Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Ivy/Patriot Challenge? Good Idea or Bad Idea?

On their blog today, the Cornell Basketball Blog suggested that it would "seem to make sense" for the Ivy League and Patriot League come to a formal agreement to have a challenge series between the two conferences, a la the ACC/Big 10 challenge, SEC-Big East invitational, and the now-concluded Big XII/Pac-10 Hardwood Series. At first glance, this seems like a perfect idea. Both conferences have a similar academic profile (e.g.- it was only recently that the Patriot League allowed athletic scholarships in non-football sports) and are similar geographically. Further, one only needs to look at football schedules to see a natural affinity between the two conferences. To take Harvard as an example, the Crimson football team will play all three non-conference games against the Patriot League this upcoming season, as they have for many years past. But, is that affinity actually problematic for such a series to take place on the hardwood?

The Ivies and Patriots already meet up a bit in basketball. Last year, Ivy League teams averaged 2.5 games against the Patriot League, with a range of 1 (Harvard and Cornell) to 5 (Dartmouth). If the two conferences agreed to a challenge series, would that place a burden on teams like Dartmouth (which actually had home and homes last season with two teams in the Patriot League, pretty rare for non-conference play) in terms of filling out their non-conference schedule? Looking at last year's ACC schedule, for example, there was only one ACC/Big 10 match-up outside of the challenge- a tournament game between Boston College and Wisconsin. It seems like it would be problematic for some of the Ivies if games against Patriot League opponents was held to one game since, as noted, the Patriot League makes a lot of sense as a non-conference opponent. Likewise, the challenge loses some of its appeal if teams can schedule non-conference games outside of the series. Perhaps one solution would be to follow Dartmouth's lead and make the series a home and home- this way, the Ivy League as a whole only "loses" 4 non-conference games.

(It should be noted that the original proposal that sparked this discussion was a Horizon/MAC challenge and the author at the Chicago Basketball Blog proposed his challenge because the two teams in those conferences meet up so much and in his proposal the Horizon League would "lose" 8 non-conference games, so maybe this isn't a problem.)

More analysis after the jump:

The second question I have is whether or not the geographic similarity between the two conferences actually poses a problem. First, looking at the other established challenges, an Ivy/Patriot series seems more like an ACC/SEC series. Yet the ACC is partnered with the Big 10, providing regional variation and ensuring local rivalries across the ACC and SEC can happen every year if both teams want, rather than being locked into the random pairings of a challenge. Turning back to the Ivy/Patriot, Harvard and Holy Cross have met 63 times in the last 110 years. Though they haven't met since 2008, Cornell and Colgate (ECAC Hockey rivals and just down the road from one another) have met 123 times in 110 years. Penn and Lafayette have battled almost every year since 1986 for Pennsylvania bragging rights. While these games might not create a ton of passion in terms of rivalries, these still seem like games that, for the most part, these teams would want to keep on an annual or semi-annual basis, rather than only occurring occasionally every X years in the challenge.

Furthermore, even if culturally and geographically an Ivy/Patriot series would make sense, another question is if it would make sense competitively. Based on last year's numbers, it would not. Looking at the KenPom, Sagarin and RPI numbers, the Ivy League was on average the 15th best conference in 2010-11. Under the same three ratings systems, the Patriot League was on average the 25th best conference. Now it's obviously not fair to base this on one year. Looking at a 3-year span for the RPI, the Ivy League was 29th, 22nd and then 15th, an upward trend. In the same span in the RPI, the Patriot League was 22nd, 28th, and 25th, a mostly stable trend. While the Ivy League is unlikely to continue to grow by leaps and bounds (I am not suggesting they will be 8th next year) it is possible they will remain in the teens to high twenties for at least a couple of years. Meanwhile, based on the last few years, the Patriot League will most likely be a mid-20s conference for at least the next few years. As for individual performances, again, this is only based on one year, but the Patriot League had few teams that stacked up. Here, in order, are last year's average in the three ratings from highest to lowest for both conferences: Harvard (64), Princeton (66.7), Bucknell (91.7), American (155.7), Yale (176.3), Penn (179.3), Columbia (202.3), Lehigh (202.7), Cornell (203.3), Lafayette (231.3), Brown (243.7), Holy Cross (259.3), Army (283.3), Navy (288), Colgate (317.3), Dartmouth (318). Or to put it another way, seventh placed Brown was better than half the Patriot League, at least according to the rankings.

To continue with the theme, let's look at last year's results between the two conferences. Out of the 20 games, the Ivy League went 12-8. The results: Brown (0-2, L vs. Army, at American), Columbia (3-1, W vs. Colgate, at American, Lafayette, L at Bucknell), Cornell (0-1, L vs. Bucknell), Dartmouth (2-3, W vs. Army, Colgate, L at Army, Colgate, Bucknell), Harvard (1-0, W vs. Holy Cross), Penn (2-0, W vs. Lafayette, Army*), Princeton (2-0, W vs. Bucknell*, at Lafayette), Yale (2-1, W. vs. Army, at Holy Cross, L vs. Lehigh). * neutral site
Again, while looking at only a year is hardly fair, what can be said is that especially for the top half (by standings) of the Ancient Eight, the Patriot League provided little competition last season. Yes, this is partly because the top 4 Ivies did not play the toughest Patriot competition, as only four games between the two leagues top halves took place- Harvard/Holy Cross, Princeton/Bucknell, Yale/Holy Cross and Yale/Lehigh. Still, the Ivies also went 3-1 in these games. Further, the series could not guarantee that the top halves would play, resulting in not only potentially un-compelling games but also the possibility of damaging some of the top teams' rankings. Thus, based on this last year, there would be little benefit to the Harvard and Princeton's playing most Patriot League teams, and if the games prove to be mismatches, for either conference, it would probably get little coverage.

Speaking of coverage, that's the last problem the Ivy League and Patriot League would need to overcome. The now seemingly defunct Big XII/Pac-10 series saw a mix of games on TV, mostly Fox Sports Network (regional) and ESPNU (national) with the occasional game on ESPN2. Starting next year, the SEC-Big East invitational will feature 12 games, all broadcast on the ESPN family of networks. The ACC/Big 10 series is also across all three main channels of ESPN. The Mountain West - Missouri Valley Challenge seems to be the only challenge series without some form of TV deal in place, and that features two conferences normally in the top 10 in the rankings. With that in mind, is there any real sizzle to an Ivy/Patriot series? To the casual fan, there's probably some name recognition of the Ivy schools and Patriot schools, especially Army and Navy and many of the Ivies. That said, I don't know that's enough to entice interest in this type of series, particularly with the conference ratings for both teams being so low. Except maybe for games being picked up by the Lafayette Sports Network and thus ESPN3.com, I doubt many if any of these games would get picked up national or regional television. For the Ivy League, then, this would seemingly lower the possible non-conference opponents, provide few competitive benefits (particularly in regards to RPI), and not increase exposure, at least in the near future. While I would not oppose such a series, I'm just not sure if the Ivy League would see any benefit in it currently.

That being said, I would like to see some type of Ivy League/Other Conference series being formed. One conference that would make some sense geographically would be the Colonial Athletic Association. Some teams are in the Ivy geographic footprint- Northeastern, Hofstra, Drexel, and to an extent, Delaware, while others are still pretty close in Maryland and Virginia. Thus trips would not be too onerous and few local rivalries would be disturbed (Harvard and Northeastern have only met 49 times, Columbia and Hofstra have only met 3 times since 1993, Penn and Drexel have only met 23 times). Here, though, it might be a stretch for the Ivy League to convince the CAA to establish this series, as the latter has been 14th, 12th and 10th in the RPI conference standings, somewhat of a disparity. For similar reasons, the Atlantic-10 would probably be out of reach. Despite the geographic similarities- Temple, Rhode Island, St. Bonaventure, Massachusetts, St. Joseph's, La Salle and Fordham, the Atlantic-10 is typically in or near the Top 10 as a conference. Plus, such a series could be potentially undermined by the Big Five and could feature further travel thanks to the inclusion of teams like St. Louis in the conference. The best fit could possibly be the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. In terms of RPI, they've been pretty stable in the mid-teens, in 13th, 15th and 16th over the last three years. The teams are all in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut with one exception, Loyola in Maryland. While it still probably would not get national coverage, such a series would provide 8-10 challenging games for the league while creating some buzz in the northeast. It would not disrupt current Ivy League schedules- only Penn and Princeton played against the MAAC last season, two games apiece (2-2 record, Princeton 2 Ws, Penn 2 Ls)nor any real rivalries. Other possibilities would include the Northeast Conference (somewhat weaker than the MAAC) and the America East conference (somewhat weaker than the Patriot League).

So what do Ivy League fans say? Do you want to see an Ivy/Other Conference series and what conference would you want- the Patriot League, Colonial Athletic, A-10, MAAC, NEC, America East or none of the above? And if this finds its way to fans of other conferences, what is your say? Would you want your conference to take on the Ivy League for bragging rights every year?

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