The entire nation, with the exception of Duke fans, was rooting for Butler in last year’s NCAA championship game. Whenever a mid-major squares up with a college basketball powerhouse, it’s a classic David vs. Goliath scenario, and when a fan watches the game without ties to either of the teams, it’s hard not to root for the little guy. But one mid-major conference in particular is way too under-appreciated. While all mid-majors have to deal with the big-name teams taking the top tier of talent, that is only the beginning of the setbacks of being in the Ivy League. The nation’s oldest conference would steal any true basketball fan’s heart, but very few know enough about it to notice. Here are four reasons to root for the teams of the Ivy League.
1. The players have to be multi-focused.
Ivy League schools are well-known as the top academic institutions in the country. Although it is true that basketball powerhouses like Stanford and Duke have academic reputations at the same level as the Ivy League, Ivy League schools do not let athletics take priority over academics, even for their athletes. Mike Krzyzewski can get anybody he wants to play for Duke because at Duke, basketball is a moneymaker. In the Ivy League, the recruit has to send in an application to the college, just like anybody else, and the coaching staff can inform the admissions office that they want that kid. But even so, that is merely a side note on the application. A coaching staff can only bend the admissions standards so far. Oftentimes, even the top recruits get rejected by admissions.
In addition to the admissions barrier, all the players must stay eligible academically. Competing with the nation’s top students for grades is no easy task. Besides, if a player has passed admissions, it is likely that he would be academic-minded enough to make school a high priority. Most college basketball teams are full of athletes who pull out D’s in their classes because basketball is the only reason they wanted to go to college. Ivy League players, for the most part, have aspirations beyond college, and working towards those aspirations is tough to balance with basketball.
Plus, the Ivy League has stricter academic eligibility rules than the NCAA. One of these rules is that Ivy League players cannot be red-shirted. Players are expected to get a degree in four years. If a player gets a bad injury, it’s too bad for them. For the Ivy League, your four years of college are your four years of eligibility, and you are done by age 22, like any other student would be.
2. They are smart, and they play smart too.
Ivy League teams play old-school basketball. Recently, the game of basketball has turned to star power and athleticism to win games. Since the Ivy League doesn’t get many stars or great athletes, they win games with basketball fundamentals. Crisp passing, good shooting, and tough defense win Ivy League games. What these guys lack in athletic ability, they make up for by using their most powerful tool—their brains. When Ivy League teams take on non-conference foes, it’s impossible not to notice the defensive schemes they design to stop guys who are bigger, faster, and more athletic than them from getting easy buckets. Ivy League players aren’t big, so they box out. They aren’t fast, so they spread the floor. They may not have what it takes, but they’ll do what it takes.
3. The players play for the love of the game.
They pay full tuition. What? Yes, Ivy League schools cannot give athletic scholarships. Players are only eligible for the same financial aid that is available the rest of the student body. These players could easily get a full scholarship to another mid-major school, but they come to the Ivy League to reap the benefits of good basketball and a first-class education. They don’t need to keep playing basketball to continue to get a free education like scholarship athletes do. They can quit at any time and still pay the same amount to go to the same college. Why do they play on the basketball team? Because they love the game.
Also, Ivy League basketball players do not get a free pass to the top of the social ladder at their school. Why? Because nobody knows who they are. Ivy League students are nerds. Trust me, I’m one of them. And most nerds don’t care about sports. I’ve been laughed at before just because I know the names of the players. Yes, it’s unusual to know who the players on your basketball team are at Ivy League Universities. On the flip side, my sister, who goes to a Big Ten school, has texted me before saying things like “OMG I just hung out with John Doe, the third-string left guard on the football team!” Ivy League players don’t get that. They don’t play for crowds, for the media, or for girls. They play because they love basketball.
4. Most importantly, they can compete.
Ivy League basketball is moving up in the college basketball world. In the last three years, the Ivy League’s average RPI has moved up from 29th, to 22nd, to 15th in 2011. While the Ivy League champion used to be a No. 14 or 15 seed in the past, they are now getting No. 12 or 13 seeds. And who can forget the magical run 12th-seeded Cornell made last year as they beat fifth-seeded Temple and fourth-seeded Wisconsin to advance to the sweet 16? This year, the 23-6 Princeton Tigers are battling with the 23-5 Harvard Crimson (who has beaten teams like Colorado and Boston College and lost a nail-biter to Michigan) for the Ivy League crown and an NCAA bid.
Unfortunately, the Ivy League is the least likely conference in the nation to get two NCAA bids. The lack of a conference tournament means that multiple teams must be at-large quality teams to get into the tournament. Mid-majors with one at-large quality team can get two teams into the tournament if that one team fails to also get the automatic bid through the conference tournament.
This year, Harvard and Princeton shared the Ivy League title, each with a 12-2 conference record. That means a rare playoff game at 4:00ET on Saturday, March 12 will decide who gets the NCAA tournament bid. I encourage everybody to watch this game on ESPN3. Then afterwards, we should all root for whichever group of nonathletic, undersized, but fiercely competitive group of multi-talented human beings gets to take on college basketball’s best teams in the NCAA tournament.