Usually the end of March Madness brings with it nothing but a longing for more high intensity sports action that is only somewhat whetted by the start of spring baseball. This year things are different. This year Letterman retired. This year we, Hank and Fish, will rise like a phoenix (Jobin) from the ashes of The Dartmouth Sports section. We are bringing you raw, uncut, generally bad and poorly thought-out arguments on sports topics interesting to very few (perhaps only us, perhaps not even us). Welcome to Writing the Pine with Hank and Fish.
Stressed to impress, for our first topic we got to asking ourselves the tough questions. There are 32 conferences in Division I basketball. Each of these conferences receives one “automatic bid” into the postseason NCAA tournament. Thirty-one of these conferences award their “automatic bid” to the winner of a postseason single-elimination conference tournament. Only the Ivy League awards it differently, giving the “automatic bid” to the regular season champion, without holding a conference tournament at all. Supporters of the Ivy League system argue that the lack of a conference tournament allows student-athletes to focus on their work at an important juncture while also ensuring that only the best team from the conference is rewarded each year. Detractors make their case by claiming that a conference tournament would add excitement and uncertainty to a currently tedious close to the Ivy League season. We’ll argue; you decide.
Hank: The crowning of a national college basketball champion is not a methodical process in which good teams move deeper into the tournament as bad teams are sent home. In evaluating which team should get the chance to participate in the high stakes, single elimination NCAA basketball tournament, why should bids be given to teams solely based on their regular season play? Postseason success often requires a unique blend of skills that a regular season record cannot quite capture. In 2012, Western Kentucky University opened its season in the Sun Belt conference with 5 wins and 14 losses. WKU finished its regular season by winning 3 out of its 4 final games for a seventh seed in its conference tournament. They proceeded to win four straight games and deservedly claim the Sun Belt conference bid. WKU won its first four matchup and fell 64-57 in the first round to first seed Kansas University. In stellar postseason play, WKU earned the right to compete on college basketball’s biggest stage, bringing a new level of attention to the WKU men’s basketball program and to the university itself. As Dartmouth students, we have an even higher stake in this debate. Our men’s basketball program suffers from an apathetic student body and a team that may not see itself making the tournament before all current members have graduated. For Dartmouth, an Ivy league conference tournament would incite an interest in the student body and grant the men’s basketball team the hope for an NCAA bid a mere 3 wins away.
Fish: The key points to consider in this debate are what the Ivy League’s preferences should be. Should the Ivy League care more about the current excitement of the fans or should it try to ensure a great product on the floor for years to come? Should the Ivy League care about “giving every team a chance” or should its priority be in making sure that its representative can acquit itself respectably on a national stage? I’d argue that both these questions can be correctly answered with the second option. Without a conference tournament, the Ivy League makes sure that the best team in the conference is rewarded. The Ivy League will never face the embarrassment of the Big West conference which this season sent a 13-20 Cal Poly team to the tournament. Cal Poly made it to the second round where they failed to score even 40 points. Even on the off chance that one of these terrible regular season teams gets lucky, it is wiser to try and ensure that only your strongest team can battle basketball giants come March. By sending strong representatives to the NCAAs, the Ivy League raises the profile of the basketball conference as a whole. When possible recruits at home see Cornell or Harvard upsetting or competing with legendary basketball schools, they start to think of the Ivy League as a legitimate basketball conference. Better recruits will continue to come to the Ivy League and the profile of the conference will only get better and better. There is no reason to provide a team like this year’s Cornell squad the chance to win three straight games in a conference tournament and embarrass themselves against a number one seed. The 2-26 (1-13 Ivy) Big Red did not get a chance to compete for a spot in the NCAAs this March. Nor did they deserve one.
Hank: Well said, Fish. I really appreciate the time and effort that you clearly devoted into preparing your argument. However, I disrespectfully disagree. The whole point of college basketball, the whole reason anyone watches it is that every game is entirely unpredictable. The NCAA realizes this, and the frustratingly erratic results have spawned a massive bracket industry (Hey Buffet, Fish and I are still coming for that billion). A round robin schedule, whether or not it succeeds in anointing the “best team,” deprives Ivy League schools of a chance at an exciting postseason basketball atmosphere. The low student attendance at Dartmouth basketball games is primarily due to the fact that the games seem to lack meaning. Ever since “Linsanity,” the Harvard basketball program has catapulted itself into an echelon of its own in regards to Ivy League basketball. Dartmouth students lack the belief that the Big Green can outperform Harvard over the course of a regular season. If we aren’t going to experience the ultimate goal of televised March Madness glory, why come to games and watch our team compete without a sense of immediate purpose? This lack of a progression from regular season to postseason does not only affect the student body, but also the Big Green basketball players. In a sport in which veteran leadership can be so pivotal to a team’s success (Hey Mercer), the Dartmouth men’s basketball team suffers from a terrible player retention rate which is already hindered by the Ivy League’s policy of not having athletic scholarships. The institution of an Ivy League conference tournament has the potential to impact positive change at Ivy League schools with middling basketball programs like Dartmouth’s. Starting with building student and athlete hope, the result of a conference tournament could be more widespread basketball legitimization in the Ivy League. Let’s turn this campus into Dunk City.
Fish: Well said, Hank. I really appreciate the time and effort that you clearly devoted into preparing your argument. However, I think you’re dead wrong. First of all, “the whole reason anyone watches” college basketball is not because it is “entirely unpredictable.” If that were the case, watching a random number generator draw numbers out of a hat would be as popular as March Madness. Sure, part of March Madness’ appeal comes from the potential for upsets, but that is only true to a certain extent. The weakest six conference tournament champions (normally the teams that got luckiest in their tournaments when failing in the regular season) are seeded sixteenth in the NCAA tournament. In the history of the NCAA tournament, a sixteenth seed has never defeated a first seed. This year’s Dartmouth team would have undoubtedly been seeded sixteenth if they had won a hypothetical Ivy League tournament this year. If they had gotten blown out by a team like Florida in the first round, I don’t think that would have driven any more interest in the school. I think you make a few other misguided points as well. For example, the regular season games may seem meaningless now, but if we instituted a conference tournament, the games actually would be meaningless. The entire Ivy League regular season would only establish postseason seeding for an all-important conference tournament. Student interest would probably increase for that last tournament, but there would be no reason to pay attention to any regular season games. Finally, I think you misidentify the ingredient that can lead to better basketball success, even in a basketball wasteland like the Ivy League. The ingredient that leads to great success is not a great player (like Jeremy Lin), but a great coach like Harvard’s Tommy Amaker. If Dartmouth was willing to devote more resources to finding an impressive young basketball coach (perhaps University of Washington assistant coach Raphael Chillious?), they would exponentially increase their chances of becoming the best team in the Ivy League and fairly earning a spot in the NCAA tournament. (Think I got too serious at the end, I may have earned our readers’ respect, but I feel I’ve lost their love….)
Hank: Man, I am sweaty at my keyboard. Ah, Raphael Chillious, the final nail in my coffin. Readers, tune in next week for the next installment of “Writing” the Pine; Phil Hanlon, email us for advice on how to spend that $100 million.