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March Madness? Ivy League Can Send Two Teams to Big Dance

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I realize the rest of the world just quit sleeping on Cornell following their near-miss at #1 Kansas, but I've been on their bandwagon all year, so I'm not going to waste your time acting surprised at their narrow loss in Allen Fieldhouse. The question I have been contemplating for weeks is "Can the Ivy get two bids?"

It's never happened before, not even back in the day when Princeton and Penn were great rivals year in and year out. The auto-bid goes to the team that wins the regular season, and that's it. So what's different this season? Non-conference wins.

Ivy schools spend a lot of time playing cannon fodder in guarantee games year in and year out. This year, however, two teams are winning their fair share of tough roadies. Cornell is 12-3, having lost to Seton Hall at home and at Syracuse and Kansas. They've beat good mids in Toledo, Drexel, and Davidson; A-10 stalwarts LaSalle, UMass, and St. Joe's, and power players Alabama and St. John's. I said two weeks ago that I thought they should play in the tourney regardless of who wins the Ivy (assuming they don't shit the bed in conference play).

The only reason I'd even consider such a thing is that Tommy Amaker's Harvard team is doing much the same thing against decent competition. The Crimson (it's a red year in the Ivy) are 11-3, with a marquee win over Boston College, a three-point loss at UConn, and 18th-century bragging rights victories over William & Mary and George Washington. They have a great player in Jeremy Lin, and a high-profile coach in former Dukie, Seton Haller and Michigan man Amaker.

Let's look at some recent history to put this speculation in perspective. Below are this decade's rare second bids from historically one-bid conferences.

Big West: Pacific 2005. Pacific went 18-0 in conference play and 23-6 overall. After losing to Kansas and San Francisco in December, the Tigers ran the table with 22 straight wins before losing to Utah State in the conference final. Utah State took the auto-bid and a #14 seed, while Pacific was #8 in the West regional. The Tigers upset Pitt in the first round before losing to Washington to end their season. Utah State lost promptly to Arizona.

CAA: Old Dominion 2007 (RPI 39). The Monarchs finished the season at 15-3, just behind Anthony Grant's 16-2 Rams squad. ODU lost in the CAA semis to a 9-9 George Mason team, which fell to VCU the next day. Old Dominion got in on the strength of a higher RPI number: 39 to VCU's 42, thanks to a big win at Georgetown.

George Mason 2005 (RPI 26). Yep, the Final Four team didn't even win the CAA auto-bid. This was the year frustration in the CAA title game boiled over as Tony Skinn cockpunched Wilmington's Loren Stokes, then got a second lease on life as his Patriots made the dance anyway. Larranaga had the guts to sit Skinn in the NCAA's first round as punishment, and reaped the rewards in respect and a long run to the FF.

Horizon: Butler 2009 (RPI 24); Butler 2007 (RPI 27); Butler 2003 (RPI 76). All three of these are the same scenario. The Horizon tourney was won by Cleveland St. in '09, Wright State in '07, and Bruce Pearl's Milwaukee Panthers in '03. Each year Butler's national profile got them in the dance anyway, though '03's RPI number is pretty low.

MAC: Miami, OH 1999 (RPI 21): Kent State was a worthy MAC champion, with one non-con loss and an RPI of 23, but the selection committee couldn't ignore the monster season Charlie Coles' Miami team turned in, either. Good thing, as Wally Szczlzerbiak led the Redhawks to the Sweet 16, while the Golden Flashes bombed out vs. Temple in the first round.

MVC: Wichita State 2006 (RPI 27); Creighton 2001 (RPI 23). The Shockers got in after Southern Illinois finally won Arch Madness in 2006, and made the Sweet 16, only to run into the George Mason juggernaut. Creighton's lone at-large of the 2000s was occasioned by Indiana State winning the conference tourney despite Creighton's very strong season showing.

Southern Illinois 2007 (RPI 7), 2005 (RPI 16), 2004 (RPI 25), 2003 (RPI 41), 2002 (RPI 123). So Ill had the Butler mojo for a while there. They played such a tough schedule and won enough games that they could get in without winning the conference tourney, which is good, since they mostly didn't. 

Sun Belt: South Alabama 2008 (RPI 37). This one caused major hair-tearing and breast-beating amongst the status quo, as Team USA failed to even make their tourney final, then got to play in Birmingham in the opening round. Early wins over Mississippi State and San Diego seem to have swayed some voters' hearts. Conference champ WKU got the last laugh, getting to the Sweet 16 that season.

WCC: St. Mary's (RPI 36), Gonzaga (RPI 30) 2008; St. Mary's 2005 (RPI 30); Gonzaga 2003 (RPI 28), Pepperdine 2002 (RPI 75), Pepperdine 2000 (RPI 52).

With Gonzaga generally running the table year in and year out, the NCAA selection committee has had every excuse they could want for leaving out other WCC teams, but they haven't. Pepperdine got in with RPIs of 52 and 75 after losing conference finals to the Zags in '00 and '02. Then the Zags used their own big numbers to get in after being upset by San Diego in 2003 and 2008. St. Mary's is the lone third WCC team to get in in a given year, following Patty Mills to a first-round loss in 2008.  

WAC: Nevada 2007 (RPI 23); Utah State 2006 (RPI 46); Nevada 2005 (RPI 32); UTEP 2004 (RPI 46); Tulsa 2002 (RPI 40); Fresno State 2001 (RPI 20); Tulsa 2000 (RPI 21)

The recipe for getting an at-large in the WAC is to get upset in the conference finals by a team with a decent number of their own. When Hawaii won the WAC with an 8-8 conference record in 2001, Fresno State was saved by their spectacular record and an RPI of 20. UTEP and Nevada each had RPIs over 50 when they swapped championships in 04/05. Nevada was so strong under Mark Fox (now at Georgia) that they rarely had to sweat Selection Sunday.

One of the most famous jobbings of all time was the 2007 Drexel team that racked up a 43 RPI by playing anyone anywhere, beating Big Fivers Villanova, Temple, and St. Joe's, along with Syracuse, Toledo and Vermont in an excellent early season. A loss to VCU in the CAA semis left Bruiser Flint's on the outside looking in. They didn't even sniff the NIT.

So what scenario gets the Ivy two bids? The lack of conference tourney eliminates the Bruiser Conundrum, so the next two months must unfold according to a very strict sequence of events for this Ivy dream to come true.

Cornell currently has an RPI of 37, and Harvard has an astounding 26. Cornell has South Dakota and a non-DI foe still to play, but Harvard begins Ivy play with Dartmouth on Saturday. Neither team can afford to lose to any other Ivy rival. Princeton's 113 is the next highest RPI, and Penn comes in at a horrifying 338. Cornell hosts Harvard on January 31st, then gives the return game on February 19th.

My gut feeling says that if Cornell sweeps, Harvard stays home. If Harvard sweeps, Cornell's big wins can still get the Big Red in. A split would probably force a playoff-style game to decide the victor, which again has a Cornell slant to it, in my opinion. Aside from the BC win, Amaker's high RPI is built on his journeys to the Big East, where he forged a very close loss at UConn, and a 16-point kicking at G'town. The loss at Army is a killer, though. Cornell doesn't have anything like that to weigh them down (so far).

So, if Harvard runs the table in the Ivy, and Cornell loses only to the Crimson, I believe a two-bid Ivy is a lock.

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