With this weekend’s opening of Admission and the impending doom of National College Rejection Day, it’s easy to forget that the Ivy League is nothing more than an athletic conference. Aside from immense wealth, unfortunate geography, thinly-veiled classism, and enormous prestige they use to perpetuate their good names while overcharging for a mediocre experience, these universities have little in common. They’re just an athletic conference, honor-bound in their refusal to offer athletic scholarships to potential recruits.
With an amateur ideal as incorruptible as the NCAA itself, it’s no wonder Ivy League colleges always get bad seeds in March Madness. Due to the onerous academic requirements impressed upon the honorable student-athletes, the conference doesn’t even have a tournament! As in the “Old World across the pond,” champions are determined by regular-season record alone. There is never an at-large bid. The auto-bid is always a double-digit seed. They are never favored. They arrive by palanquin and are expected to leave by Chinatown Bus.
But the Ivy League has a rich basketball history. The Princeton offense is actually named after Princeton. Bill Bradley, the only Presidential candidate less charismatic than Al Gore, played basketball at that same school. Princeton was also one of only a handful of 16-seeds to nearly win its opening-round game, in 1989 against Alonzo Mourning’s Georgetown. In recent decades the conference powerhouse shifted to Penn, one of the “Philadelphia Big 5” and back when I was in college Princeton and Penn were called “the killer P’s.”
In 2006, Penn coach Fran Dunphy retired, and the title has been up for grabs since then. Since 2010, the conference has acquitted itself well in the Big Dance, with Cornell making the Sweet Sixteen that year, and Princeton and Harvard suffering close first-round losses in 2011 and 2012.
Harvard made a repeat trip to the tournament with a similar squad this year, and was paired up against computer-loved, mid-major “sleeper” New Mexico. Anyone who’s ever watched New Mexico in March Madness knows they’re incapable of making it out of the first few rounds, but almost nobody expected them to lose to Harvard. Harvard was judged the weakest Ivy-League champion in a decade, as their 14-seed reflected. They’d lost their co-captains to the “cheating scandal,” which came as a surprise to zero people who had gone to college in the Ivy League. Yet the Crimson dominated the Lobos, shooting 52.4%, forcing New Mexico to shoot 37.5%, and further compensating for their physical disadvantages by making 8-of-18 three-pointers, the traditional best shot for an overmatched team. Harvard led almost the entire way, and the game was not as close as the 68-62 margin suggests.
Harvard athletes have often been in the news. Teddy Roosevelt, who boxed there, kept his beloved sport of football from succumbing to safety issues 100 years before the public had ever heard of CTE. In 1968, Harvard improbably tied Yale at football; Yale’s quarterback would become the basis for “B.D.” in “Doonesbury.” In 2004, Yale gained juvenile revenge when they executed this prank at the same game. Recent shout-outs have been checkered, with the awesomeness of Linsanity matched by the ineptitude of Ryan Fitzpatrick.
As I type this, Harvard has just lost to Arizona, 74-51. The game was not expected to be close, and the game was not close. The usually incisive Charles Barkley commented, “They don’t have them kinda jocks in the Ivy League,” but then, how did the Crimson beat the Lobos? (As a Columbia alumnus I can confirm nobody from those states goes to any prestigious university, but that’s really the least of the Ivy League’s diversity issues.) Though the region of “We Did the Meth” has put away the city of “We Did the Math” Sir Charles hinted that Harvard might have the last tweedy, clenched-teeth laugh: “At least they don’t have to hire them once they graduate,” he said. That’s assuming the athletes graduate – from Arizona, or Harvard.
RYOT Note: As March Madness heats up, it’s important to remember that for many people sports are more than just games. Through a groundbreaking peacebuilding-and-leadership development curriculum, PeacePlayers International uses basketball to bring children together and teach them proven tactics for improving their communities. You can support by donating, or by sharing this article.