Princeton - has expressed a desire for the league to launch conference tournaments. So too have a number of athletic directors, with Penn again at the forefront of the resistance.

But it's been an open secret that Harris has wanted to get the campaign over the line for much of her seven years at the league's helm. The only surprise about Thursday's announcement was that it came before the current season ended.

Rumors started flying at around the time of the presidents' last major meeting in December that a tournament would be launched next season. Public discussions heated up in early February. as Mike Jensen wrote at the time

Recent changes among coaches and administrators across the league gave Harris a big enough caucus to send an official proposal to the league's eight school presidents, who had the ultimate say on approval.

A key new voice was Columbia athletic director Peter Pilling, who came on board in February of 2015 (and within three weeks of taking the job talked Al Bagnoli into becoming the Lions' football coach).

Penn coach Steve Donahue also was in favor, as he told Dick Jerardi on Thursday afternoon.

Harris said Thursday that the presidents' approval didn't come until recently, and quipped that she wasn't certain the proposal would actually be approved until it was. 

I've heard the vote was cast only in the last few weeks.

Penn athletic director Grace Calhoun was on the subcomittee of ADs tasked with drawing up the plan that would be presented to the presidents.

"I am pleased that we have honored the coaches’ wishes to have a post-season opportunity in a format that continues to place high importance on the regular season," Calhoun said. "It is a special honor for the Penn community to host the inaugural championship at our iconic venue."

(You might see a few layers of nuance in those remarks.)

Harris acknowledged that having four teams in the tournament was not the only format considered. One idea was a three-team tournament in which the first-place finisher would get a bye to the final.

In a way, that already happened once before. The 2001-02 season saw Penn, Princeton and Yale tie for the title at 11-3. Yale beat Princeton in the opening playoff at the Palestra, then Penn downed the Bulldogs in the final at Lafayette.

Although there hasn't been a three-team playoff since, there has been a clear improvement in the quality of the league's teams from top to bottom over the last few years. The anti-tournament crowd used to regularly call out schools that didn't invest in their programs to the same degree as traditional men's powers Penn and Princeton.

But that changed when Donahue led Cornell to a historic triumph over the old hegemony in 2008. Donahue's departure from Ithaca after a stunning run to the Sweet 16 in 2010 cleared the way for Harvard to skyrocket to stardom under Tommy Amaker. This year, Yale finally shed its reputation as a perennial bridesmaid and won its first outright championship since 1962. Even Columbia, long renowned for its "culture of losing" and sports-averse students, has a consistent contender that plays to packed houses on Broadway.

(This context draws a bright line under Pilling's remark to the New York Times that the conference tournament will benefit the Lions because "if you get hot, you can be in the [NCAA] tournament.” Emphasizing short-term success as a contrast to long-term consistency is the kind of rhetoric that was frequently heard from Pilling's predecessors, none of whom did what was required to build the Lions into a true winner.)

There has also been a shift in power on the women's side, as Penn and Princeton have overtaken Harvard and Dartmouth at the top of the heap.

It's worth noting here that in 2010, the league launched four-team men's and women's lacrosse tournaments, The Ancient Eight has long been a lacrosse power, and believed a tournament could help keep its profile high. That belief paid off.

Harris hopes a basketball tournament can bring the league more prestige on the hardwood.

"The level of basketball the last several years, both men's and women's, has grown to a level where we're comfortable having our teams in a tournament environment," she said. "Our schools are comfortable that whoever can qualify for the tournament and then win that tournament will be a good representative of the league."

The lacrosse tournaments are played at the home of the highest overall seed. Harris said the league considered that option, as well as pursuing a neutral venue. But in the end, the league wanted to put what is likely to be its signature sporting spectacle on its signature sporting stage.

Harris dismissed any concern about giving Penn an undue home advantage by having the event at the Palestra - and the odds are high that Penn's men and women will be in their respective tournaments next season.

"The group felt very strongly that we have a historic and venerable environment within our own league, and that we should fully take advantage of having our tournament there," she said.

Given the possibility that the venue could change in future years, I asked Harris whether she felt the league's other basketball arenas would be suitable host sites.

Five of those gyms have capacities that are less then half the Palestra's 8,722 - including the homes of recent title contenders Harvard (2,195), Yale (3,100) and Columbia (3,408).

Cornell's Newman Arena seats 4,500, but is arguably the least-easily accessible campus in the league. Princeton's Jadwin Gym seats 6,854, but does so under an atmosphere-sapping geodesic dome that's approximately the size of an airplane hangar.

(I suspect that most of you reading this have been to Old Nassau have seen that for yourself.)

Harris would only say that "we're just going to evaluate and see how things go."


The presidents imposed a noteworthy condition on their approval of the tournament proposal: each team must play one fewer regular-season game, in order to balance out the time commitment on athletes missing class.

On the court, that could have an effect on teams' rankings in the RPI and other such metrics. Harris expressed a hope that teams won't decrease the quality of their non-conference schedules as a result.

"It is up to each team as to what game they don't end up playing," she said. "Our hope would be that it's going to be one of those games that does not negatively impact the RPI." 

Many Ivy League teams annually schedule Division III opponents right after their winter exams as a way of bringing players back into game shape after a week of hard studying. But that's the only practical beneit to those contests. Perhaps they'll be the ones that go.

Establishing a Saturday-Sunday schedule for the tournament also won the presidents' favor, as it was the best format for reducing missed class time.

"There are pros and cons to playing the final game on Sunday, but missed class time was a really important consideration," Harris said.


It's a safe bet that the creation of conference tournaments is a factor in the Ivy League's ongoing search for a new media rights partner. Sources I've heard from have said that ESPN and Fox Sports are the leading candidates.

My understanding is that Pilling, Yale's Tom Beckett and Dartmouth's Harry Sheehy are the members of a subcomittee of Ivy athletic directors who are in charge of getting the new rights deal done.

I asked Harris whether television coverage of the tournament would be a condition of any rights deal. She demurred.

"We did this for our student-athletes," Harris said. "We have a good history with our playoffs of having them on, particularly in recent years, our digital network as well as on other digital outlets and with some television opportunities."

In order, that's the league's subscription streaming package, ESPN3 (which carried last year's Harvard-Yale men's playoff) and Fox Sports 1 (which would have carried this year's men's playoff had there been one).

"We fully expect to be able to [get wide distribution for tournament games] and we'll explore fully our opportunities there," Harris said. "We're going to explore all of our options as we talk to various potential media partners. It's premature for me to comment at this point."

I also asked whether the league expects to make money from the event. Not surprisingly, Harris put her answer in the context of principle.

"Revenue, frankly, was not part of the conversation," she said. "We did this because it's the right thing to do for the league at this time. There will be some revenue attached to it, but that's not why this decision was made. We frankly don't have expectations there."


Now the history books are officially closed. Yale's men and Penn's women stand as the final teams that won the Ivy League the old-fashioned way: by proving over an entire conference season that they're the Ancient Eight's best. 

Here's the final tally of regular season titles won by each school:

Men

Princeton: 26 (18 outright, 4 playoff wins)
Penn: 25 (21 outright, 2 playoff wins)
Yale: 6 (3 outright, 1 playoff semifinal win)
Harvard: 5 (3 outright, 1 playoff win)
Cornell: 4 (4 outright)
Dartmouth: 2 (1 outright, 1 playoff win)
Brown: 1 (1 outright)
Columbia: 1 (0 outright, 1 playoff win)

Women

Dartmouth: 17 (10 outright, 5 playoff wins)
Harvard: 11 (7 outright)
Princeton: 8 (5 outright)
Brown: 6 (4 outright, 1 playoff win)
Penn: 4 (4 outright)
Cornell: 1 (0 outright, 1 playoff win)
Columbia: 0
Yale: 0