Yale upset Baylor in the NCAA Tournament! Ha! Those nerdy nerds from the elite school with the nerds and the rich people and influential alumni actually won a basketball game! How unlikely! Aren’t you supposed to be handling hedge funds and running for president instead of handling the ball and running fast breaks? The last time any of these guys scored so high was on the SAT!
Folks, Yale is a school best known for its academic prestige. It’s absolutely ridiculous to imagine these nerdy nerds being good at basketball. It’s the most ridiculous thing since Harvard’s 2014 upset over Cincinnati. Which was the most ridiculous thing since Harvard’s 2013 upset over New Mexico. Which was the most ridiculous thing since Cornell’s Sweet 16 run in 2010.
We wrote a post explaining why Yale was a solid upset pick, and we weren’t just joking around. At this point, the success of teams from this league is not a fluke. While it was reasonable to expect Ivy League squads to get smacked around for decades, things have changed in the last few years. This league consistently sends quality teams to the NCAA Tournament.
So stop laughing! You don’t have to root for the team whose players will someday run the world (and whose fans possibly already do). But don’t pick against the Ivy League team in your bracket because you expect their point guard to be as athletic as your high school’s valedictorian. The smart dudes can ball.
— The Ivy League’s NCAA Tournament representatives have been consistently good. This year, Yale was ranked 41st in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings heading into the NCAA Tournament, which means they would’ve been right at home in a major conference. In 2014, Harvard was 32nd, in 2012, Harvard was 39th and in 2010, Cornell was 42nd. It has been over 10 years since the Ivy League sent a team to the NCAA Tournament that ranked below 100 in Pomeroy’s ratings.
— One big change is now more than two Ivies care about basketball. Penn and Princeton dominated the league by themselves for the majority of its existence. From 1989 to 2007, the Tigers and Quakers traded the league’s NCAA Tournament between themselves, each team going to the dance 10 times while none of the league’s other six schools even went once. Sure, sometimes these teams pulled upsets — famously, Pete Carril’s methodical Princeton team beat UCLA in a 43-41 upset in 1996 — but kinda rarely. In that 20-year stretch, Ivies only won three NCAA Tournament games.
In 2010, Cornell finally broke the streak. Previously, they’d only been in 1954 and 1988. In 2012, Harvard made the tourney for the first time since 1946. Columbia was a few games away this year from its first tournament since 1968. And when Yale qualified this year, it was the Bulldogs’ first tournament appearance since 1962.
When more teams are competing for a league title, that league will have a better champion. In 2007, the final year of Penn-Princeton dominance, the best team in the league ranked 97th in Ken Pomeroy’s ratings and nobody came even close. The year before, nobody cracked the top 100. Now, each of the past two years, the league has had two teams ranked in the top 75 — in Yale’s case, much higher.
This is now an actual basketball league with four or more good teams per year, instead of two teams going head-to-head while six other teams stand by. That seriously increases the chances a good team makes the tournament significantly higher.
— Typically, Ivy League teams have struggled since the conference forbids its members to award athletic scholarships. This meant that even athletes smart enough to attend the universities often couldn’t afford to play for them.
But in recent years, several Ivies have changed their needs-based financial aid policies, paying large swaths of tuition for students whose families can’t afford the full price of college. Yale is one of these schools. These changes affect the entire student body, but as the New York Times examined in 2011, it makes a big difference in athletics.
It’s kind of a loophole: Athletes still can’t get academic scholarships, but they certainly can receive the same needs-based aid everybody else at the school is eligible for. Previously, potential Ivy athletes had to choose between paying $50,000 of per year to play at an Ivy and taking an athletic scholarship elsewhere. Often, that choice was made for them, because the vast majority of Americans can’t afford to pay $50,000 a year for anything. And even if you can afford it, you still might choose to go to school for free to play at another reasonably good athletic institution rather than pay $200,000 to play at an Ivy.
With money taken out of the equation for many athletes, Ivy schools can now recruit somewhat competitively against the rest of college basketball. Sure, you still have to qualify academically, although some people feel the rules are being bent there from time to time. But it’s a lot easier to build a team of basketball players who are also smart than it is to build a basketball players who are smart and also happen to be incredibly rich.
This isn’t just happening in men’s basketball — all Ivy League sports are improved. In the women’s side of things, the NCAA Tournament selected an Ivy team as an at-large bid for the first time ever, making this the first two-bid Ivy in history.
— I do have one slight concern for the future of this trend. I think part of the reason why Ivy teams in the tournament have been so good is because the league has always sent its regular season champion to the tournament. Every other Division I league has had a season-ending conference tournament to decide its NCAA bid. But these crusty old-timers didn’t want to mess with tradition. The result was that the league’s tournament representative was a squad that dominated a tough league all season, not somebody who got hot in the year’s dying hours.
However, the Ivy League finally gave in. Next season, the league will have a four-team tournament played at the Palestra in Philly. This opens up the potential for a middle-of-the-pack squad to end up playing in March Madness, and, well, a middle-of-the-pack squad is a lot less likely to pull the upset.
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