What Happened Last Week: The Ivy League lost the (quasi-official) #IVYvsAE Challenge 4-2, returning the (very imaginary) trophy after last year’s (hashtag-less) sweep. Princeton and Brown scared Miami and Rhode Island, but neither completed an upset.
Three Thoughts on the state of the Ivy League:
1. In each of the previous seven seasons, multiple Ivy League teams upset top-100, major-conference opponents. So it’s been frustrating to see this year’s Ancient Eight keep losing close games to good teams. Ivies have now been leading or tied in the second half against Providence, Northwestern, SMU, St. Joseph’s, Kansas, Illinois, Syracuse, Oklahoma, Miami, and Rhode Island — and within one possession of Kansas State and Duke — but they didn’t get a signature win until Harvard edged BYU in the Diamond Head Classic.
That doesn’t mean the league is having a bad season overall, however. As Michael James pointed out last week, the Ivy has had a lot of “good losses” this year — mostly close games with the teams above — and it’s been impressive against some mid-majors. As of this writing, the league has four teams in KenPom’s top 130 for the first time ever. Just as importantly, it has no teams ranked below #253 (Cornell), which has only happened once (at the very beginning of the 2013-14 season).
Overall, by KenPom’s Pythagorean rating, this is on pace to be the strongest Ivy League ever:
Perhaps a good analogy is Harvard’s season in 2013-14. The Crimson were maligned for having no great wins, but they played well in their big games (close losses at Colorado and UConn) and were truly one of the best Ivy teams in the modern era. Sure enough, they went on to beat Cincinnati (and scare Michigan State) in the NCAA tournament. There’s more to a season than big wins.
2. The Ivy League’s strength is remarkable when considering how much talent it lost this offseason. Due to graduation, injury or transfer, nine of the 14 players who received an All-Ivy honor last season are gone. The league could have reasonably taken a step back this season, but instead it’s as good as ever.
3. Conference play is already on the horizon, with Dartmouth-Harvard and Princeton-Penn opening the 14-Game Tournament on Saturday. There is a clear split between the four title contenders — Yale, Princeton, Harvard and Columbia, who have all looked impressive for much of the season — and the rest of the league, which has been much shakier. The last time the league was so bifurcated was in 2012, when the top four teams went a combined 30-2 against the rest. Don’t expect such a massive gap this season, but it will be a shock if any lower-division teams finish in the top four.
Poetically, the top and bottom tiers are split evenly among travel pairings. That means we don’t get a ‘marquee’ game until January 30 (Princeton-Yale and Columbia-Harvard), but we’ll get two per weekend for the rest of the season. And each contender is ‘supposed’ to sweep its first two games, so they will all feel pressure to avoid any slip-ups this month in what should be a very tight race.
Player of the Week: Justin Sears, Yale — Sears did what Sears does against weaker teams, totaling 39 points, seven offensive rebounds, four assists and three blocks in two road games. The senior might have been rusty after a two-week layoff, shooting 6-14 at Central Connecticut, but he made up for it with a 9-10 performance at Hartford. Other players are having great seasons, but Sears is still the class of the Ivy League.
Rookie of the Week: Matt Morgan, Cornell — Morgan has been an asset to the Big Red on both ends, helping the inexperienced squad open the season with a solid 6-7 record. Though his outside shot was off at Saint Peter’s, he still found his way to 17 points with offensive rebounds and free throws. He rebounded with five treys and a team-high 19 points in a close loss to Albany, adding four steals in each game.
The Week Ahead: The last time Princeton opened Ivy play at Penn, it began a season-killing losing streak. These Tigers should avoid that fate — they haven’t lost to a team outside KenPom’s top 100 yet this year — but road games, especially rivalry road games, are hard. Harvard, meanwhile, will try to avoid a repeat of last year’s upset against Dartmouth — but it will be much harder if key players aren’t healthy.
- Yale — Perhaps the most impressive thing this season has been Yale’s ability to crush inferior teams. The Bulldogs have played seven teams ranked below #120 nationally — home, away, wherever — and have never trailed after halftime, leading by multiple possessions for all but one minute. No team is more likely to dominate the bottom half of the Ivy League.
- Princeton — When the Tigers were leading Miami in the second half, it looked like it might be the Amir Bell Breakout Game. The sophomore was hitting pull-up threes and driving for layups, and doing most of it on his own (five of his seven buckets were unassisted). Bell was one of the highest-rated recruits for Princeton’s program, and he’s by no means been a disappointment — he’s started every game of his career at point guard — but based on his pedigree and physical abilities, it feels like he’s a star in waiting.
- Harvard — Seven Ivy League coaches will carefully study the tape of Vermont’s defense against Zena Edosomwan, as the Catamounts held him to six shots with fronting and double-teams. But it’s not an easy blueprint to follow — Vermont trapped physically with long players, preventing the junior from passing out of double-teams. Smaller Ivy squads like Columbia and Harvard may not have as much success with the same plan.
Columbia — The Lions were on their way to one of the Ivy League’s best wins of the season, leading by 17 points in the second half at Stony Brook — until it quickly fell apart. Over the next ten minutes, the Seawolves reeled off a 26-3 run, and that was that. Most surprising was the way Columbia’s offense fell apart: the normally sure-handed Lions committed eight turnovers in that stretch. Still, Columbia has played well overall without Alex Rosenberg and Isaac Cohen, who hope to return for Ivy play.
- Dartmouth — Transitive-property games are silly, but here’s one to illustrate the gap between the Ivy’s top and bottom tiers: Bryant was hammered at Harvard (80-45) and Yale (79-40), but it went to Dartmouth on Thursday and eked out a 62-60 win.
- Cornell — I thought Cornell would clearly be the Ivy League’s worst team this year, and I was wrong. The defensive pressure is finally paying off, as the Big Red is in the top 100 in steal rate after being average last season. Robert Hatter has become a complete offensive player, and though the offense is still chaotic, they have just enough patience and shooting to be competent. Cornell is 3-3 against pretty good competition since the start of December, and even the losses have been impressive.
- Penn — For the first time since the opening weekend, the Quakers played peak Donahue-ball in an 80-45 rout of Binghamton. Penn made 12 three-pointers, including five from Matt Howard (23 points) and four from Jackson No-Relation Donahue (17), and secured the game with an 18-0 run into halftime.
- Brown — Rhode Island was missing two key starters, Hassan Martin and Kuran Iverson, but the Bears were still impressive in building a 15-point second-half lead behind seven blocks and 21 points from Cedric Kuakumensah. Offensive rebounds and hot three-point shooting fueled the Rams’ comeback, but Brown scored on its final three possessions to force overtime. The chief concern is now the Bears’ defense — they surrendered 1.26 points per possession to URI and 1.20 at Maine.