Cornell captivated TV viewers this past March when it became the Ivy League's first Sweet 16 team in more than three decades. Ex-Harvard star Jeremy Lin also generated plenty of buzz last week when he signed a two-year contract with Golden State.
Surely the Ivy League's banner basketball season will provide coaches with a selling point for high-level recruits this summer, right? Well, according to longtime Yale coach James Jones, that theory might be overblown.
On the one hand, Lin's NBA riches and Cornell's NCAA tournament victories prove that it's possible to go to an Ivy League program and succeed at basketball's highest level. On the other hand, the long-term value of an Ivy League education remains a far more effective sales pitch when recruiting against marquee programs with more scholarship money and basketball pedigree.
"Our biggest issue is recruiting BCS scholarship-level kids, so your job as a coach is to talk about the advantages you have," Jones said by phone. "(Yale alum and former NBA center) Chris Dudley just got the Republican nomination to run for governor in the state of Oregon. That's what you want kids to be able to see is what a Yale education can provide you after basketball. It's about the next 40 years of their life, not just the next four."
Jones' comments exemplify what makes recruiting in the Ivy League different than any other conference in the nation. Ivy League coaches recruit from a smaller pool of academically viable kids and they can't offer athletic scholarships, so they must highlight the lasting value of their university's diploma to entice players not to head elsewhere.
It was that formula that previously helped the conference land last season's two biggest breakout stars. The California-born Lin chose Harvard instead of walking on at a Pac-10 program, while sweet-shooting Cornell guard Ryan Wittman rebuffed interest from several Big Ten schools to choose the Big Red.
Ivy League commissioner Robin Harris agrees with Jones' academics-first recruiting philosophy, yet she also believes the publicity Lin and Cornell generated can only help entice top recruits. And with three-time defending champ Cornell losing its coach and eight seniors, Harvard playing without Lin and traditional powers Penn and Princeton still not back to their previous level, the conference could use the influx of talent.
"We've had some great examples of how it's possible to mesh athletic excellence and academic excellence," Harris said by phone. "Cornell showed us that in the NCAA tournament and Jeremy Lin showed us that with his outstanding performance in the NBA summer league. Things like that can only help promote what we're trying to do."