Liberate Me From Basketball Tiebreaker Hell

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artist's rendition of Ivy playoff scenarios
artist's rendition of Ivy playoff scenarios

This image will be relevant every year

Senior Staffer Ross Chapman is really hoping the men’s basketball team doesn’t disappoint this year, though they probably will. 

Every year in late February, I write an article about the pile of nonsense that is Ivy League men’s basketball and its tiebreaker scenarios. As we near the end of the season, anything could happen – literally any team could still win the championship. For once, though, all of the rules are very clear. All that remains is crunching the numbers. Below are some possible playoff scenarios, all of which are making me pull my hair out. I look forward to soon being free from this Tiebreaker Hell – hopefully, Columbia will come out on top. (All tables in this article, as well as additional information, can be found in this spreadsheet.)

A graph of the current standings of Ivy Basketball

All graphs in this article can be clicked to enlarge.

Where are we now? The Columbia men currently stand tied for 4th with Brown and Cornell at 4-6. Columbia has not had a stellar season, but they have protected their home court well (3-1 in Levien). Their only home loss was to Penn, one of the league’s top teams. According to Luke Benz and the Yale Undergraduate Sports Analytics Group, the Lions actually have a 53% chance to make the playoffs. This is because of how the Ivy League tiebreaker rules work.

If two teams are tied in the standings, you defer first to their head-to-head record. For instance, if Brown and Columbia were tied at 6-8, but Brown had defeated Columbia in both of their games, then Brown would have the advantage over Columbia. If the teams are tied, you compare the tied teams’ records against the best team in the league. If tied there, keep going down the standings until you find a difference. Columbia has a major advantage due to their win against Harvard, the other top team in the league. This puts Columbia into a great position if they can continue to perform at an average level.

What happens if Columbia wins each of its next four games? If the Lions go 4-0 in their next four games, then they will be guaranteed a playoff spot. After accounting for Columbia’s 4 wins, each other team only has a certain number of “Potential Wins” left. Penn and Harvard would be guaranteed the 1- and 2-seeds. Yale and Cornell would each have a chance to reach 8 wins. However, since they have to play each other, only one of them can achieve that maximum potential of 8 wins. Therefore, an 8-6 Lions squad would be guaranteed a berth.

Could Columbia get to the tourney with only one more win? The Lions could limp their way into the Ivy League Postseason Tournament with only one more win! While they would need a lot of help from other teams, the scenario is not particularly unbelievable. Columbia would beat Brown and lose to Yale, Harvard, and Dartmouth. Otherwise, Harvard and Penn would dominate the league while most of the other teams split series against each other. Columbia would end up with a 5-9 record, the same record in this scenario as Brown, Princeton, and Cornell. As these teams would all be even head-to-head, they would go on to the next tiebreaker to decide the 4-seed. Columbia’s victory over the Crimson would lead them to the league’s first 5-9 playoff berth.

Could Columbia get the 3-seed with a 6-8 record? If Columbia goes 2-2 in its next four games, it would wind up at 6-8. With a little help from the rest of the league, the Lions could earn the 3-seed due to the same tiebreaker structure. (In the scenario shown, Columbia would defeat Yale thanks to its Harvard tiebreaker.) This could be huge for the Lions, because they would get to avoid the league’s 1-seed in the first game of the tournament. If the Lions can avoid playing Penn at the Palestra, they should do so for as long as possible.

Could Columbia go 0-2 this weekend and still reach the tourney? Even if the Lions lost to the Brown Bears and the Yale Bulldogs this weekend, they would not necessarily be out of the running. In fact, so long as Cornell defeats Brown on Saturday, the Lions will not be eliminated after this weekend. They would, however, have to travel to Harvard and Dartmouth and then sweep the weekend, while also receiving help from a few other Ivy teams.

Could there be a 6-way tie for third place? Why yes, there could! The Yale Sports Group revealed an apocalyptic scenario in which six teams would end up with a 6-8 record. Were this horrifying alternate universe become reality, Columbia would slink its way into the tournament thanks to its victory over Harvard.

Princeton can still win the tournament via Ross Chapman

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  1. can any of the graphs in this article be

    licked to enlarge?

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