The Ivy League used to have a perfect setup. The eight schools would play a full home-and-home round robin in men’s and women’s basketball. The team with the best record would win the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. If there was a tie, the teams would meet on a neutral court. One year there was even a three-team tournament.
Last season, the Ivy League introduced a tournament—a first for men’s basketball. (The women had held tournaments in the past, but not since 1986.) To purists, it is silly. The way to get your best team in the NCAAs is to give it to the team that was best all season, not the one that won a short tourney played over a weekend.
But that’s Okay. The tournament is fun. I graduated from Penn in 2004. This weekend was a great chance to catch up with some old friends and colleagues at my favorite place to watch basketball, The Palestra. But that’s a problem for some people.
The Palestra is Penn’s gym. The crowd for yesterday’s final, won 68-65 by Penn, was largely pro-Quakers. Now the gym is so loud that when Harvard made a run—and the Crimson made several—it sounded like there was a huge Harvard contingent there. But a tournament played in Philadelphia on Penn’s campus is going to have mostly Penn fans.
Tommy Amaker, Harvard’s coach, gets it: He thinks the tournament should be at Penn. “Having it here at the Palestra has always been something that I personally have been in favor of,” he said at the tournament’s media day. “I know that can be controversial in some ways, with some teams, but I do this this is the location and the facility that we’re proud of having in our conference, and this is a great town.”
He’s right. If they’re going to group the Ivy League men’s and women’s tournaments together, the tournament can really only be at Penn. It has four locker rooms, so teams can easily move in and out. The Palestra seats 8,722. Attendance for the semifinal doubleheader on Saturday, with Penn-Yale and Harvard-Cornell, was 5,219.
The only other gym in the Ivies that could fit that many people is Princeton’s Jadwin Gym, which seats 6,854. Jadwin’s a neat building from the outside and they could hold the tournament there. But it’s also a basketball court in the corner of a what feels like an airplane hangar. Other East Coast arenas that might work, in Hartford or Providence, are probably too big. What else is there? Temple? St. John’s? Bridgeport, Connecticut? Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City? Why not just play it at the Palestra if those are your other options?
Regardless of how Amaker feels, Harvard was the No. 1 seed this year. (Penn also finished 12-2 in the league, but the Crimson won the tiebreaker based on their better record against third-place Yale.) And so it was unfair to the Crimson that they had to play, as the No. 1 seed, on the No. 2 seed’s home court. Yes, they got to sit in the home locker room and were nominally the home team. But it was a home game for Penn. It was unfair to Harvard.
And to that I say: Good.
Penn was once a basketball powerhouse. Not in the early days of the sport—though they won an unofficial national title in a three-game series over the University of Chicago in 1920—but in the 1970s. The Quakers went to five Sweet 16s and a Final Four that decade. Penn’s football program, which hadn’t won the Ivy crown for decades, began winning league titles in the mid 1980s.
And a lot of people in the Ivy League didn’t like it. In 1985 Harvard’s president at the time, Derek Bok, helped push through the “academic index,” a formula that limits the type of students Ivy League sports teams can recruit. Penn itself was singled out as pulling down the league, multiple times. (Naturally, Harvard now has a basketball program that itself has been accused of loosening admissions standards for basketball recruits.)
The general Ivy League rule seems to be that if you get into the school because you’re rich and connected, that’s Okay, but if you get into the school because you’re good at sports, it’s not. Which is a silly double-standard. But the point is not about the academic index.
The point is that, if you’re going to have a league basketball tournament that’s held at an on-campus site, it should be at the place that’s invested in its basketball facility. That place is Penn. And so it’s going to be unfair to the other schools. Yes, the school that produced Donald Trump gets another advantage. But the ones affected are schools like Harvard, so… whatever. Too bad. Go Quakers.