Is more change coming from the Ivy League?

By Jonathan Tannenwald

A graduate of Columbia and Harvard has spent much of this basketball season talking about making big changes in the country. Now, as another NCAA Tournament looms, the league in which those schools participate once again finds itself discussing whether it should make a big change in how it operates its basketball season.

The Ivy League is the only conference in Division I that does not award its NCAA Tournament bid by way of a tournament. Instead, the regular season champion is the team that goes to the field of 64.

This setup has long been a topic of much discussion among the league's coaches, administrators and fans, as well as reporters who cover the Ancient Eight hoops scene. Every year, talk of holding a tournament grows louder as March draws closer.

On a trip to Princeton, N.J., last week to see the Tigers' men's team renew its longstanding rivalry with Penn, I stopped by the Ivy League's office to talk about this and other subjects. While that conversation was off the record, it reminded me that I'd been sitting on a set of on-the-record remarks from the league's women's basketball coaches for a few weeks.

They come from a conference call held with the league's women's basketball coaches last month, just as league play was getting started. Between the blog migration, Mel's trip to Indianapolis and my own work here at, I hadn't had time to post those quotes until now.

I cover the Ivy League a lot, so the debate over whether the conference should have a tournament is something that I've paid close attention to for a long time. But I think that the league's course of action on this issue can be instructive for other one-bid leagues as they try to improve their chances of winning games in the NCAA Tournament.

If you're interested in reading more about this subject, the league's men's coaches talked about the issue on a conference call before the season started. You can find those quotes at my blog, Soft Pretzel Logic, and also read my own views on the subject.

Since we have comments enabled on the blog now, I'd be interested to hear your opinions on whether conference tournaments are good or bad for NCAA Tournament seeding.

Jean Marie Burr, Brown

We've had a number of discussions on trying to move in that direction. It's important that we're all on the same page... [The current setup is] a little unique and makes it exciting. It's what we do, it's what we're in, and time and discussion will take a change. But I think it distinguishes us in a big way from other conferences nationally and it's a great opportunity to have that kind of feeling each weekend.

I asked whether the women's teams can adopt a playoff without the men's teams doing so.

I think it would be good if we're all on the same page. Can we do it? I think that's a question for the Ivy League office. But yes, procedurally, in terms of the way the rules are passed, we could make that vote and it could get approved. It's a remote chance but that possibility is there. It would be a much stronger position if both the men and women were behind it 100 percent, and then our administrators and athletic directors were pushing it for us. When you have that kind of force behind us you have a better chance of making that step.

Paul Nixon, Columbia

My feelings on the tournament are I think it would be a tremendous opportunity for our players to be involved in one of those if we were ever able to start one. I think that basketball is a tournament sport. Championships are typically determined by some tournament format. Even in the professional level, the playoff format is a tournament, it's just a tournament of series games.

So I think that our situation is unique - I heard what Coach Burr said and I agree with her in that we do relish the opportunity to sort of in some ways be like college football, where every game really counts in the Ivy League, and you can't stub your toe in the first couple weeks and not have it come back and potentially haunt you later on in the season.

Our players understand that every game is extremely important and every weekend is extremely important, and I think that we look at it as a positive thing being the only Division I conference without a tournament. It means that our regular season champion is really the champion, and it's not just the No. 1 seed.

In response to this, Mel asked what Nixon would think of a a four-team tournament, though he did so not knowing that the Ivy League was to announce within the next 24 hours that it would hold four-team tournaments in men's and women's lacrosse beginning in 2010.

The effect of this news on other sports has yet to be determined, but the consensus among the lacrosse coaches - who were the chief advocates for the tournament - is that it will improve the participating teams' RPI figures. Then again, the Ivy League has a number of nationally-ranked lacrosse teams, including a Penn women's team that has made the national championship game each of the last two seasons.

The women's NIT is a fine event, but I think that we are committed as a coaching group, at least on the women's side, that if we do begin a postseason tournament, that we want to make sure that all eight teams are involved in that tournament. Whatever format the tournament ends up potentially taking, we feel like it's important for the positive experience of all the student athletes that all eight teams be involved and that they all have an opportunity to compete.

Dayna Smith, Cornell

I asked whether winning the title last season affected her view of whether the league should have a tournament.

No, I've always believed that the conference should have a tournament. When I was an assistant at Penn, we went 14-0 [in 2000-01] and we probably won seven games by a total of five points or less, and it was still something I thought the student-athletes should have the opportunity to experience. I think if you're one of the top teams in the league, you should receive some type of reward for being that in the tournament. But if you're a good team and you won the regular season, you should be able to do that for a few more games. And if you don't, then another team deserves to go.

On how many teams should participate:

I definitely believe it should be all eight teams. It's tough whenever you have four or five losses in the Ivy League and you know that your chances of winning the championship are pretty much over, and that might be with a month remaining in the season...

It would be wonderful to have those players have the opportunity to truly play for something.

Chris Wielgus, Dartmouth

I've always been in favor of all eight participants in a tournament with the caution that I think it's very, very important that the Ivy League and similar leagues put forth their best possible team to participate in the NCAA Tournament, and I believe the Ivy has done that...

Part of that comes from being seasoned by playing back-to-back and having a championship weekend every weekend. I'm in favor of it... I think the majority of us, if not all of us, would want to seriously consider it, [but] I don't think that we have the power to institute it.

On the logistical side of holding a tournament

When I was in the Patriot League - I coached at Fordham for a while - we tried every which way of figuring out how to do this. I don't think there's any sense in having a tournament for the top four; I think all eight should participate or leave it as is. And I don't think having the top four and scurrying around at the last minute figuring out where it's going to be and what you're going to do is very helpful. It doesn't promote the sport - you end up playing in empty gyms...

In order for us to have a tournament we're going to have to promote it properly, it has to be at a set site and we do have to know who's going to be participating in it so we can get out the word.

Kathy Delaney-Smith, Harvard

Having been a coach who's been involved with USA Basketball, I would hear over and over and over again great comments and compliments to the league from schools that say "I hate to play the Ivy League school." When they do that seeding and they put it on TV, no one wants to play an Ivy League school...

We've been very respectable no matter who we've sent to play in the first round, and generally it's a 16-, 15-, 14-seed. We're always very respectable and we have put the fear of God in a lot of No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the country.

I am very much in favor of a tournament. [Chris Wielgus] and I have seen this presented from the front door, the back door, the side door, we've come up with every plausible kind of reason and explanation. So it's sort of out of our hands because I do think every coach on this call would vote in favor of a tournament...

Regarding a four-team tournament, I would have to think about it a bit more, but I am very strongly leaning towards eight because the quality of the site, the venue, the marketing of it, etc., has to be right.

At this point, I asked her whether there is a correlation between her statements about those comments she referenced above and the fact that the league sends its top team to the NCAA Tournament every year.

Yeah, I actually do [think there is a correlation]. I think they're war-tested... That kind of tournament pressure every weekend prepares you to go and be the underdog.

Pat Knapp, Penn

I'd love to have a tournament and I do agree with the marketing, the venue and the timing of it having to be very important. Secondly I do believe it has to be all eight teams, I would not agree with four teams at all. And thirdly, I don't think many administrations are for it. I will say openly today that I believe that the tenor of the thought here at Penn is that the Ivy League should send its absolute best team to the NCAA Tournament, and that gets proven and borne out with our 14-game schedule.

I've seen that to be true. I think the Ivy League is special and unique in the way we run things and I don't think that's going to change any time soon.

Courtney Banghart, Princeton

Having been at Dartmouth at all those years, and Dartmouth being one of the premier programs in the league, I was always never in favor of a tournament. Because if we won the gauntlet, we wanted to get to the [NCAA] Tournament. Now being at Princeton and wanting to get to that tradition, I still keep my original thought. A tournament brings a lot of excitement to the end of the season, but at the same time, it doesn't ensure that the best team goes.

Coming from a league that I think can continue to gain respect nationally because we do have very high quality players and very high quality teams, I think it's really important that the Ivy League, out of respect for what our student-athletes do, send the best team, and the only way to do that is through the gauntlet. So I think that having been on both sides of it, I think I have a pretty sound judgement on it and I think the way we do it is the right way for us.

Chris Gobrecht, Yale

I come from a pretty varied background on conference tournaments, having competed in the Pac-10 and the ACC. I needed to go through the league for a couple years to understand just how it works in the Ivy League. And my opinion after having gone through a few rounds of this is that we should definitely have a tournament.

Maybe not a tournament that necessarily includes eight teams, but I think we should think about a tournament that includes the top four teams. The reason is that there are so many variables that affect outcomes in this league. You have time when you're getting off a two-hour bus ride and you have to step on a basketball court and play a game, and you have other teams that don't do that [and] go up the night before...

There are various times when our finals hit. Playing back to back, you're much more affected by injuries or people that are trying to play through injuries. I think officiating affects outcomes very much in this league. There are so many things that you not only have to be good, you have to be lucky to win this conference, and I think the best way to neutralize that is to have a playoff with your top four teams at the end.