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Implications for a season without all or some of the Ivy League

The nerds to the north might not play at all this season. Here’s what that means.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 14 Brown at Penn Photo by Nicole Fridling/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

A basketball season unlike any other might have to go on without rivalries that have endured for over a century.

As the 2020-21 college basketball season finally takes shape, there is growing skepticism over whether the eight-team Ivy League will compete at all, sources told Adam Zagoria.

The Ivy League, which was the first to cancel its postseason tournament last year at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, has already said it will not play fall sports in 2020 and winter sports will not start until January, if at all.

It seems that the “if at all” part is becoming increasingly likely.

Zagoria went on to report that Harvard — a perennial contender in men’s and women’s basketball — has already decided not to play and at least one other school is considering not playing. If half the league (or more) drops out, conference play becomes virtually impossible and a canceled Ivy season would be all-but-assured.

As of now, all indications are that the Division I season will begin in some form on Nov. 25 and that teams will aim to play around 25 games, depending on early season tournament arrangements. With cancelations and postponements inevitable due to the raging pandemic, most teams will probably not play their full slates, but there seems to be hope that some semblance of a 2021 NCAA Tournament will happen. If that happens without the Ivy League, here are the straightforward implications:

  • The obvious sad stuff: Shouting out Dartmouth on every podcast will be a lot harder, I can’t walk 20 blocks to watch Columbia play, and our quest for a #2BidIvy will have to wait another year. Try to contain your disappointment.
  • The NCAA Tournament will have room for one more at-large bid. Granted, we don’t know how many teams will be in the 2021 NCAA Tournament, so what that does to the math is still unclear. But the coach of whoever finishes ninth in the ACC (Syracuse) will probably be happy.
  • The non-conference impact should be minimal. With the Ivy League announcing long ago that it would not play until January at the earliest, there are no remaining MTEs (multi-team events) relying on them to fill a spot and teams scheduled to face Ivies in one-off non-conference games or guarantees have long since made other arrangements.

After that, it gets a little complicated, particularly if only a few schools opt out of the season and not the league as a whole. The Ivy League has long had a rule that prevented postgraduate players from participating in athletics. It also does not give out medical redshirts. This has traditionally led to an annual rush of graduate transfers. In 2020, verbal commits tracked 12 players who transferred out of the league’s eight programs, including nine who were granted immediate eligibility elsewhere. Look for that number to increase next year after the NCAA voted last week to grant all winter sports athletes an extra year of eligibility, given the uncertainty of the season ahead.

Keep in mind that this is a directive from the NCAA. The Ivy League is under no obligation to grant an extra year to its players, which it has not done in the past, despite the NCAA allowing for circumstances like medical redshirts and graduate transfers.

There is hope here for Ivy athletes if they wish to remain at their schools for a fifth year. In the Ivy’s release announcing the cancelation of fall sports, it indicated that athletes would not be docked a year of eligibility for a season that won’t be played:

Fall sport student-athletes will not use a season of Ivy League or NCAA eligibility in the fall, whether or not they enroll. Students who wish to pursue competition during a fifth-year will need to work with their institutions in accordance with campus policy to determine their options beyond their current anticipated graduation date.

Logically, this should apply to winter sports as well, but it that’s if the entire league decides not to compete. If just a couple schools opt out of the season, then the league will have some tough decisions to make. In an article from earlier this year, Ivy League executive director Robin Harris told ESPN’s Jeff Borzello that they were in no rush to change their transfer policies:

“It’s a philosophical approach that we do what’s right for college athletics and what’s right for student-athletes, as well,” Harris added. “We have other rules that maybe put us at a disadvantage competitively, and yet we continue to have about 100 ranked teams a year, continue to do well in NCAA tournaments, win national championships. ... We haven’t really talked about it, because it’s one of the philosophical underpinnings of the league.”

Make no mistake: the competitive disadvantage that Harris mentions here would compound dramatically if suddenly every athlete in the conference had a chance to go elsewhere to complete their careers. Bryce Aiken already shouldn’t have had to leave Harvard to finish out his career. Same goes for Seth Towns. But those are the rules and those two players knew what they were signing up for when they committed to Harvard. No one knew this was coming, and if Harvard does not play this season in order to keep its players, coaches, and administration safe, then its players should not be penalized, regardless of what Cornell or Columbia decide to do.

That seems like common sense and hopefully you don’t need an Ivy League degree to realize it.