Ivy League Can’t Have Buyer’s Remorse Now

You might be surprised to find out that no one truly knows who the Murphy actually is behind Murphy’s Law, and there are plenty of tenured Ivy League professors who would be happy to debunk it for you with evidenced-based research.

Now the karma police? That might be another story.

Regardless of what supernatural forces you think guide the universe, the optics of the race for the final spot of the inaugural Ivy League Tournament devolving into chaos are quite striking. Two decades after every other conference in America figured it would take the money and attention that a conference final on national television brings, the Ivy League finally comes kicking and screaming to the table next week at The Palestra in Philadelphia.

And the inaugural go-around will feature everything that’s good about a conference tournament: everyone’s eyes on high-stakes contests in front of big crowds with an excitement and passion level that is not only unmatched in college basketball, but quite possibly in all of sports (CBS doesn’t pay billions of dollars for nothing, you know). Yale and Harvard will play Saturday afternoon, and one will return Sunday with a chance to go to the NCAA Tournament, quite probably against Princeton, a team that has won 16 straight. Despite Pete Carill’s place in the Hall of Fame and in Ivy League lore (both deservedly so), the Tigers have been to the NCAAs only once since 2004 and current head coach Mitch Henderson has never done so in his current position.

And that’s where things start to drift away from the good and into the perilous unknown. In any other season, Princeton would have already clinched the automatic berth and could already be thinking about becoming the fourth Ivy team in five years to win an NCAA Tournament game. Alas, even with the high likelihood that the Tigers go unbeaten through the entire conference regular season, it will take two more wins in Philadelphia to hear their name on Selection Sunday.

Even for traditionalists, the second game can probably be a pill swallowed with a copious amount of milk (or whatever beverage you choose). The first one? Much tougher to jam down the throat.

That’s because – at best – the team Princeton will face next Saturday in the semifinal will have an Ivy record of 6-8 (it could be 5-9) and been beaten by their opponent twice. There is still a possibility for the true nightmare scenario of everyone (except Penn fans, of course) where Penn sneaks into the fourth seed and then finds a way to defeat Princeton on its home floor, which – despite everything the Tigers had done previously – would send them to the NIT.

If Penn does get in, it will add to the pressure to move the conference tournament to the home of the top seed sometime in the future, although that poses large logistical concerns (the women will also have a tournament in Philadelphia and separating the two is not desirable) as well as what television, who is driving this after all, wants.

“I hope that happens,” Henderson told the New York Times. “Not just because we stand in that position right now, but we should be protecting our No. 1 seed.”

Of course, that’s what you sign up for when you have a winner-take-all conference tournament. Almost every other league has dealt with it at one time or another, just Friday night Belmont, who went 15-1 in the Ohio Valley Conference, lost to Jacksonville St., whom the Bruins had beaten twice in the regular season by double digits. For most, that’s just how March works.

But in the Ivy League, which had strived to be the pinnacle of basketball justice as well as social justice, this is all new. Adding to the confusion were Penn and Columbia losses Friday, putting them both at 5-8 heading into the final contest. The Ivy, like almost every conference and high school league in the country, has a tiebreaker based on head-to-head and then rewarding teams for beating the top teams in the league. I have seen many, many tiebreakers in my day and rarely (if ever?) have I seen something like what will happen if Penn and Columbia finish tied for fourth after the conclusion of Saturday night’s play.

If both the Quakers and Lions win (and neither team they’re playing has any motivation Saturday other than pride), both will have beaten Harvard and been swept by Princeton. Both would have split with Yale, and they are No. 4 and No. 5, so it would resort to No. 6, No. 7, and No. 8. If Princeton beats Dartmouth (and KenPom gives it a 96% chance), the tiebreak would be broken by the winner of the otherwise meaningless Cornell and Brown game Saturday night.

Murphy’s Law, indeed, and a scenario Cornell coach Brian Earl, whose team was throttled by Yale 90-63 Friday night, wants no part of, even if he’ll have anyone wanting Penn to qualify for next week’s party rooting for him and his team.

“I have no idea what’s happening,” Earl said after Friday’s loss. “We’re just trying to get a win to finish the season. That’s all I care about.”

Of course, whichever among Penn and Columbia (and we shouldn’t completely discount Dartmouth’s seemingly miniscule shot to steal that fourth spot) qualifies, the team that’s eliminated does not have much of a case for deserving a much better fate. Should the team that will be celebrating Saturday with a losing record in conference play feel any pangs of guilt while doing so? Well, that answer is in the eye of the beholder, and it’s not likely any of players or fans of the team that prevails will see it as anything but a shot at glory.

Let’s just leave it at being far from ideal. But the Ivy League can’t have buyer’s remorse now. It signed up for the chaos and unexpected twists and turns in the road that bring the attention and people to their television sets. Consider that last season, there would be no attention paid to the Ivy until Princeton’s name was announced on Selection Sunday, which is still nine days away.

Is it fair? Nope. Is it entertaining? Yup.

And entertaining beats fair in every tiebreaker.