“Did Columbia blow it or did Princeton swipe it away? Yes.” Ivy Hoops Online’s Mike Tony perfectly described Saturday night’s game at Levien, and perhaps the season for Columbia as a whole. Through a series of improbable events, a slew of amazing shots, and a pair of Princeton players who refused to go quietly into Morningside’s good night, the Tigers stunned the Lions in what could easily be the best top-to-bottom game of the Ivy season so far. The overtime loss sets Columbia back to 6-2 in the league, behind Princeton (6-1) and Yale (8-0). Can Columbia realistically reclaim that two game deficit in the remaining three weeks?
In the Ivy League’s double round robin, two rules usually govern the “expected” results. First, higher tier teams beat lower tier teams. Second, when teams in the higher tier play each other, the team with home-court advantage wins. Anything outside of these results constitutes an upset or a reshuffling of the tiers. Columbia, by dropping its home game against Princeton, has ceded its home-court advantage. This slip is a particularly costly move against Princeton, whose home court, the dark and cavernous Jadwin Gymnasium, commands the strongest effect for the home team in the Ivy League. But if Columbia is able to win in New Jersey, they would even the season score against Princeton to 1-1 – just as if they had both won at home. This move would place the Lions back into the “higher tier” of the league.
Don’t look now, but the Ivy League is good. Unreasonably good. The top teams in the league have exhibited not only quickly-developed strategic changes (breaking pressure against Cornell, forcing Zena Edosomwan to shoot free throws against Harvard) but also ridiculous individual instinctive play (Alex Rosenberg’s buzzer beater at Harvard, Devin Cannady’s prayer of a three-pointer at Columbia). Sure, there are moments of bad play here and there where the only response is to sarcastically exclaim, “Ivy basketball!” But for the most part, the Ancient Eight are playing out of their minds, and whoever manages to make it into the postseason could easily provide as much upset potential as the Harvard of the last two years, even if they are likely to earn a lower seed.
A 4-loss Ivy team hasn’t made the NCAA tournament in relevant history. So, Columbia is looking to finish a 12-2 or 11-3 to stand a chance at the title. Here are Columbia’s best opportunities to earn a share of the Ivy title.
If Columbia wins out (12-2)
Option 1: The Pure Top Tier – Each of the three top tier Ivy teams ties with each other. Princeton and Columbia beat Yale at their respective homes, and the Lions defeat the Tigers in the rematch. If these three teams beat the other five, then there will be a three-way 12-2 tie at the top. This is, by all means, totally unprecedented for Ivy basketball. While most sports would be happy to declare a tie and be done with it, basketball has to send someone to the tournament. With no precedent at all, the League could possibly assign Yale a bye in a three-team tournament due to its success at defending the home court, or go by statistics like point differential. But there’s a reason this scenario has never happened before – sports are terribly unpredictable, and basketball is a sport prone to upsets.
Option 2: Home-Court Advantage – While dominant at home, Yale proves unable to master the upper-tier Ivies at their home courts. Columbia and Princeton take games off of Yale and, supposing Columbia wins everything, the Lions beat the Tigers. But something funny happens. I don’t quite know what it would be. Maybe Yale repeats their follies of last year and drops a game at Cornell late in the season. Maybe Harvard steps it up and steals a game from Princeton in Cambridge. A lower-tier team upsetting a high-tier team at home is a common historical occurrence. If Columbia wins out, they could count on an upset of one of the other top teams to force a two-team playoff, or an upset of both Yale and Princeton which would make the Lions undisputed champions.
Option 3: What if Yale Wins in Princeton? – If the Bulldogs and the Lions both defeat the Tigers in Princeton, that puts them down to 11-3, but leaves Yale with an unaccounted loss somewhere. The Lions could become big Big Red fans on March 4th, cheering for then 12-0 Yale to lose and give us a chance. They could flounder against any lower-tier team, but the key would be for the Lions to stay steadfast while the Bulldogs threw away their best chance in decades. In this three-way tie scenario, Yale would have a sweep over a top team, and thus earn a bye in the ensuing three-team tournament.
If Columbia gives one loss (11-3)
Option 4: Lose to Princeton – The most probable loss for the Lions the rest of the season (aside from the unaffordable potential loss against Yale at home) would be against the Tigers. In this scenario, we would want Princeton to beat Yale, and we would root hard for the lesser Ivies to overthrow Princeton and Yale twice each. At this 13-3 three-way tie, Princeton would have the advantage due to a head-to-head sweep against the Lions, and would earn a bye in a three-team tournament.
Option 5: Lose to Not-Princeton and Not-Yale – If the Lions are upset by some other team – Penn, let’s say – but still beat Princeton and Yale, it’s a very similar situation. We still root for Princeton to beat Yale, but the difference here is in the tiebreaking scenarios. A top tier in which all teams beat each other precludes using head-to-head records. The league would test the tying teams records against the 4th place, then 5th place, then 6th place teams. Some tiebreaker here would give one team – even possibly Columbia – the bye in a three-team tournament.
Grant Mullins via David Banks