Penn returns 91% of last year’s possessions, the highest share in the Ivy League, followed by Princeton at 84%. Columbia gets a bit of an asterisk, since RPM does not reflect the return of Alex Rosenberg and Grant Mullins, who missed the entire 2014-15 season with injuries.
Harvard returns less than 30% of possessions from last year’s NCAA tournament team, because…
1. With a former Player of the Year and the reigning Defensive Player of the Year graduating, 2015-16 was always going to be a transition season for Harvard. That became even clearer in September, when the team announced that Siyani Chambers will miss the season with a torn ACL. (He withdrew from school to preserve eligibility for 2016-17.) Without Chambers, the Crimson will have to rely on unproven players, including center Zena Edosomwan and freshman point guard Tommy McCarthy, making them a long shot to reach March Madness for a fifth straight year.
2. Columbia’s Maodo Lo played with the German national team at this summer’s Eurobasket, taking feeds from Dirk Nowitzki and sharing the backcourt with Dennis Schroder. Lo grew his production throughout the tournament and scored 14 points in a one-point loss to eventual champion Spain. The stage gave Lo some national recognition: He was ranked #79 on CBSSports’ top 100 players — but he might not even be the league’s Player of the Year favorite, with Yale’s Justin Sears back to defend his crown.
3. Tommy Amaker reloaded the Crimson for future generations, securing commitments for an astounding Class of 2020. Top 100 forward Chris Lewis, who committed in January, was joined by forward Robert Baker, point guard Bryce Aiken, and wing Seth Towns, all four-star prospects on at least one scouting service, plus three-star recruits Justin Bassey and Henry Welsh. ESPN has Harvard’s recruiting class rated eighth nationally, though some power-conference prospects have yet to commit.
Towns, like your typical Top 150 recruit, explained his decision to Bleacher Report by quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson. Harvard fans should be glad he isn’t a fan of fellow Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau instead, or he would’ve chosen the most remote, isolated destination possible (Dartmouth).
The Ivy League has almost always had one or two dominant favorites, but there’s no consensus at the top this year. National writers like Columbia. Fans and statistical models like Princeton. Yale is atop the league’s official media poll, but the top three teams split 17 first-place votes as evenly as possible. Here’s my take:
- Princeton — Returning five starters from a 9-5 season is enough to make any team a favorite, but Princeton’s depth pushes it over the top. Beyond Hans Brase, Steven Cook, Spencer Weisz, and Amir Bell, who could each get All-Ivy consideration, the Tigers have junior Henry Caruso, who took over a few games off the bench last year, and sophomore center Alec Brennan, who had power-conference offers as a recruit. Freshman Devin Cannady was a three-star prospect per some services, as was sophomore Jackson Forbes before battling injuries last year. Mitch Henderson brought lots of talent to Princeton in his first full recruiting classes, and this year it should pay off.
- Yale — Perhaps the biggest question in the conference is this: How good will Makai Mason be as a full-time point guard? Matching the All-Ivy play of departed senior Javier Duren is too much to ask, but if Mason is close, Yale will hardly drop off from last year’s co-championship level — other graduations (Matt Townsend, Armani Cotton) should be largely offset by returns (Brandon Sherrod, Nick Victor). But if Mason — who will have to increase his usage rate (19% last season) and minutes (19.2 per game) — struggles in a larger role, the Bulldogs will look more like the 2013-14 squad, which played great defense but couldn’t score efficiently.
- Columbia — The Ivy League’s most entertaining offense lives in Manhattan. Lo is the conference’s best shooter, and Rosenberg, Mullins and Kyle Castlin are also above-average from three-point range, with a coach who encourages them to let those shots fly. But will they defend well enough to win their first title in nearly a half-century? Columbia leaked 1.07 points per possession in Ivy play last year, better than only Penn.
- Harvard — Tommy Amaker’s motion offense has served Harvard well, but it requires patience — the Crimson had the nation’s 17th-slowest offense last year (per KenPom’s average possession length), and they’ve been in the bottom 110 in each of the last five seasons. With a young roster and a 30-second shot clock, expect a lot of Harvard possessions to end with one-on-one plays and time running out, at least early in the season.
- Dartmouth — Yes, Gabas Maldunas and Alex Mitola are gone. But the Big Green can replace them with relatively proven talents. Malik Gill and Miles Wright were difference-makers in about 20 minutes per game; they will step up to full-time roles in the backcourt. Tommy Carpenter was a capable scorer, passer, and defender as a backup to Maldunas. By the end of last season, Dartmouth’s calling card was its terrifying defensive pressure (its 13.2% steal rate in Ivy play would have ranked eighth nationally over a full season), which should be back in full force.
- Penn — Under new coach Steve Donahue, there are so many questions about Penn: How many balls can three point guards share? Will the silly turnovers go away? Is Darien Nelson-Henry really shooting threes? But on aggregate, here’s a reasonable expectation for the Quakers, who finished seventh in Ivy offensive efficiency and eighth on defense: The offense will be somewhat better, because Donahue is a good tactician on that end, and because there is so much room to improve on turnovers. The defense will also be somewhat better, because their underlying performance on that end was masked by horrid luck on three-pointers and free throws. Roll it up and Penn should be around the low 200s nationally — not where fans want to be, but considerable improvement over last year’s #289 ranking.
- Brown — Though the team returns most of its rotation, I don’t know what to make of Brown. The Bears nearly knocked off both Harvard and Yale last season — and toppled Providence on the road — but finished just 4-10 in league play. Tavon Blackmon and Cedric Kuakumensah can play like stars in one game and produce little in the next. Justin Massey, a transfer from Florida Atlantic, adds intrigue to an experienced rotation — doubly so if twin power gives him and brother Jason an extra boost — but there is a lot of variance here.
- Cornell — The Big Red’s offense was already ugly last season, scoring a league-worst .93 points per possession while assisting fewer than half of its baskets. With the loss of its two best passers, Galal Cancer and Devin Cherry — not to mention do-everything forward Shonn Miller, now winning dunk contests at UConn — is there anywhere to go but down?