What Happened Last Week: Harvard gave No. 4 Kansas a scare in Lawrence, erasing a 13-point deficit in the second half before losing by six points. Princeton lost for the first time this season at Stony Brook. Cornell, Brown, Yale and Columbia each won multiple games.
1. This was known already, but CBS Sports’ Gary Parrish broke to a national audience that the Ivy League is close to approving a conference tournament for the 2016-17 season. Currently, the Ancient Eight is the only league that awards its NCAA bid to the regular-season champion. Many Ivy fans (or at least the vocal ones) are not happy. Given the strength of today’s Ivy League, this won’t hurt the quality of their March Madness representatives much. I’ll give my (relatively neutral) thoughts when it’s official, but if you’re impatient, here’s an old-but-still-relevant primer.
I’m also interested to see if the tournament proposal also applies to women’s basketball, as was expected when the issue was raised three years ago.
2. Before the season, I was very pessimistic about Cornell; I thought their offense, already the league’s worst last season, would be a disaster. But the Big Red scored more than a point per possession in two home wins last week — 81-80 over Siena and 85-67 over Lafayette — and they’re now above .500 for the season.
Cornell’s defensive pressure drives its entire strategy. On aggregate, the Big Red doesn’t actually force tons of turnovers, but the variation is key: Good teams with good ball-handlers can break the press consistently and score at will (see Georgia Tech, Canisius, Pitt), but sloppier teams have a lot of trouble. Once on offense, Cornell attacks as quickly as possible, taking the first shot it sees. This style is ugly, but it’s sometimes effective, thanks in large part to Robert Hatter (see below). More importantly, the relentless pace rattles struggling opponents, so mistakes snowball into big runs — like the 14-point second-half comeback against Siena.
The biggest factor in Cornell’s 5-4 start is its schedule; aside from Siena, three wins came against bad teams, and the other over a D-III (a pretty bad loss at UMass Lowell is in there too). The Big Red is still eighth in my power rankings for now. But they’ll be competitive with the bottom half of the conference, and in the right matchup (Harvard?), they might upset someone else at home.
3. Because Harvard is so inexperienced, two things seem likely: (1) It should get better throughout the season; and (2) Its performance will vary widely from game to game. The question is, was the Crimson’s surprising performance at Kansas on Saturday a reflection of improving talent, or just a particularly good game?
They looked like the same old Crimson in the first half, with the same results — 15 careless turnovers, a few defensive scrambles, and a nine-point deficit. But they came back behind three rookies, who combined for 24 points and four assists in the second period. Tommy McCarthy penetrated the Kansas defense and opened lanes for putbacks; Corey Johnson hit a couple big threes; and Weisner Perez nosed his way inside for tricky layups.
Kansas’ offense ultimately settled down, and its talent won out down the stretch. Harvard will continue to be an up-and-down team, but the play of its rookies is a good sign going forward.
Player of the Week: Robert Hatter, Cornell — Hatter made four three-pointers in the second half of Cornell’s comeback win over Siena, none bigger than his pull-up bomb to tie the game in the final minute:
The junior combined for 61 points in Cornell’s two victories, getting them on only 44 shooting possessions. Though his wild attempts off drives can be frustrating to watch, he’s one of the league’s best scorers when drawing free throws or shooting threes in rhythm, with a quick release that can get shots over any guard. This season, he’s become a well-rounded threat on offense, averaging 4.7 assists per game (up from 0.7 per game last year while playing off the ball). Put it all together, and Hatter boasts the nation’s second-highest usage rate (37%) while increasing his efficiency from past years.
Rookie of the Week: Weisner Perez, Harvard — Tommy McCarthy and Corey Johnson got more preseason hype — and bigger roles to start the season — but Perez has recently emerged as a catalyst off the bench for Harvard. He scored 13 points at Northeastern and added a team-high 15 at Kansas, adding much-needed depth to the Crimson’s frontcourt and offense.
Perez fits right into the role vacated by Jonah Travis, adding a little more shooting range. He plays as an undersized four, but he’s effective scoring and rebounding in tight spaces by the basket. Perez even drew a chippy foul on Kansas’ Perry Ellis that led to game-tying free throws, a Jonah special.
The Week Ahead: Yale gets two more shots at power-conference competition, visiting Illinois on Wednesday and USC on Sunday. The schedule thins as most schools enter exam season, but not before interesting games from Princeton (at St. Joe’s Tuesday), Penn (vs Temple Wednesday), and Dartmouth (at Stanford, Saturday).
- Yale —As Ray said on Saturday, Yale’s defense is capable of winning the Ivy League. The Bulldogs held Vermont to 0.78 points per possession in a comfortable victory thanks in part to nine blocked shots, four of which came from Justin Sears. Their wings — Nick Victor, Anthony Dallier, Khaliq Ghani — rebound very well, allowing Sears and Brandon Sherrod to chase blocks with abandon.
- Princeton — Sears wasn’t watching his old friend Jameel Warney play Princeton on Saturday, since his Bulldogs were hosting Vermont at the same time. But if he had, he would have been licking his chops: Warney had 26 points (on 11-14 shooting), 15 rebounds, five assists and eight blocks. Sears has long been a problem for the Tigers, combining for 53 points and 21 rebounds in two meetings last year. Princeton’s four-out lineup struggles with good power forwards — especially without Hans Brase — but they’ll need to figure out a solution before Ivy play.
- Columbia — Another week, another close loss for Columbia. Maodo Lo got back to doing Maodo Lo things, averaging 20.3 points over three games, including nine three-pointers on 22 attempts.
- Harvard — I can’t stop watching this Tommy McCarthy shot:
- Dartmouth — Senior Brandon McDonnell missed Dartmouth’s strong Ivy campaign last year due to an academic suspension, but he’s a player to watch going forward. The 6-8 forward scored a team-high 17 points with seven rebounds in a win over Hartford, including 15 and six in the second half.
- Penn — After a 4-1 start, Penn has now dropped three straight, including an ugly 61-44 loss at George Mason. Steve Donahue’s offense heavily features three-point shooting, but the personnel doesn’t really fit — Quakers not named Sam Jones are a combined 10-42 (24%) in their current skid.
- Brown — After committing turnovers on 21.7% of their possessions a year ago (315th nationally), the Bears are down to just 16.4% this year (75th). Steven Speith and Jason Massey have cut down their miscues, while newcomers Corey Daugherty and Justin Massey have been sure-handed.
- Cornell — Cornell’s raw tempo is up to 75 possessions per 40 minutes this year; more than half of the league is below 70. That will boost the Big Red’s counting stats, which could give players like Hatter and Matt Morgan an edge come awards season.