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The Unique Ivy League Conference Tournament Format

Image courtesy of CUBigRedHoops on Twitter.

Beginning March 10th, the Ivy League Men’s Basketball Conference tournament will commence for the only second time ever. Quite a shocking thought given that every other conference in Division I has long held their own conference tournament and the winner receives an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament later in March. According to Cornell’s coach Brian Earl, “this tournament really does a lot for keeping everyone incentivized and competitive.”

In 23 of the 32 Division I “all-sports” conferences, every single team in the conference makes the conference tournament, including every Power-5 conference (the ACC, Big 10, Big 12, Pac-12, and SEC). Every high major conference (the Power-5 plus the Big East, the American, the Atlantic 10, the Missouri Valley Conference, and the Mountain West Conference) also has every team in the conference making its respective conference tournament as well.

The Ivy League, however, only has 4 of 8 possible teams make the conference tournament, determined as the top four teams in the conference standings. With only 50% of the the schools making the conference tournament, the Ivy League stands alone in its “strict” quantity of teams. The Southland Conference stands second in percentage of teams making its conference tournament with 61% (8 of 13 teams), followed by the OVC at 67% (8 of 12). The Ivy League is also the only conference tournament with only two rounds, with every other conference having 3 or more single elimination rounds. All of this was implemented last season for the first time ever. Before that, the Ivy League was determined solely on conference standings, with the first place seed crowned conference champion.

Last year however, 15 of the 32 conference tournaments were not won by the number 1 seeded teams. Some of the most notable wins include 5th seeded Duke winning the ACC, 8th seeded Michigan winning the Big East, and 4th seeded Iowa State in the Big 12. As a matter of fact, the average seed of conference tournament winners last year was a 2.38. Four teams won their conference tournament with a pre-tournament seeding of 5 or higher, and five 4th seeded teams won their tournament. While lower seeded teams do not always have probability on their side, cinderella stories are what have made conference tournaments and March Madness so great.

This season, Princeton’s only in conference loss is actually to last place Dartmouth, but Dartmouth is mathematically eliminated from the Ivy League conference tournament at this point. In the ACC, even 0-18 in conference Pitt will make the conference tournament with a hope to upset the likes of Virginia, Duke, and UNC. Some argue that expanding the size of the Ivy League tournament from 4 to all 8 Ivy League teams reduces regular season competition as well; however in reality, teams seek the highest seed possible at all times, because a higher seed means weaker competition on the path to the finals. First-place Princeton would much rather face fourth-place Cornell or eighth-place Dartmouth than second-place Harvard.

The Ivy League’s (although severely delayed) introduction of a conference tournament in 2017 also gave the schools who did not win the conference’s regular season a chance at both a conference championship and an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Possibly even more importantly, number one seeded teams who do not win their conference tournament and do not receive an at-large bid for the NCAA Tournament automatically receive a bid to the National Invitation Tournament (NIT). Before last season, the only way for Ivy League teams to qualify for the NIT was through an at-large bid.

Cornell’s coach Brian Earl has been a part of the Ivy League for over 15 years, playing  for Princeton from 1995 to 1999, working at Princeton as an assistant coach from 2007 to 2016, and as the head coach of Cornell since 2016. In a statement to First and Fan regarding the Ivy League tournament format, Earl said, “If we come in 5th I’m gonna hate it. I think we just gotta keep making everything as competitive as possible and hope that the wheels have changed – grind forward when everyone gets into it. But you know, I think it’d be nice to have all the teams in, but it’s difficult because we are an academic conference obviously. I think there’s a way to do it, we just need to figure it out. It is interesting, having been on the other side of it, that if you have an undefeated Ivy League season and somehow you lose, like Princeton was on the ropes last year against Penn, then I would have a slight problem with that too. Like anything in life I go both ways on it.”

Coach Earl isn’t wrong, as the number one seed, losing your automatic bid for playing in the NCAA tournament isn’t fun, especially since he won 3 during his playing career with Princeton. From the other angle, however, it’s important that he recognizes the value of endured competitiveness today. Since the middle of the season, every team except Princeton and Harvard have not had a chance at coming in first place in the Ivy League. With the introduction of a conference tournament, that automatic tournament bid is free game to two the third and fourth place teams as well, and expanding it to all eight teams creates both endured competition and further possibilities of cinderella stories in both the conference and national tournament.