CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – In the world of college basketball, the Ivy League has long been considered a quaint little non-scholarship conference that isn't even big-time enough to hold a postseason tournament. Where the games are played almost exclusively on weekends, so as not to interfere with schoolwork.
A two-bit conference.
Not a two-bid conference.
Better-known for producing U.S. presidents than professional basketball players, the Ivy League has never sent two teams to the NCAA tournament in one year. But bracket-watchers agree that Harvard might have a chance this year if it loses to Princeton in a conference tiebreaker on Saturday.
"There's a certain perception, and you just hope that the committee studies and analyzes and looks at those teams," ESPN analyst Dick Vitale said this week in a telephone interview. "That always helps. People say, 'Wow! There's some pretty good basketball played there.' These are basketball people, so they know quality basketball when they see it."
Harvard and Princeton finished the regular season as the Ivy co-champions, but because the conference doesn't have a postseason tournament they will have to play a tiebreaker at a neutral site — Yale's campus in New Haven, Conn. — to claim the automatic NCAA bid.
A victory against Princeton on Saturday would give the Crimson their first NCAA berth since 1946. But a loss could accomplish something even more historic: the conference's first-ever at-large NCAA bid.
"I think if people look at our body of work, it's not out of the realm of possibility," Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said. "I'm very hopeful about that. I think that would be an important step in the growth of the league."
The last Ancient Eight school to win a conference title, Harvard (23-5, 12-2) is making its NCAA case with wins over potential tournament teams Boston College, Colorado, Princeton and Boston University. According to the "NCAA tournament resume" compiled by the Harvard sports information office, the Crimson are No. 35 in RPI, ahead of bubble teams such as BC, Colorado and Virginia Tech.
Of its five defeats so far, four were to schools in the NCAA picture — all on the road. Two of them were largely without All-Ivy forward Kyle Casey. Three came by a total of eight points.
And this despite having no seniors on a team that sent its best player from last season — Jeremy Lin — to the NBA.
"If they lose that game, they've certainly got to be on the table for consideration," Vitale said. "I think Harvard's got a fighting chance."
Harvard has a stronger case than Princeton (24-6, 12-2) for an at-large bid, Vitale said, and Tigers coach Sydney Johnson isn't counting on a second chance if the Tigers lose on Saturday.
"It's certainly challenging," he said after beating Penn 70-58 on Tuesday night to force the one-game tiebreaker. "It's a grind. It's everything on the line. But I think it's the way to do it in a single-bid league."
But the Ivies might not be a single-bid league for long.
With a tournament field that has expanded to 68 teams, there is room for three more than last year. And the conference's recent success in the event could also work in Harvard's favor.
Last year, Cornell made it to the round of 16 before losing to No. 1-seed Kentucky in the East Region semifinals. Harvard guard Brandyn Curry remembers watching the Big Red knock off Temple and Wisconsin — schools with long basketball pedigrees — and thinking the Ivies' time had come.
"It gave the Ivy League some respectability," he said. "I don't think anybody will take an Ivy League team lightly anymore."
Former Cornell coach Steve Donahue, who left for Boston College after the season, agreed.
"I think Harvard and Princeton are two of the best teams in the country," he said, even though an at-large Ivy bid could come at BC's expense. "They deserve it."
Vitale noted that strange things can happen in other conference tournaments that eat up the available at-large bids. So, he has some advice for the Crimson as they head into the Saturday's game.
"Go for the knockout punch," he said, "and win."