by Conor Gereg
Last season the Ivy League was the first and only conference to terminate the entirety of its season due to the pandemic. The league, and its collection of eight member schools, are on a mission to prove that last year was anything but lost.
“Our league was the only to elect to not play games this past season, so the excitement to return is magnified,” Nathaniel Graham, the associate head coach at Penn told College Hoops Digest. “I think for us, the pandemic and what transpired during this time has given us all a greater perspective and appreciation for what we have and what we are returning to.”
Flashback to March of 2020 and the Ivy League was the nation’s first league to cancel its conference tournament. Shortly after the league’s announcement, remaining tournaments met a similar fate.
Since this decision, the conference and its eight-member schools have been far from idle. Beginning in February the conference allowed teams to resume on-court practice though the time in between this break has been about far more than basketball.
“Personally, I have heard many refer to this time as a sabbatical. I know that I, like the other coaches I know, increased much of what we normally do to try to improve: read, listen to podcasts, watch film, talk with other leaders and coaches,” Graham said.
“As a team, we have spent a lot of time on Zoom, talking, watching film, etc,” Graham added. “We focused on trying to improve ourselves in ways that we may not get to focus on in normal circumstances, for instance mentally. We have also had several discussions and been engaged in civic engagement, although virtually, around racial and social justice as a team. We have several players that have really gotten involved and have been instrumental on our campus in this regard.”
Penn wasn’t the only program that focused on issues beyond the court in a year that was marked by civil rights activism and a new heightened social awareness.
“We did a ton of equity and inclusion work, trying to better ourselves and our communities at large,” said Yale head coach James Jones.
Even in a year of historic events, the Ivy League kept making strides, counting the days until this fall when the ball would finally tip again.
“On the court, we’ve just been in the lab individually working to improve,” Jones added of his Yale team, a group that returns plenty of talent to make a run at the league’s upper echelon.
“Our student-athletes are foaming at the mouth to get back in the gym as a group,” added Jones’ associated head coach, Matt Kingsley. “They’ve done an outstanding job staying busy – working on their games, getting stronger in the weight room, and gaining real-life work experience, but they are eager to get back after it. They’ve been through a lot having to watch everyone else play while their season was canceled. There are a lot of questions and doubters out there about what kind of impact this will have on them.”
Much like coaching staffs all over the country, every Ivy League team was forced to adapt to a digital world to remain connected throughout the pandemic while also focusing on player development—even if it meant doing it remotely.
“The main thing that improved over the prolonged break from game action is our connectivity,” said Columbia assistant Toby Carberry. “We stayed connected through Zoom meetings, FaceTimes, WhatsApp Chats, Text Messages, and Phone Calls during our distancing periods. We were in daily communication regarding program details, protocols, academics, and social interaction. We had creative Zoom Seminars with guest speakers, weekly team meetings, and even performed an online play for charity. “
A lot has happened since March of 2020 and for the Ivy League, time spent back in the gym served as a refuge.
“This time was tremendous,” Graham said. “We were able to work and as a staff, coach, without the next impending game looming. Therefore, I believe we were really able to focus on improvement. I think we all feel this opportunity is one that we will look back on as instrumental to our future success.”
Programs across the Ivy understand there will be critics voicing speculation of a league-wide talent drain considering that the conference has been victim to a steady stream of outgoing transfers, players who lost their senior season due to the pandemic and are looking elsewhere to finish their college tenure.
“The prolonged break I am hoping will make us that much more determined and that much hungrier once we are back at it next season,” said Brown head coach Mike Martin, a 9th-year head coach who will be fortunate enough to return several key pieces next season. “I know that we all greatly appreciate the opportunity that is to come, given that it’s been longer than normal since game action.”
20 Months too Long. The Long-Awaited Return of Ivy Hoops.
This November will mark the first time an Ivy League team has played in 20 months. When the conference and its teams take the floor this fall, it’ll hold a bit of additional symbolism: the sport of college basketball is fully back.
“We’ve waited a long time to get back to what we love to do, and I know that will make this season extra special,” said Brett Macconnell, associate head coach and recruiting coordinator at Princeton. “I think this past year-plus has made us really appreciative and grateful for all of the little things we get to do as a team. Practices, film sessions, travel – these are things we’ll never take for granted again.”
This coming March the Ivy League return to the floor, looking to write the next chapter in a book of historic upsets and memorable Cinderella runs. Without the Ivy League, there would be no Princeton upsetting the defending national champion UCLA in 1996, or Yale’s dual against Baylor in 2016, or Cornell’s Sweet 16 run in 2010, or the near take-down of #1 Georgetown in 1989 at the hands of a #16 seeded Princeton team. The Ivy League is firmly stitched into the fabric of what makes college basketball the draw that it is.
The Ivy League returns in 2021 and basketball is far better for it.