Archaic rule prevents Ivy basketball from reaching its true potential

Among countless other things, the 2020-21 college basketball season could be labeled “The Year of the Ivy transfer.”

This past spring was a busy time for the conference. The Ivy League was the first to cancel its postseason tournament due to COVID-19, starting a domino effect on the eventual NCAA Tournament cancellation. Shortly after, the conference was in the headlines once again.

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As spring’s transfer market picked up, the Ivy League saw its stars leave for greener pastures in what is becoming an alarming trend within the conference.

Here are some notable Ivy players who chose power-conference destinations for this fall:

  • Mike Smith, Columbia to Michigan — 22.8 ppg, 4.5 apg, All-Ivy team
  • Patrick Tape, Columbia to Duke — 11.3 ppg, 5.9 rpg in ’18-19
  • Jordan Bruner, Yale to Alabama — 10.9 ppg, 9.2 rpg, All-Ivy team
  • Bryce Aiken, Harvard to Seton Hall — ’18-19 All-Ivy team
  • Seth Towns, Harvard to Ohio State — ’17-18 Ivy Player of the Year
  • Ryan Betley, Penn to California — 11.6 ppg, 5.8 rpg

The massive talent drain leaves the promising conference where it’s always been — a one-bid league hoping for an infrequent upset every March. Though there is nothing inherently wrong with Ivy basketball, it has potential for so much more if it did away with an archaic rule.

Outdated transfer policy

Ivy basketball has progressed significantly since it was officially founded in 1954. The past six decades have featured memorable March Madness upsets, NBA contributors and the recent creation of a postseason tournament.

But in the evolving world of transfers and draft declarations in college basketball, the Ivy lags behind. This is due to the conference’s assertion that athletics should only be played by undergraduates. As such, players don’t receive redshirts following injuries and are forced to transfer once their undergraduate requirements are met.

This lends its way to what occurred this past spring where the conference’s top players are forced out of the league. Harvard, for example, saw Seth Towns — the ’17-18 Ivy player of the year — suit up just 58 times for the Crimson before his time as an undergrad expired, missing two full seasons due to knee injuries. His former all-conference teammate Bryce Aiken, meanwhile, played more than 18 games just once because of injuries as well. Instead of teaming up once more with former top-100 recruit and returning leading scorer Noah Kirkwood in what would likely be a preseason top-25 team, the Ivy’s undergraduate rule sent Aiken and Towns out of town.

“The league certainly loses a lot of talent from it,” Towns said to ESPN in February. “It’s more of an ethical thing for the Ivy League; I’m not really sure how I feel about it. But the league objectively loses talent.”

Though Towns and Aiken landed with quality teams in Ohio State and Seton Hall, respectively, they might have wanted to finish out their careers with Harvard but never had the option. How do we think Tommy Amaker feels about losing out on a possible top-25 roster without having his say? This rule only benefits power-conference teams that are already raiding the grad transfer market to field better teams.

To make matters worse, the Ivy seems content with where it stands, losing high-level talent every spring.

“What’s the problem with it?” Ivy League executive Robin Harris said. “We’re still continuing to thrive as a league. … I think we have to have an issue to fix.”

Talent level and results

The Ivy League isn’t just smart kids who happen to play basketball. It’s a legitimate basketball conference with talent that NBA scouts and power-conference coaches no longer ignore.

Last March, Yale’s Miye Oni declared for the NBA Draft following his junior season. He became the first Ivy player drafted since Penn’s Jerome Allen was selected in 1995.

Elsewhere, Harvard has four 3-star recruits already committed from the 2021 class, good for the No. 28 recruiting class in the nation. Harvard and Yale also have multiple 3-star commits this season while Princeton welcomes its No. 3 overall recruit in program history in 3-star center Mason Hooks. By comparison, the Mountain West has three teams with multiple 3-star recruits this season while the Atlantic 10 has four teams with multiple 3-stars.

Since 2010, 12 Ivy teams have ranked in the KenPom top 80 by season’s end, including Harvard checking in at No. 32 in 2014. The conference is now synonymous with March Madness upsets as well, thanks to Cornell’s 2010 Sweet 16 run, Harvard reaching the second round in 2013 and 2014, and Yale breaking brackets with a first-round win in 2016.

The Ivy has proven time and time again that it can compete with the nation’s strongest teams. But while every other conference utilizes the transfer market to improve their rosters, the Ivy clutches onto a rule that serves little purpose.

At the end of the day, maybe the Ivy truly wants to remain unchanged. This conference has serious potential, though, checking the boxes of talented players, savvy coaches and passionate crowds just like the Atlantic 10 or Mountain West. Eliminating a severely outdated rule could benefit its star players while elevating the conference as a whole.


Eli Boettger is a college basketball writer and founder of HeatCheckCBB.com. He has previously worked for Sporting News, DAZN and USA TODAY SMG.

Boettger’s content has been featured by Bleacher Report, NBC Sports, FiveThirtyEight, Yahoo Sports, Athletic Director University, Washington Post, Illinois Law Review and Notre Dame Law Review, among other publications. Boettger is also a current USBWA member and Rockin’ 25 voter.