Ivy League Weekly Roundup: Jan. 5

What Happened Last Week: Yale nearly beat a second major-conference team, leading for almost the entire second half at Vanderbilt, but the Bulldogs surrendered a five-point lead in the final minute and fell in double overtime. Other Ivies lost by double digits against higher-level competition (Penn at La Salle, Princeton at Wake Forest, Brown at Rhode Island, Cornell at Syracuse), while Columbia fell to St. Francis Brooklyn. The conference finished the week 3-7, all in true road games.

Two Thoughts, previewing the first two games of conference play:

1. Penn at Princeton, 5pm Saturday — A year ago, Princeton was 11-2 and a presumed title contender until Penn pulled off a 77-74 upset in the Ivy opener. This season’s Tigers have lower expectations at 5-9 (pending Tuesday’s game against Norfolk State), but they’ll get to start conference play at Jadwin Gym. No Ivy team has a larger home-court advantage than Princeton, which is 4-1 at home this year.

Penn hasn’t won at Jadwin since 2009, and these 3-7 Quakers are not likely to break that streak. Though the Tigers aren’t built to take advantage of Penn’s turnover woes, they defend the paint well and can neutralize the Quakers’ offensive rebounding. Darien Nelson-Henry, who scored 35 points in two games against Princeton last year, will face a deeper frontcourt this season. The return of Mike Auger from injury will help Penn, as will the continued development of four freshmen — but the Tigers are also young, and they look closer to finding their stride.

As a team that takes 48 percent of its shots from three-point range (sixth-highest nationally), Princeton can shoot itself into or out of almost any Ivy game. Penn has allowed an above-average share of outside shots this year, which is a dangerous way to play at Jadwin.

2. Harvard at Dartmouth, 7pm Saturday — Dartmouth has lost 10 straight games to Harvard, but this year’s Big Green is better than any of their predecessors. With Gabas Maldunas as their anchor, the hosts protect the rim well, which is critical against the Crimson. Harvard may need strong outside shooting from Siyani Chambers and Corbin Miller, or effective hero-ball from Wesley Saunders.

Dartmouth also matches up well on the other end, with capable shooters to avoid the Crimson’s fearsome front line. In the paint, though Maldunas has struggled offensively this season, he shot 9-13 at Harvard last year in his only Ivy League game before tearing his ACL. If he has another big game on both ends Saturday, the Big Green will be in good shape.

Harvard’s deeper frontcourt and Saunders’ star power should be enough, but #RoadGamesAreHard and Dartmouth has improved. A Big Green win would be big news throughout the league, but it wouldn’t be a big upset.

One Chart:

Ivy_League_defense_turnovers_forced

There’s no Havoc or Hell to be found in this year’s Ivy League. Of the Ancient Eight defenses, only Penn forces turnovers at a higher rate than the national average (19.9% of possessions), and the Quakers do so by the slimmest of margins. Despite using some full-court pressure with an athletic roster, Cornell ranks last with a 16.4% turnover rate on defense (323rd nationally), and the rest of the conference isn’t much better at forcing miscues. That’s good news for Brown, Penn, Yale and Cornell, which have struggled to hold onto the ball.

Weekly Awards:

Player of the Week: Javier Duren, Yale — The Bulldogs’ point guard scored 39 points in a pair of road games this week, helping his team edge Sacred Heart and take Vanderbilt to double overtime. Duren scored 14 of his 22 points after halftime against the Pioneers, adding eight rebounds to help hold off a late charge. At Vandy, he scored 17 points and set up a big Armani Cotton three-pointer late in regulation. The senior committed nine turnovers but paired them with 12 assists, continuing a first-team All-Ivy-caliber pace.

Rookie of the Week: Kyle Castlin, Columbia — With Maodo Lo battling foul trouble, Castlin was the go-to Lion at St. Francis Brooklyn. The freshman scored 16 points on 6-10 shooting, keeping Columbia afloat in a game it ultimately lost 72-64. Castlin is the midseason favorite for Rookie of the Year, with 9.2 ppg and a 61% true shooting percentage for an upper-tier team.

Looking Ahead: The 14-Game Tournament finally begins for half the league (as previewed above). Elsewhere, Columbia hosts Stony Brook in a rematch of its season opening defeat, while Yale visits giant-killing NJIT.

Power Rankings: The final ranking before conference play:

  1. Harvard — After the Crimson’s struggles at Virginia and Arizona State, the Ivy favorite is up for debate, but I’m sticking with Harvard. It has the league’s best defense, and its scoring will improve if its offensive-minded players see more time and/or Siyani Chambers and Steve Moundou-Missi return to form. Yale and Columbia will play them tough, but the Crimson shouldn’t struggle against the league’s lesser defenses.
  2. Yale — If Justin Sears plays like he did in league games last year — when he averaged 19.5 ppg with an offensive rating above 110 in all but three contests — Yale is the team to beat. Sears’ efficiency has dropped off this season. The Bulldogs are still better than last year’s edition, thanks to the development of Javier Duren and Jack Montague, but as recent games against Albany and Sacred Heart showed, they won’t storm through the rest of the Ivy League.
  3. Columbia — As their performance against Kentucky showed, the Lions can play with anyone at their best. But Columbia takes a ton of threes — hitting them at lower rate than last year — and plays at the league’s slowest pace. Those high-variance tendencies make them more vulnerable to upsets than Harvard or Yale.
  4. Cornell — Sorting teams 4-7 was very difficult. I’m still not sold on Cornell, which gives up possessions with out-of-control play and doesn’t get them back by forcing turnovers on defense. But the Big Red has elite shot-blockers and gets to the free-throw line, and Shonn Miller will usually be the best all-around player on the court.
  5. Princeton — The Tigers’ 5-9 start (including an 0-6 road record) has not been inspiring, but they should improve for a couple reasons: They have mainly freshmen and sophomores running a unique offensive scheme; and they’ve allowed a high three-point shooting percentage (and to some extent free throws), which tends to stabilize over time.
  6. Dartmouth — After a 1-4 start, Dartmouth has won five of its last seven games, though it has yet to beat a team ranked in KenPom’s top 200.The front half of the Big Green’s Ivy slate is brutal: After hosting Harvard this weekend, they play five straight road games, including Penn-Princeton and Yale-Brown trips.
  7. Brown — This doesn’t feel right, but Brown has been below the Ivy League’s top six by almost every objective measure. The Bears won’t finish seventh if they cut their turnover rate or regress partly toward last year’s top-100 defensive efficiency; if they do both, they should finish above .500. But after Rhode Island torched Brown for 80 points on 64 possessions, there’s no guarantee either will happen.
  8. Penn — The Quakers are currently the lowest-ranked Ivy team in KenPom’s rankings at #257; for every other year of the Pomeroy era (since 2002), at least one team has ranked #275 or lower. By past Ivy standards, this Penn team wouldn’t seem headed for a last-place finish — but given the quality of teams ahead of them, it’s hard to see much upside for the Quakers this year.

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