Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Collapse of Ivy League Basketball

We're taking a brief diversion from baseball coverage to discuss a subject near and dear to the editors of this blog: college basketball, and specifically, Ivy League hoops. Because you may finally be able to relegate the Ivy to the bottom of the college hoops phylum.

College basketball conferences can be divided in to 5 fairly predictable and exact strata:

1. The BCS Conferences. The Big East, ACC, Big 12, SEC, Big 10 and Pac-10. The elite of the sport, those that dominate the NCAA tournament.

2. The Not Quite Majors. Conferences that are top-heavy with 1-3 schools that can compete at the national level at any time but lack real depth. This group is pretty small, and basically is made up of Conference USA, the Atlantic 10, the Mountain West, and if we're generous, the WAC. These conferences can send schools to the Final Four and compete for national championships, just not every year.

3. The Mid Majors. Conferences that are very competitive and can compete with the big boys on any given night, but rarely crack the top 10 in rankings or higher than a 4 seed in the Tourney. The names are familiar: the Missouri Valley, the WCC, the Horizon, the Big West, and if we're in a good mood, the Colonial.

4. The Frisky Conferences. Often dominated by 1-2 teams, these conferences will be good for 2-3 first round upsets in the Tourney, a biannual Sweet Sixteen darling, and your occasional Davidson Run. The conference champs usually get 12-14 seeds and at a minimum will give the higher seed a headache for 30 minutes in the opening round. Generally speaking, if you've heard of a school because of an NCAA appearance/upset but know nothing about them (Valparaiso, Winthrop, Weber State, College of Charleston), they belong here.

5. The Doormats. Conferences that produce perennial 15 and 16 seeds and not only rarely win 1st round games, they're rarely competitive in 1st round games. We see the same names here every year: the SWAC, Patriot League, American East, MEAC and Northeast Conference. For every wild Hampton upset, there are a dozen drubbings of Monmouth.

Over the last 15 years the Ivy League has been treated by the Selection Committee as a Category 4 conference, and been accorded almost uniform respect by getting a 11-13 seed most years. This was backed up by good play in the 90s: Matt Maloney (right) and Jerome Allen led 11-seeded Penn to a first round upset of Penn in 1994, Princeton upset defending champ UCLA in '96 (by boring America to death 43-41) and followed that up with a superb run in '98 that culminated in a 5 seed and a second round loss to Michigan State.

Unfortunately, Princeton's first round win over UNLV that year was the last win by an Ivy in March Madness. Let us trace the inexorable decline:

1999: 11-seeded Penn falls 75-61 to Florida. This was actually a pretty good Gator team that fell to the Gonzaga Buzzsaw in the next round and then went to the Final game the next year.

: 13-seeded Penn drops a 68-58 contest to a not particularly inspired Illinois team.

: A not-any-good Princeton team gets a 15 seed and is trounced by UNC, a team coached by Matt Doherty that then can't beat Penn State. Remember, this is basketball, not football.

A fair Penn team is rewarded with an 11 seed and is manhandled by California to the tune of 63-50. As I recall, this game was never close.

Penn once again returns as an 11 seed and loses by 12 to Oklahoma State. OSU is the 4th straight team to beat an Ivy League opponent in Round 1 and lose in the second round.

Princeton gets a 14 seed, and loses to Texas by 17. UT at least wins another game before losing to Xavier.

In an absolutely horrid matchup, Penn gets a 13 seed and draws BC, who wallops them by 20. Irish guys all over the Eastern seaboard were rather confused about who to root for.

In by far the best appearance that wasn't a win, Penn gets a 15 seed and draw Kevin Durant-led Texas, playing in Dallas...and only lose by 8. The outcome was never in doubt, but Texas could not put this team away to save its life.

Penn gets a 14-seed and everyone's sleeper team as an opponent, Texas A&M. They lose by 16 in a horrible mismatch.

Cornell gets the first non-Princeton/Penn bid since the Reagan administration and draws Stanford and the Lopez twins, who crush them and their soul by 24. This game was close for about 12 minutes, until the Stanford coach realized that Cornell didn't have a single player over 6'5".

Yes, you can make excuses for this run of losses. Teams like Texas are too big and athletic for Penn to stand a chance. The lack of a postseason tournament has kept the seeds artificially high because you never get an 11-17 Brown qualifying thanks to a hit week in March. They've just gotten unlucky. But the bottom line is we're staring at a 11-year gap in losses, which will probably continue this year when Cornell gets pummeled in the first round by Oklahoma or Missouri.

So where are the Ivies now? Well, Penn has fallen off a cliff since Fran Dunphy left for Temple and can't beat Columbia. (Note: this is me blatantly trying to bait my co-author.) Princeton has been fair in conference, but is the definition of a paper tiger and really have been "good" since Bill Carmody left for Northwestern, a.k.a., the Greatest Rebuilding Project Ever. Cornell has stepped into the void somewhat. The problem is they're really not any good.

Which leads us to the ultimate conclusion: at this point, the Ivies have fallen from a Frisky Competitor to a Doormat. Without superbly coached teams that Penn and Princeton had for years that could win if they shot over 50% and could control the tempo, the league has no outstanding coaches, talent or abilities. They're not competitive against BCS conferences. Hell, they're not even fun to watch. As a result, the Ivies should be relegated to permanent 15/16 seed status and should be in the rotation for the play-in game until they dig up a new Kit Muller or Matt Maloney or a new coaching phenom emerges. Sorry guys, but the truth hurts.

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