A recent proposal to create an Ivy League postseason basketball tournament has sparked varied responses from coaches and administrators in the last two weeks, as some cast doubt on its chances of gaining official approval.
The proposal, drafted by Columbia head coach Kyle Smith, calls for men’s and women’s basketball to have a two-round tournament each for the top four finishers in conference play.
The tournament champion would earn an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, while the first-place finisher in regular season conference play would earn an automatic bid to the National Invitation Tournament.
The proposal was suggested at the Ivy coaches’ annual meeting earlier this month, but in order for it to be approved, it must pass three rounds of review.
First, the Ancient Eight athletic directors must approve the proposal during their annual meeting from May 8-10. If passed, the proposal is then sent to a policy committee—consisting of vice presidents from each school—for evaluation before the university presidents render an ultimate decision.
According to Ivy League spokesperson Scottie Rodgers, the proposal only needs majority approval to pass each stage.
When similar proposals were submitted in the past, they failed to gain the necessary five out of eight votes. The last time a tournament was officially considered was in 2006, but the proposal did not even make it past the athletic directors’ meeting, Rodgers said.
Among the 31 automatic-bid conferences in the nation, the Ivy League is the only one to not hold a postseason tournament. Because of that, Smith believes players miss out on an important experience.
“It’s a unique opportunity for a student-athlete to be able to play in a tournament environment—something totally different—that our guys don’t get unless they’re the lone representative from the Ivy League to go to the national tournament,” he said.
As a two-year head coach in the Ivy League, Smith was not present for the 2006 proposal.
But Yale head coach James Jones—the longest-tenured coach in the league—is familiar with the Ancient Eight’s resistance to a tournament.
Jones, a supporter of the tournament proposal, said that every year at the coaches’ meeting there is talk about a possible postseason tournament, but the idea never gains momentum.
The 13-year head coach believes the Ivy League is at enough of a disadvantage to other conferences because of restrictions on scholarships and the requirement for Friday and Saturday games. The lack of a tournament, he said, only increases the gap between the Ancient Eight and other leagues around the nation.
“Every single conference in the country has a tournament,” Jones said. “If it’s good for everyone else why wouldn’t it be for us? We already have enough differences. If we want to compete among the best schools then we need this.”
According to Smith, the men’s basketball coaches are in unanimous support of a postseason tournament. However, that is not the case for the women’s.
Light Blue women’s basketball head coach Paul Nixon, the three-year chair of the Ivy League women’s basketball coaches committee, is firmly in favor of a tournament. But Nixon said the other coaches have mixed opinions.
“The best way I can describe it is that we are not in consensus,” he said. “I just think the state of college women’s basketball is in a little bit different place just in terms of where the game is right now.”
Courtney Banghart, Princeton women’s basketball head coach, told The Daily Princetonian that she was strongly opposed to a postseason tournament for any single-bid conference.
Strong opposition to the tournament proposal is also present among at least one of the league’s athletic directors.
Last week, Penn’s athletic department released a statement from Athletic Director Steve Bilsky in which he made clear his negative stance.
“There are many philosophical, as well as logistical, issues and challenges to consider,” he said in the statement. “In my opinion, to date, the reasons not to have a tournament have been much more compelling than the reasons to sponsor one.”
Bilsky is the only athletic director to publicly oppose the tournament so far.
When asked for comment, Columbia Athletic Director M. Dianne Murphy declined to give an opinion on the matter, saying only in a statement that she is “looking forward to hearing the proposal regarding an Ivy League Basketball tournament at our Ivy League meetings in May.”
In response to the concerns raised by Bilsky, Smith said he does not think logistics would be a problem.
“There’s just so much name recognition with the Ivy League,” Smith said. “I think there are enough people that want to be associated with it that would underwrite any kind of tournament.”
Smith also cited the 2011 playoff game between Harvard and Princeton, which sold out Yale’s gym and was broadcast on ESPN3, as an example of how the proposed tournament—which would be held at the No. 1 seed’s gymnasium—could bring attention and profit to the League.
The proposal also compensates for the possibility that players may lose class time by suggesting one nonconference regular season game be eliminated from the teams’ schedules.
Beyond logistical concerns, critics of a proposal have also argued that there is nothing wrong with sending the winner of the 14-game round-robin regular season to the NCAA tournament.
ESPN’s Eamonn Brennan wrote in a blog post last week that the current process sends the most deserving Ivy League team to the national competition, and that a conference tournament would make the regular season irrelevant.
Jones said that such an argument is absurd. The proposed tournament takes the top four teams, which means, he said, that teams not in contention for first place would still be motivated to fight to stay in the top-half of the table.
Jones also said a tournament would give the winning team momentum heading into the NCAA tournament, which might lend the Ivy League representative a better chance of making it out of the first round.
Beyond the national attention the league would gain, one of the strongest arguments for a tournament is that it would benefit the players, Smith said.
Columbia’s junior center Mark Cisco said he recognized both sides of the argument, but that he and many of his teammates are in favor of a tournament.
“To be honest, I think it would be awesome because it brings up the level of intensity a lot,” Cisco said. “And if you’re a team that started badly that year, when the first game of the tournament comes up, it’s a clean slate.”
Even if the proposal is adopted, it is unlikely that Cisco and the other upperclassmen Lions will be part of the team when the conference tournament is instated.
The proposal was modeled after the Ivy League lacrosse postseason tournament, which did not go into effect until 2010, two years after it was initially proposed.
But the lacrosse tournament’s success makes Smith, Jones, and Nixon optimistic of the current proposal’s chances of being approved.
A conference tournament would guarantee at least two teams a spot in a national postseason competition, and the coaches hope that it would also increase the prospect of multiple Ivies earning a bid to the NCAA tournament.
“This isn’t the Ivy League of 20 years ago where two teams were battling it out every year,” Smith said. “This is a little more wide open and there’s some really good teams. This would be just a great event for the Ivy League community and a way to bring attention to our league. If our guys are good enough to compete against the best teams, then we should let them.”