Penn’s Palestra is called the “Cathedral of College Basketball,” but it is hardly a neutral site for the first Ivy League tournaments

This photo shows a view of the Palestra during the second half of an NCAA basketball game between Villanova and La Salle, Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2016, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)

With the debut of the men’s and women’s Ivy League basketball tournaments this weekend, there are already rumblings of unfairness caused by the deviation from the ideal model of playing these post season games in a neutral environment.

In the first round of each tournament, one of the semi-final games will NOT be on a neutral court, since the University of Pennsylvania, which owns the Palestra, has teams in both competitions. On the men’s side, the Quakers are the fourth seed, and in women’s play they are the first.

It didn’t take any time at all for this weakness in the tournaments’ make up to rear its ugly head and raise eyebrows throughout the league. If we can use an analogy from some other sports, those games will not take place on a level playing “field,” which in this case, means a level basketball floor.

ap511536519407 Penns Palestra is called the “Cathedral of College Basketball,” but it is hardly a neutral site for the first Ivy League tournaments
Harvard and Yale played for the Ivy League title at the Palestra in 2015, but with Penn in the four-team tournament, it won’t be a neutral site this year. (AP Photo/Michael Perez)

The league all season has been promoting the tournament as taking place in the “Cathedral of College Basketball.” So what? Please don’t tell me that the Penn men and women do not have an unfair advantage. Sure, the Palestra is historic, but it is also Penn’s home.

Most people won’t be going to Ivy Madness (another marketing slogan the league came up with) because the games will be in the Palestra. They could hardly care less that the games will take place in a so-called Cathedral. They will be attending because they support and root for at least one of the teams that will be playing, regardless of the venue.

Yes, the Palestra is historic and revered as a building. But if it is also a Cathedral, then it is Penn’s Cathedral, not Princeton’s, Harvard’s, Yale’s, or Brown’s, the other colleges that will be Penn’s guests. Since it is Penn’s Cathedral, then the Penn teams have the advantage in their games. Every team is more comfortable in its own “house of worship.”

There is an old joke I am reminded of that I best not get into except for stating the punch line, which is “You go to your church and I’ll go to mine.”

“The Cathedral” is Penn’s church only

In these tournaments, every team, except Penn’s, will be going to someone else’s church. The place simply belongs to Penn. It is not only where its teams play every home game, but it is where they conduct their day to day practices and meetings, starting in the pre-season and continuing up to now. The players get to know every bounce of the floor, where there may be dead spots, how tight the rims are, how the ball bounces off the backboards, what the lighting is like, etc.

Even the familiarity of the locker rooms gives comfort and security to the players, unless the league has the foresight to require Penn to use one they do not occupy during the season.

Aside from the Palestra itself, playing at home spares the players the time and inconvenience of travel, for some teams it means long bus rides. Instead, the Penn athletes get to sleep in their own beds, take meals in familiar places, see people in the building they are used to interacting with daily throughout the year, etc. Their routines stay the same. With an entry into the NCAA’s Big Dance at stake, those perks should not be available just to Penn or to any of the competing teams.

Must we mention gambling? Yes

I hate to bring this up, especially within the “purity” of the non-scholarship Ivy League sports programs, but yes, there is legal gambling in college basketball. It requires establishing odds of winning, point spreads and “over and unders.” You can bet (wrong word?) those numbers would not be the same for the Penn games if they were to take place on a neutral court. Although the Princeton men should be a big favorite against Penn, the differences between those teams are bound to be skewed Penn’s way, only because the game is at the Palestra.

Amazingly point spreads and other gambling numbers, for whatever reason, are usually very close to the actual results, and those who establish them certainly place emphasis on where the games take place. For example, if the Palestra is worth five points to Penn, it will show up in the betting lines.

Although Princeton will not be concerned about such things, there could be real issues with the noise level, the foot stomping, and the taunting from the Penn adherents. What do you suppose Princeton will hear on Saturday when one of its players goes to the line for a crucial foul shot? That should not be Princeton’s problem or that of any other Penn opponent.

Last week, Harvard was upset by Penn in the regular season finale in the same Cathedral where services will be conducted on Saturday and Sunday. Afterwards, its coach Tommy Amaker, speaking about the Palestra, told the media:

“It’s always been a tough place to play here on the road against Penn and they’ve been very good here.”

The crowd support Saturday will probably be against Princeton in the first game. Harvard and Yale fans, as well as the hordes from Penn, will all be rooting against the Tigers. But by sheer convenience, Penn students and fans should be in the majority and have the greater voice.

Some tournaments, particularly the NIT, play on home courts. But that is strictly for money making reasons. And although the vy is not the only conference to stage its tournament on the floor of one of its members, it is not as a reward for finishing higher in the standings. Though the Palestra was preordained months ago, it has nothing to do with the way the season went. Instead, #4 seed Penn, with a losing record, is getting an undeserved home court advantage over the undefeated league champion, Princeton, This is a farce.

Learn from history

Penn’s college newspaper, The Daily Pennsylvanian, once published a column by Eric Goldstein, probably a student, captioned “Palestra gives Penn a Real Advantage.” It was published 22 years ago, on Nov. 30, 1995, after Penn narrowly missed upsetting the University of Southern California in the same Palestra. Here is an excerpt:

“Despite a crowd of only 4,100, under half-capacity, the Quakers’ fans were most definitely a factor. As the game entered the final five minutes of play, the crowd came alive, screaming, clapping, stomping feet, doing anything to distract . . . With the bleachers rocking and the hardwood vibrating, the Quakers forced a few . . . turnovers and tied the game . . . with just 43.3 seconds remaining.”

Although Penn lost that game, it was in contention until the end, no doubt with the assistance of its “sixth man.” Players do hear the crowd, and it does bother them.

I suspect nothing has changed about the effect of the Palestra in the past 22 years. It is still the home of the University of Pennsylvania and it still rocks for its games. It may be a Cathedral, but the Cathedral is their home.

It should not be the home of an Ivy League Tournament, especially when Penn could be one of the participants.

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