Ivy League Basketball Is Peaking During the Transfer Portal Era

[UPDATE: No. 13 seed Yale upset fourth-seeded Auburn, 78-76, to advance to the second round of the men’s NCAA Tournament on Friday.]

It doesn’t take a Harvard degree to figure out that the Ivy League has gotten better at basketball.

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On the men’s side, the Ivy League was ranked 11th out of 32 Division I conferences in 2024, according to the metric RPI. That’s the league’s second-best ranking in the past 25 years, with its best result occurring in 2019 and its third-best in 2023.

Conference champion Yale earned an automatic NCAA tournament bid, but both Princeton and Cornell were selected to participate in the National Invitational Tournament—a 32-team bracket for teams that don’t qualify for March Madness. It’s the first time since 2002 that multiple Ivies were invited.

The quality of women’s basketball has been even higher, with the conference ranked 7th in RPI this year. After maxing out at 15th between the years of 2002 and 2014, the Ivy League has been one of the top 10 women’s basketball conferences in the country for most of the past decade. Princeton received a strong No. 9 seed in this year’s NCAA Tournament, and Columbia was granted a rare at-large bid for the conference. Columbia lost narrowly in a First Four game to Vanderbilt on Wednesday.

The increase in teams playing postseason basketball created a logistical problem for Ivy League executive director Robin Harris, who has to attend games in Virginia, Washington and Iowa all within a few days. “It’s a great problem to have,” Harris said.

The league’s national reputation was enhanced by the hiring of Tommy Amaker as Harvard's men’s head coach in 2007, since he had previously coached at Michigan. In 2008, Amaker brought in a recruiting class that was ranked in the top 25 in the country by ESPN, pushing other Ivy League programs to improve in order to compete.

For the women, an equivalent turning point was Princeton’s hitting the jackpot with head coach Courtney Banghart, who led her team to eight March Madness bids in the 2010s.

The Ivy League’s current hoops ascension coincides with a rapidly changing college sports landscape. In 2018, the NCAA Division I Council unveiled the transfer portal, and in 2021, the governing body began allowing athletes to transfer and compete immediately without sitting out for an academic year.

During a time when many teams cycle through new lineups every year due to the spike in transfers, in addition to the continued increase of “one and done” men’s players, Ivies have a leg up when it comes to developing talent and generating stability.

Aside from a couple of notable exceptions, such as 2022-23 conference-leading scorer Jordan Dingle transferring from Penn to St. John’s, the league’s coaches are generally able to sell athletes on the value of an Ivy League degree. “The pitch that every one of us gives every recruit is that it’s a 40-year decision, not a four-year decision, and I think that’s holding up right now,” Cornell men’s coach Brian Earl said.

Indeed, the five leading scorers for the Yale men are all upperclassmen, including three seniors. Princeton women’s star Kaitlyn Chen is also a senior. According to the website RealGM, no Division I conference had fewer men’s basketball players transfer in and out during the last offseason than the Ivy League.

“The league is so strong, and there’s continuity, which is rare,” Princeton men’s head coach Mitch Henderson said. “Look at the top teams in the country—Houston, Purdue, UConn—these are teams with continuity, and the entire [Ivy] League has it.”

For women’s teams, the transfer portal has even opened up a new supplementary recruiting opportunity, exemplified by Cecelia Collins, a Columbia junior who transferred from Bucknell in 2023 and became the Lions' second-leading scorer.

The conference’s next goal is getting two men’s teams into March Madness.

The NCAA tournament selection committee, however, typically overlooks teams from small conferences with strong win-loss records but no significant wins, instead granting bids to power conference schools with inferior records. “Because of the way the metrics go, it’s almost impossible for one of our teams to get an at-large bid,” Yale men's head coach James Jones said. “But that doesn’t mean we’re not good enough.”

The difficulty is scheduling non-conference games against elite opponents who have little incentive to travel to an Ivy League arena. “We’re penalized for needing to schedule games when people don’t want to play us,” Columbia women’s head coach Megan Griffith said in a press conference following her team’s loss in the Ivy League finals. “I try to play St. John’s. I try to play Rutgers. I try to play any local Power Five team or good mid-major team, and I can’t even get them on our schedule. Whose fault is that? It’s not ours.”

As hard as it is for Ivy women to schedule games, it’s even harder for the men. Jones said he’s not sure if he has a single non-conference game scheduled yet for next year. “[The Duke women] came to Levien Gym to play Columbia in November because [Duke coach] Kara Lawson was coming to help grow the game,” Harris said. “The men don’t do that. They just don’t do it.”

March Madness success like that of Henderson’s Sweet Sixteen squad last year goes a long way towards changing the narrative about the Ivy League. Men’s No. 13 seed Yale has a tough matchup against No. 4 Auburn on Friday. The Princeton women have an easier first round game on Saturday against eighth-seeded West Virginia, but would then have to face Caitlin Clark’s Iowa Hawkeyes in the second round.

A win by either program would help convince the rest of the country of what the stats already show: that the nerds can hold their own on the basketball court. 

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