Let's get this out of the way right up front: personally, I think the Ivy League has got it right in how it selects its NCAA tournament representative. To me, the goal should be to send the team to the tournament that has the best chance of winning once it gets there, and in this league (especially since conference expansion is not exactly on the horizon for the Ivy, so unbalanced schedules aren't an issue) the regular season champion seems to be that team. There are lots of other things that you could reasonably argue should be factors in a conference's approach to this issue - spreading the (non-monetary) wealth of the chance for an NCAA bid among more schools, for example. Making money from a conference tournament. Building conference spirit and camaraderie (and nurturing rivalries) in a way that can happen when everyone is in one place. It's not necessarily an easy balance to achieve, and it's hard for an outsider like me to evaluate, so I'm not here to say every league on our side of the Red Line should do it - but that's why I embraced the fact that Saturday was, as I saw it, game two in a four-game, single elimination tournament for my Penn Quakers.
As you may know, entering the weekend, Penn and Harvard were tied in the loss column, though Harvard probably had several advantages: its remaining schedule was a road trip to Columbia and Cornell, whereas Penn had three games remaining, hosting Brown and Yale and then at Princeton. If both teams won out, they'd be league co-champions and would meet in a playoff to determine who would go to the NCAA tournament. Penn's student section, the Red & Blue Crew, explained:
Spring Break 2012: Palestra, Princeton, Playoff.
At the beginning of the season, most observers thought Yale was the likeliest challenger to the Mighty Amakers, with Princeton after that and Penn third in line. I admit that I remember this distinctly because in November I read pretty much whatever I could find on this issue, and, well, I hated reading that everywhere. I started the season hopeful that somehow it would turn out to be my Penn Quakers who presented that challenge.
That Saturday's game against Yale would turn out to be a key game in Penn's attempt to clinch a share of the league title, then, made me especially happy. But nervous. Yale did end up giving Harvard one of their two losses in the league, and had beaten Penn in New Haven a few weeks earlier. Plus, they had one of the few non-Crimson players who could challenge Zack Rosen for league individual honors in Greg Mangano. Rosen and Mangano are the top two in the league in average points per game, just to pick one stat.
The Red & Blue Crew were, apparently, also well aware of Mangano's importance to Yale's success. He was made the target of many jeers, signs, and almost constant boos anytime he touched the ball. I approach these kinds of things with a healthy skepticism, though - could they really get "in his head"?
I don't know, but what I do know is that if they were, Penn senior Rob Belcore, who drew the primary defensive assignment on Mangano, was everywhere else. When Mangano came out of the game halfway through the first half, this is what he looked like (right):
To be clear: Belcore, 4 inches shorter and at least 15 pounds lighter than Mangano, is a guard. Over the course of his four years at Penn, he's seen some very difficult times, lost a lot of games, and has been asked to play just about every role you can imagine from point guard to center. He's always brought the kind of energy that sort of scares you as a fan. He used his quick hands to steal the ball - now will he dribble it off his foot racing down for a fast break? He jumped into the lane to take a charge - but will his frenetic movement lead to a defensive foul instead? He's got a wide open lane on a fast break - but can he slow down enough to execute the Ivy League Dunk (i.e., the finger roll)?
The defense that Belcore played against Mangano, a guy who tested the waters in the NBA draft last year and has already been invited to a draft camp this year, was almost unbelievable. Mangano ended up with about half his season average in points and rebounds, and only took two foul shots. Two.
As he so often does, Belcore's fellow senior Zack Rosen led the Quakers with 20 points. But if you want to know why Penn soundly defeated Yale on Saturday and why I walked away from the Palestra for the last time this year happy that the right team - not just my team - was challenging Harvard, it was because of Rob Belcore.
at PENNSYLVANIA 68, YALE 47 03/03/2012
YALE 19-9 (9-5) -- A. Morgan 0-5 2-2 2; R. Willhite 1-6 2-2 5; G. Mangano 4-9 2-2 10; J. Pritchard 0-5 4-4 4; J. Kreisberg 4-7 2-2 10; J. Duren 1-4 1-4 3; B. Sherrod 0-3 0-0 0; S. Martin 0-1 0-0 0; M. Townsend 0-1 0-0 0; A. Cotton 1-2 1-2 3; G. Kelley 2-4 3-3 7; R. Anderson 0-1 0-0 0; W. Bartlett 0-1 1-2 1; W. Childs-Klein 1-2 0-0 2. Totals 14-51 18-23 47. PENNSYLVANIA 19-11 (11-2) -- R. Belcore 4-8 2-2 11; M. Cartwright 4-9 0-1 9; Z. Rosen 5-8 8-8 20; T. Bernardini 2-5 0-0 5; F. Dougherty 2-2 1-2 5; S. Rennard 1-1 2-2 5; M. Howlett 2-2 0-0 4; H. Brooks 0-2 0-0 0; M. Kukoc 0-0 0-0 0; C. Crocker 1-1 0-0 2; C. Gunter 1-1 0-0 2; K. Cairns 1-1 0-0 3; D. Jok 0-1 2-2 2; P. Lucas-Perry 0-1 0-1 0; S. Esprit 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 23-42 15-18 68.
Three-point goals: YALE 1-12 (R. Anderson 0-1; R. Willhite 1-2; S. Martin 0-1; A. Morgan 0-4; G. Kelley 0-1; J. Pritchard 0-2; J. Duren 0-1), PENN 7-17 (T. Bernardini 1-4; R. Belcore 1-4; Z. Rosen 2-2; M. Cartwright 1-3; D. Jok 0-1; S. Rennard 1-1; K. Cairns 1-1; P. Lucas-Perry 0-1); Rebounds: YALE 26 (G. Mangano 5), PENN 30 (Z. Rosen 6); Assists: YALE 4 (R. Willhite 2), PENN 13 (R. Belcore 5); Total Fouls -- YALE 15, PENN 25; Fouled Out: YALE-None; PENN-None.