Ivy League Tournament Quadrupleheader Is Good For Fans

When I was a freshman writing for The Daily Princetonian in the fall of 2009, I was given the women’s basketball beat. It was hardly a marquee assignment at the time; I only ended up there because the men’s beat I really wanted was taken by seniors. After the meeting, a fellow freshman was complaining that he was assigned to cover volleyball, a sport he knew nothing about. I offered to switch assignments; he declined.

A funny thing happened: Princeton became really good. In the first college basketball game I ever covered, those Tigers beat Delaware and future WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne. I watched their 14-0 season up close, and I traveled to the NCAA tournament in Tallahassee. So even after I became an editor — with the power to write about anything I wanted — I kept covering women’s basketball as much as any other team.

Anecdotally, I know I’m not alone. The sport picked up more and more fans throughout my time covering the team at Princeton, and interest exploded after the 30-0 season. Penn’s rise to challenge them, and eventually replace them, at the top of the league has brought the Quakers more fans as well.

Which is a long way of saying: The Ivy League is right to put the men’s and women’s tournaments in the same event, and it should continue to prioritize that going forward.

In the wake of the top-seeded Princeton men playing fourth-seeded Penn on the road, there have been calls to change the format of the Ivy League Tournament. Moving to a neutral site is one option (and a worthwhile one that should at least be tried out), but another is giving the top seed home-court advantage. The league’s desire to combine the men’s and women’s tournaments is one of two big obstacles to that proposal. (The second is the fact that Lavietes Pavilion probably holds fewer people than several Ivy boosters’ houses.)

A same-site event is undoubtedly good for building interest in the women’s game. By the end of the Penn-Brown opener, The Palestra was about a quarter full — twice as many fans as saw any regular-season games there. And by my rough estimate, about half of the media on press row for that 11 a.m. tip wouldn’t have been there if the men’s games hadn’t been following.

But my argument isn’t that the tournaments should be combined for the good of the women’s teams. It’s that they should be combined for me, and for other Ivy fans who enjoy both leagues. If the tournaments were held at different sites — as in a top-seed-hosts model — I wouldn’t have been at the women’s semifinals today, and I would have missed out on some fun.

I would have missed a fantastic battle of styles between #1 Penn and #4 Brown, the league’s slowest and fastest teams. The Bears put a scare into the hosts with a mid-game run fueled by three-pointers and fearless playmaker Shayna Mehta, taking a five-point lead after halftime. But Penn’s legendary core showed why it’s won three Ivy titles in four years, coming back behind POY Michelle Nwokedi (25 points, seven blocks) and a powerful frontcourt. “What a game. If I was a fan, I really would’ve liked that,” Penn coach Mike McLaughlin said.

I would have missed the nightcap, in which #2 Princeton looked to be reaching its potential in blowing out #3 Harvard. Rookie of the Year Bella Alarie had the most impressive block of the whole quadrupleheader, part of what Princeton coach Courtney Banghart called “a classic” performance (17 and 16). Harvard threatened with a fourth-quarter run — just as it did at Lavietes last weekend — but the Tigers struck back to close it out, 68-47.

And I would miss tomorrow’s Princeton-Penn final. Their rivalry might be younger than the men’s, but after playing three winner-take-all games in four years, it is no less intense right now. The top-seeded Quakers, who won both regular-season meetings, will be favored, but not by enough to feel comfortable. “We’re already 0-2. So we’re either 0-3, or we’re dancing,” Banghart said.

The men still have a much bigger following, but combining the tournaments will expose more Ivy fans to the women’s game — creating more of us who follow both leagues, a nice virtuous cycle.

(This might also be a good time to mention that our little college basketball community is extremely male. Every writer for our site is male, as are most of our peers, and 99% of the message boards. The national media is a bit more balanceddepending on the medium — but at our level, the only female voices are often student reporters, many of whom do very good work. Combining the tournaments doesn’t address this directly, but it might stretch the bubble out a bit.)

If winning breeds enjoyment, more and more Ivy fans will get on board. Alarie — a 6’4” freshman with NBA bloodlines — is already a star, as is fellow freshman Katie Benzan of Harvard. Princeton, Harvard and Penn are recruiting at very high levels (Banghart has been regularly landing top-100 prospects for a decade), and the rest of the league is starting to catch up.

I’ve written lots about how the men’s league is in a new, rapidly improving era. The women are improving even more quickly: They’ve been a top-12-ish league for the last few years, and they’ve earned several single-digit seeds (and a #2BidIvy).

This is a product worth showcasing — and, more importantly, worth seeing. The combined event is a better experience for all players, and a better experience for fans. The first Ivy League Tournament isn’t perfect, and changes should be considered, but keeping everyone together should remain a priority.

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