What Happened Last Week: Princeton pulled an 11-point rabbit out of its hat at Penn. Harvard’s seniors held off Dartmouth down the stretch. The Ivy League went 7-1 out of conference, but with only five D-1 games.
Three Thoughts on the beginning of conference play:
1. Agunwa Okolie’s play was highly scrutinized in Harvard circles last year, because he brought only defense to a team that needed scoring. So it was startling to see the senior lead all scorers on the first weekend of Ivy League play, dropping 29 points on 15 shooting possessions. With the Crimson’s first options shut down (including eight points, but six assists, from Zena Edosomwan), Okolie’s heroics — plus a combined 30 points from classmates Patrick Steeves and Evan Cummins — were critical for the Crimson to survive a Dartmouth team playing its best ball.
Okolie’s newfound offense has been a huge boost for Harvard, especially as the team deals with midseason injuries. (Steeves and Tommy McCarthy returned on Saturday, but the latter played just 16 minutes, and Chris Egi missed the game.) He has scored double figures in five of his last seven games, and his offensive rating is up 10 points from last season on higher usage. Okolie has always been an efficient scorer at the rim, but only recently has Harvard’s offense started getting him more looks in that area — often cutting on Edosomwan or Cummins post-ups — and he’s become better at drawing free throws in the paint.
The box score seems to show a subpar defensive game for Okolie, as his assignment, Miles Wright, scored 23 points. But Wright did much of his damage with Okolie on the bench (11 points, 4-4 shooting). In Okolie’s 32 minutes, Wright shot just 4-10 for 12 points.
2. It wasn’t quite Black Tuesday, but Princeton needed a stunning comeback to beat Penn in its Ivy opener. Even in their recent slump, the Quakers have often played Princeton tough, and Saturday was no exception: They hit three-pointers and let Tiger-killer Darien Nelson-Henry work, while visitors not named Amir Bell shot a combined 30%. Penn took a 64-53 lead with three and a half minutes remaining — but Bell sparked a comeback, the Quakers got cold and sloppy, and Devin Cannady made a floater to force overtime.
The game was decided at the foul line, both in attempts (Princeton 30, Penn 11) and in accuracy (73% to 36%). The Tigers didn’t even make a field goal in overtime, but seven free throws were enough for them to escape at 1-0. Every road trip in this 14-Game Tournament will be an ordeal, so wins away from home are big in the standings — especially for Princeton, which has the league’s biggest home-court advantage.
3. That might not even have been Saturday’s best Princeton-Penn game. The Palestra’s matinee featured the women’s teams, who have won the last six ivy titles and are again the top contenders this year. Both teams shot under 30% in an old-fashioned rockfight, but they traded the lead throughout the game and especially an intense fourth quarter. The Tigers had four shots to take the lead in the final minute, but all missed, including Michelle Miller’s three that was swatted at the buzzer by Michelle Nwokedi to preserve a 50-48 Quakers win.
Princeton gets the return game at home to end the season, likely with at least a share of the title on the line. If both teams dominate the rest of the league, we could have the most interesting #2BidIvy test yet. The Tigers aren’t as dominant as last year’s unbeaten squad, taking three non-conference losses (two to ranked foes) and ranking 63rd in today’s RPI — but they’re currently 27th in Sagarin’s advanced ratings, and they blew out two possible at-large teams (Duquesne and Michigan). Penn would have a tougher at-large case, but they have the higher RPI right now (#55).
Player of the Week: Amir Bell, Princeton — On the heels of a big performance at Maryland, Bell was Princeton’s star at The Palestra on Saturday. With most of his teammates struggling, the sophomore scored 28 points on 16 shooting possessions, including 4-5 on three-pointers. Bell did most of the work himself — six of his nine baskets were unassisted — and engineered Princeton’s comeback before leaving the game with a head injury late in regulation.
Rookie of the Week: Evan Boudreaux, Dartmouth — Boudreaux single-handedly outscored Harvard’s big men, finishing with 21 points and 10 rebounds. The freshman got his points in a variety of ways, including straight post-ups, cuts to the rim, and outside shots (two three-pointers plus a 16-footer). With 14.8 points and 8.5 rebounds per game, both top 10 in the Ivy League, Boudreaux is the runaway favorite for Rookie of the Year.
The Week Ahead: The other half of the Ivy League kicks off conference play Saturday. Brown will be a considerable underdog at Yale, which has beat four D-1 opponents by an average of 23 points per game at home this year, but the Bears scared the Bulldogs there last season. Later that evening, Columbia hosts Cornell, which won’t be an easy matchup for the Lions.
- Yale (0-0) — Here’s what fuels the reigning Ivy Player of the Year, from Mike Anthony’s great feature of the Sears family: “Justin is a night owl who detests the idea of breakfast. In fact, the one time in recent years that Yale coaches and teammates convinced him to eat before a day game he left the court to vomit. Vegetables aren’t his thing, either. Hamburgers and chicken fingers are his main sustenance.”
- Princeton (1-0) — Last year’s Ivy season started with Penn fans complaining about the refs in a Princeton comeback, and ended with Columbia fans complaining about the refs in a Princeton comeback. After Penn was whistled for 25 fouls to the Tigers’ 14, it’s no surprise we’re seeing déjà vu this week. (I couldn’t see the game live and the replay isn’t up yet, so I can’t judge the refereeing firsthand.) Last year’s Tigers shifted their offense to feature more one-on-one drives and free throws in Ivy play, and if Saturday was any indication, we may see the same this year — only eight of the Tigers’ 23 baskets were assisted.
- Harvard (1-0) — Patrick Steeves is no longer just a great story — he’s a true difference-maker for Harvard. The senior, who missed his first three seasons with injuries, had 20 points and three assists Saturday, running Harvard’s offense in its game-deciding 8-0 run. On a per-minute basis, he’s arguably one of the ten best offensive players in the league; he has the fourth-highest assist rate and has made more than half his threes.
- Columbia (0-0) — Alex Rosenberg hasn’t played since mid-December. Isaac Cohen hasn’t played since November. Both were initially expected to return for conference play, but we’re nearing zero hour. (Freshman Lukas Meisner, a useful big of late for the Lions, also didn’t play against Central Penn on Saturday.) The Lions have enough depth to replace them, but continued defensive struggles (like allowing 1.17 points per possession at home to Maryland Eastern Shore) put pressure on the offense to be as good as possible.
- Dartmouth (0-1) — After regularly playing a dozen or more men in non-conference games, Dartmouth coach Paul Cormier tightened his rotation to a sharp nine for his Ivy opener, and was rewarded with some of the Big Green’s best basketball this season. They outplayed Harvard in the first half, and were unlucky to head into halftime tied on Corey Johnson’s 29-footer, but they stuck right with Harvard until the final minutes. Miles Wright played great in his Boston homecoming, the visitors showed their best ball movement of the season, and they stifled Harvard’s top options.
- Cornell (0-0) — The Big Red picked up another road win this week, edging Howard behind 27 points from Robert Hatter. Since the start of December, they’re 4-3, with all losses coming to top-100 teams (two by single digits). Based on their emerging talent and unique style, the Big Red should pick off a couple favorites in Ivy play.
- Penn (0-1) — Before the Princeton game, Penn announced that Antonio Woods will miss the rest of the season and withdraw from school due to academic issues. Woods had been leading the Quakers in playing time and assists while averaging 10.7 points per game. Before the season, it looked like Penn was overcrowded with ballhandlers, but the loss of Woods and Tony Hicks (who will play at Louisville next year) leave Jake Silpe alone in the spotlight. The rookie had an uneven start against Princeton, offsetting seven assists with as many turnovers.
- Brown (0-0) — Brown lacks frontcourt depth around Cedric Kuakumensah, so it will be fascinating to see how Mike Martin plans to defend Yale’s frontcourt of Justin Sears and Brandon Sherrod over the next two weeks. Smaller teams like Princeton, Columbia and to some extent Penn and Cornell will be watching closely for lessons.