Harvard Shows Ivy League Can Hold Its Own in March Madness

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Harvard Shows Ivy League Can Hold Its Own in March Madness
Harry How/Getty Images

The Ivy League has always been more cultural touchstone than sporting conference, which is perhaps why its athletes have historically been understood as curiosities. Jeremy Lin will always be the Harvard point guard, just as Jay Fielder was the Dartmouth quarterback and Doug Glanville was the Penn outfielder.

So when the Harvard men's basketball team beat New Mexico on Thursday in the opening round of the NCAA tournament, public reaction predictably centered on the name of the winning institution rather than the magnitude of the upset.

New York Magazine's Will Leitch dedicated his morning column space to the topic. So too did Linette Lopez of Business Insider and David Roth of the Wall Street Journal. 

This wasn't Northwestern State knocking off Iowa, this was Harvard—illustrious, moneyed, light of the Western World Harvard—winning its first-ever game in the men's NCAA tournament.

Harvard coach Tommy Amaker led the program to its first NCAA Tournament win. Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Attention must be paid.

Implied in the hubbub was a sense that Harvard's ascent to competitiveness contains traces of the miraculous, which in some ways it does.

Harvard, like every other Ivy League institution, is not permitted to award athletic scholarships. In a big-money sport like college basketball, that is a particularly acute competitive disadvantage.

Harvard, like every other Ivy League institution, also upholds certain minimum academic standards in its admissions process that limit its recruiting scope, though there have been reports that the standards shifted a bit when current coach Tommy Amaker arrived in Cambridge six years ago. 

Steve Dykes/USA TODAY Sports

That exclusivity, however, can be re-purposed as an asset. Amaker and his assistant, for instance, can sell recruits on the long-term benefits of a Harvard degree, benefits which are tied directly to the institution's barriers of admission.

As Crimson assistant Yanni Hufnagel told NBC Sports' Rob Dauster, "Harvard's not a four-year decision, it's a 40-year decision."

It also helps that Harvard has an endowment in the tens of billions—money which allows the school to offer generous, need-based financial aid packages. Who needs athletic scholarships when you can offer free tuition to anyone with a family income under $60,000?

The history of Ivy League basketball can be largely explained by the interplay between these institutional advantages and the self-imposed restrictions that make them possible.

Plenty of athletes are drawn to the conference's exclusivity, and all of its implied benefits. Of course, in order to maintain that standard, you have to actually exclude people, which can make program building a bit tricky.

All barriers considered, the league has experienced some rather impressive postseason success over the tournament's 75 years.

Dartmouth made the NCAA title game in 1942 and 1944, but it was just an eight-team competition back then. 

Princeton rode star forward Bill Bradley to the 1965 Final Four.

Penn made its own trip to the National Semifinal in 1979 before falling to Magic Johnson's Michigan State Spartans.

Ken Levine/Getty Images
Yale graduate Chris Dudley spent 15 years in the NBA

The Quakers have also sent eleven players to the NBA, headlined by Corky Calhoun, the fourth overall pick in the 1972 draft.

In all, 42 Ivy League graduates have gone on to play professional basketball at the highest level. Granted, most of those 42 played in the 1960s or earlier, well before the NBA became the uber-competitive, moneymaking international spectacle it is now.

But even as the game has evolved, the Ancient Eight has managed to contend for national attention and stay relevant in spurts.

Princeton, for example, climbed as high as eighth in the 1998 AP Poll. Penn earned AP rankings in back-to-back years during the early 90's under Fran Dunphy. Cornell made the Sweet Sixteen in 2010.

One wouldn't confuse any of that for dominance, but its about on par with your average mid-major.

Harvard's success is at the vanguard of the Ivy's most recent flirtation with relevance. Thanks to Amaker's work in Cambridge—combined with Cornell's recent success and Princeton's perennial competitiveness—the Ivy League has made a slow, but steady climb up the mid-major ladder over the past decade.

Every year since 2003, college basketball stats guru Ken Pomeroy has ranked the 30+ college basketball conferences based on the efficiency metrics of their respective teams.

Here's how the Ivy has fared over that period of time:

Year Average Efficiency Rating Rank
2003 0.2999 26
2004 0.2917 23
2005 0.3516 21
2006 0.2714 28
2007 0.3374 21
2008 0.2372 27
2009 0.2733 26
2010 0.3376 22
2011 0.4024 15
2012 0.4528 16
2013 0.4200 15

Without question, the league is improving. Harvard, the two-time reigning champ, has led the way.

It'll be interesting to see how the rest of the Ancient Eight adjusts to the Crimson's burgeoning success, and whether or not this is truly the first phase of a league-wide trend, or merely the byproduct of one program's aberrant ascent.

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Perhaps other Ivy League institutions will see Harvard's example and act more consciously to leverage their academic brand in recruiting matters (all while lowering admissions standards for athletes on the sly). Or maybe Tommy Amaker—a former Duke standout who previously coached at Michigan and Seton Hall—is just a really good salesman.

One upset doesn't do much to answer those questions, but it at least compels us to ask.

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