There have never been two Ivy League teams in the NCAA tournament. Never. Not once. Not even back in the '50s, when the Ivy League was the best athletic conference. To put that in perspective, this year alone there were six Big 12 teams, six Big Ten teams, and nine Big East teams in the tournament. That’s right—nine Big East teams. Meanwhile, the Ivy League has been unable to send more than one representative at a time in its whole history. Despite Harvard’s “second-round” loss to Vanderbilt this year, that should change—soon.
In recent years, a few members of the Ancient Eight have succeeded on the national level. Anyone who takes even a passive interest in college basketball probably heard about Cornell’s improbable Sweet 16 run in 2009 and about Harvard cracking the top 25 for the first time ever this season. Last year, Princeton garnered media attention when it beat the Crimson at the buzzer in a one-game playoff to determine who would earn a spot in the tournament. Linsanity may be dead, but the Harvard alum is still putting up solid numbers for the Knicks. And he’s not the only Ivy Leaguer in the NBA—former Cornell center Jeff Foote was recently called up from the D-League by the Hornets.
While this kind of success (and the press that comes with it) has been more frequent of late, Cornell, Harvard, and Princeton are still exceptions. The Ivy League has never been able to produce two tournament-caliber teams. Perhaps if Penn had won the Ivy League this year, Harvard would have gotten an at-large bid, but we’ll never know.
Why is it so hard for the Ivy League to produce two teams capable of making (and maybe even doing well in) the tournament? The most obvious reason is the lack of athletic scholarships. As we all know, the cost of attending Columbia is steep. It makes sense that some potential Lions might turn down the chance to don light blue to play and study somewhere for free, or at least at a reduced cost. However, with improving financial aid at all eight Ivies—and particularly Harvard, Princeton, and Yale—more and more potential recruits are able to afford to play in the Ancient Eight. In an article on Dec. 22, the New York Times reported that this improvement puts Ivy League coaches on almost equal footing with coaches who can offer scholarships.
Another obstacle to building multiple Ivy League teams that can compete with powerhouses like Kentucky and UConn is the academic rigor of the member universities. Not everyone can handle the workload at an Ivy League school and relatively few people can play Division I basketball—trying to find men who can do both is a challenge. Because of what’s known as the Academic Index, all eight Ivies have to hold their recruits to strict academic standards. However, schools like Stanford and Duke (or, um, Lehigh) have shown that having high academic standards doesn’t mean you can’t have high basketball ones.
The final barrier to achieving two-bid status is sort of a catch-22. The best high school players want to play for teams that are likely to make the tournament and that have a reputation for being good. College teams can’t make the tournament without good players. Fortunately for all eight Ivy schools, the recent and well-publicized successes of Cornell, Princeton, and particularly Harvard have made the Ancient Eight a more attractive option for potential recruits. The opportunity to become part of a Cinderella story combined with a world-class education is drawing more and more talent into the conference.
The Ivy League will never be a powerhouse conference—and that’s a good thing, as its underdog quality is part of its charm. But with improved financial aid packages and a rising national profile, it’s only a matter of time—and not much time, in my opinion—before there are two Cornells or two Harvards in the league. For the first time ever, there are four teams participating in postseason tournaments this year. Princeton (which should have been in the NIT) and Penn are both competing in the quarterfinals of the College Basketball Invitational tonight and Yale lost to Fairfield in the first round of the Collegeinsider.com Tournament.
This trend is likely to continue next season as well. While all four of those teams will lose key players to graduation, they should all remain pretty strong. Even our very own Lions are on the way up. With Noruwa Agho likely to return as a super-senior and Brian Barbour, John Daniels, and Mark Cisco playing in their final collegiate seasons, Kyle Smith’s squad could shock some people next year. Had a few of the Lions’ close league losses gone their way, they might have made the CIT this year as well.
So while the glass slipper didn’t quite fit on Harvard’s foot this year, it won’t be long before two Ivy teams get invited to the Dance.
Michele Cleary is a Columbia College senior majoring in history. She is a former Spectator managing editor.
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