Sunday, November 3, 2013

Ivy League Dynasties

The best Ivy team ever won't be this year's edition of the Crimson.

Let's just keep repeating that to counterbalance the myriad national writers who have suggested or even predicted that Harvard would go down as the best Ivy team in the league's 60-year history. The 1970s saw Penn have two different teams that finished third in the final Associated Press poll and a third which made the Final Four. When it comes to great teams and great dynasties, that Quakers run will be nearly impossible to beat, unless the Ivies get far more reasonable about their athletics admissions policies. Consider that Penn won eight out of 10 Ivy titles during that decade (making the Top 10 in an AP poll during five of those seasons), while losing one of the two times to a Princeton team that rose to No. 15 in the AP poll itself.

To cut the national writers a break, let's assume that they're just talking about the modern, 64-ish team era. Two years ago, I explored the best and worst team performances of the digital box score era (since 1997), but here's a simple chart to provide a refresher of the best seasons (with data that now spans all the way back to the institution of the Academic Index in 1980).

The data here includes both the Pomeroy-style Adjusted Pythagorean Win Percentage and the College Basketball Reference "Simple Rating System" (SRS). Both systems are based upon calculating the adjusted margin of victory controlling for opponent quality.

While the two systems differ slightly in their rankings, it is a tidy outcome that both have the same overall Top 10 teams.

While it bears noting that it is incredibly unlikely that the 2013-14 Crimson will catch the 1998 Tigers in either the Pomeroy or SRS systems, that really isn't the purpose of this examination. Rather, we're discussing Ivy Dynasties - specifically, whether Harvard deserves to be discussed among them, and those that currently comprise the list.

People will vary on the definition of dynasty, but the relevant metric here will be sustained success beyond one recruiting cycle. Taking a look at the five-year rolling averages of every Ivy team back to the 1980s, the standard bearers pop out immediately.

Princeton's five-year rolling average Pythag score was above 0.6500 every year from 1991 (1986-87 season through 1990-91) to 2002. That essentially means that the Tigers averaged being the No. 100 team in the country over a span of 16-straight seasons, and their peak at 0.7746 in 2000 meant that for 5-straight seasons, the squad was roughly No. 50 in the nation on average.

Quickly keeping this in perspective, however, while Princeton's ascension to as high as No. 8 in the AP poll in 1998 was an impressive anchor to its run as the preeminent Ivy dynasty, Penn reached or surpassed that ranking in each of the first four seasons of the 1970s and followed it up by cracking the Top 20 in four of the next six seasons as well.

The Tigers' run might have lasted the longest and reached the greatest heights during the Academic Index era, but the Quakers came quite close to catching Princeton. Starting in 1995 (1990-91 season to 1994-95), Penn posted a five-year rolling average Pythag score above 0.6000 in all but two of the next 13 seasons. It also reached its peak of 0.7531 in 2005-06, just prior to the departure of legendary coach Fran Dunphy.

Penn and Princeton had the same number of seasons from their dynasty years crack the Top 10 best teams of the AI era (4 each), but the Tigers always seemed to have a little extra, as their best seasons finished higher on the list and they had a little more luck in March.

Until Harvard cracked the 0.6000 five-year rolling average last season, no other Ivy team than those Quakers and Tigers squads of the 1990s and 2000s had done it. The closest potential dynasties were the recent Princeton squads (0.5880 average from 2008-09 to 2012-13) and the three-peat Cornell teams (0.5791 average from 2007-08 to 2011-12).

That puts the Crimson third on the AI era dynasty list, but it's a very distant third. Princeton was great for 16 years and Penn was very good for most of a 17 year span. Harvard just posted its first dynasty-like five-year rolling average. That just gives it 11 or 12 more to go.

Much like the discussion of the best Ivy team of all time, this analysis isn't meant to belittle the Crimson's efforts, but rather to remind folks of what this league has accomplished in the past. The perception of the league is accurate through most of the curve, but memory seems to fade at the extreme right tail. It's understandable that people would forget that Ivy teams were mainstays in the polls in the 1970s, but more and more, it seems like they've forgotten that the league wore white in the NCAAs twice in the 1990s and had two more teams crack the Top 25.

This 2013-14 Harvard team likely won't be the best Ivy ever. It also has a long way to go to become the best Ivy dynasty, even of just the modern era. That's just the reality that everyone else seems to have forgotten.

1 comment:

  1. If "they" are going back 60 years, then until Harvard cracks the Sweet 16, Elite 8, or Final 4, "they" know no history.