March 5, 2017

March Madness, Ivy League Style

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Purists might not approve of the move, but the Ivy League will debut its first postseason basketball tournament this year.

Years from now, the entire Ivy League might be thanking Gabas Maldunas.

As a versatile 6-foot-9 post player for Dartmouth, Maldunas was known around the Ivy League. But he had never had an opportunity to showcase his abilities on the national stage — during his four seasons playing for Big Green, from 2011 to 2015, the team never finished above .500 in conference play.

In his final Ivy League game, Maldunas became a cult hero, and a villain in New Haven, making a winning layup against Yale that contributed to the extension of a Bulldogs NCAA tournament drought. At that point, the Yale drought had lasted more than a half-century. The loss dropped Yale into a tie with Harvard for the Ivy League title.

Because the Ivy League had no postseason tournament, both teams would meet in a one-game playoff in Philadelphia. Yale would suffer the most dramatic of losses that night, the final score was 53-51. The Bulldogs were devastated, but the fans at the Palestra couldn’t have been more entertained.

“It was electric,” the Ivy League’s executive director, Robin Harris, said. “There were several A.D.s who attended that game who did not have a team participating, and they did so just to see what the atmosphere was like.”

The idea of creating an Ivy League postseason tournament has been under discussion for several years. The 2015 Harvard-Yale playoff game only increased the number of people who joined the discussion.

So last March, during a period of massive staff and personnel changes and new opinions among players and coaches, the Ivy League broke with its rich tradition and became the final Division I conference to implement a postseason tournament. Under the current format, the top four regular-season finishers will compete for the league’s automatic bid to the N.C.A.A. men’s and women’s tournaments on March 11 and 12 at the Palestra.

“The March Madness feel is something that’s been missing in the Ivy League,” said the Columbia women’s coach, Megan Griffith, who played for the Lions and coached on Princeton’s staff for six seasons, told The New York Times. “Everybody gets that exposure now.”

With only one weekend of games remaining and seeding on the men’s and women’s sides undecided, the league has already gotten a taste of the heightened drama they look forward to exploiting.

Last Saturday, Columbia’s LukePetrasek blocked a potential tying 3-point attempt by Penn’s Jackson Donahue at the buzzer to keep the Lions alive for a conference tournament berth.

Petrasek’s teammates stormed the court, senior Jeff Coby was so amped, he kicked the ball into the student section of the arena. It was undoubtedly the most raucous celebration any time that had just moved to 5-7 in conference play had ever seen, but that’s only because of the victory’s significance: It tied Columbia with Penn for fourth place in the league standings, and in doing so kept alive the possibility of a fairy-tale March run.

Not every program has been appreciative of the progressive changes. Princeton’s men’s team, for example, carry a record of 12-0 in conference play this seasons, the Tigers have also won 15 consecutive games overall. In past years, with a two-game lead over second-place Harvard entering this weekend, the Tigers would need only one victory or a Crimson loss to clinch a place in the N.C.A.A. tournament. Now, they must finish strong to protect their seed, but still could end up facing Penn, their archrival, in one of the Ivy semifinals on Penn’s home court.

Robin Harris, who was hired as the league’s executive director in 2009, emphasized that one of the main reasons for deciding on the current bracket was to package the men’s and women’s events. She added that the conference would re-evaluate the system in May and make adjustments as needed.

“The Palestra was an easy answer, especially for the inaugural year,” Harris said. “It’s the cathedral of college basketball.”

Immediately after Harris was hired, she began surveying Ivy League athletes about adding a tournament. “I never came across one who said they didn’t want one,” Harris said. “To me, that’s really compelling.”

However, a segment of Ivy League alumni and fans, clinging to the days of yore, have already gone public with their disapproval of the tournament. Minimalism has long been the Ivy League way; most teams still don’t print player’s surnames on the backs of their jerseys, and home teams still wear their road uniforms on the Saturdays after Friday night games to spare their visitors a laundry crisis.

Harris noted the new tournament will increase television exposure for the Ivy League, all of the games will be broadcasted or streamed on the ESPN family of networks.

Information from The New York Times contributed to this report.

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