Ivy League Weekly Roundup: A 3-Team Race Emerges

What Happened Last Week: The top three contenders looked the part: Columbia stayed perfect, thanks to an Alex Rosenberg buzzer-beater. Yale did the same, but not without a scare from Princeton. Cornell got a surprising road sweep, while Harvard crashed and burned.

Three Thoughts:

1. All year, I’ve been waiting for Columbia’s defense to pressure more and create more turnovers. The Lions are an offense-first team, and without a true rim protector, they’ve allowed D-I opponents to make more than half their two-point shots this year. That improves the risk-reward tradeoff of being more aggressive — and they have the athletes, especially Maodo Lo, to harass opponents.

Columbia finally pulled it out at the perfect time. After getting torched by Harvard for about 10 minutes, the Lions became more aggressive on defense — more double-teams, more ball pressure, more hands in passing lanes — and held the Crimson to .66 points per possession the rest of the game, forcing 15 turnovers along the way.

The Lions’ defense has been notoriously conservative under Kyle Smith, but the sixth-year coach recognizes the need to loosen the reins this year.

“I think we’re middle of the pack in D-I in forcing turnovers, which is astonishing for a Kyle Smith-coached team,” he said Saturday. (They moved up to 129th in turnover rate after Saturday’s game.) “We have to be, because we’re a little longer and quicker in the frontcourt — not as much playing with a Cory Osetkowski, who’s a big, lugging center, which made us good around the rim, but you can’t pressure if you have one guy out like that. Jeff Coby’s quick, Luke [Petrasek]’s quick, Alex [Rosenberg] is quick, so we need to [pressure], probably.”

Columbia has yet to allow more than a point per possession in Ivy play, but it’s played the league’s three worst offenses. The schedule gets tougher soon, starting with Friday’s visit to Yale. If the Lions keep defending as they did for the final 30 minutes at Harvard, they can absolutely win the Ivy League.

2. The key matchup for Princeton-Yale was simple: The Bulldogs have two of the league’s best big men, while the Tigers always have four players more comfortable on the perimeter, giving each team a mismatch on offense. Princeton won that battle early on, as Henry Caruso outran Justin Sears on the perimeter, scoring 17 points in the first 14 minutes. That forced Yale to go small for the rest of the half (four guards/wings around Sears), something James Jones has done approximately never in the last 3.5 seasons.

But the Bulldogs still won the war, thanks to deadeye shooting. They made eight of their first 10 threes and finished the game 11-19 (including 5-6 from Makai Mason). Sears and Brandon Sherrod combined for 35 points, including several tough shots in the second half, and Yale led comfortably for most of the game. Princeton made a turnover-fueled run and had a chance to tie in the final minute, but the hosts held on for their biggest win of the season.

They can confirm their place as the Ivy front-runner with a win over Columbia on Friday. But the hard part is yet to come — Yale will play six of its final eight games on the road.

3. It’s safe to say we’ll have a new Ivy League champion. After getting swept by Cornell and Columbia — its first 0-2 home weekend since 2009 — Harvard is just 1-3, three games behind the leaders. The Crimson would need to go at least 9-1 down the stretch to get in the title picture, and even then they’d need some help. Nothing about their recent performance suggests such a run is coming, especially with six road games remaining. (KenPom projects Harvard to finish at 5-9!)

That leaves the three-team race we expected in the preseason — and what a race it should be. Yale has won eight straight games, Princeton had won five straight before facing the Bulldogs, and Columbia has won 11 of 12. That trio is a combined 34-4 against teams outside KenPom’s top 100, and the last of those losses came eight weeks ago.

Weekly Awards:

Player and Rookie of the Week: Matt Morgan, Cornell — With Robert Hatter still sidelined, Cornell turned its offense over to Morgan again, and boy did the rookie deliver. He scored a career-high 33 points in an upset at Harvard, including two huge pull-up threes from NBA range down the stretch. And he added 32 in Saturday’s comeback win at Dartmouth, scoring nine points in the final four minutes to help erase a nine-point deficit. Morgan drew 23 free throws in that game — tied for third-most in D-I this season — and had an offensive rating above 120 in both games. It’s still super early, but Morgan is averaging an even 30 ppg in Ivy play; no player has topped 20 for a full season since Alex Barnett in 2009.

Streak of the Week: Brandon Sherrod, Yale — The Bulldogs’ senior was 7-7 from the floor Friday and 8-8 Saturday, bringing his streak to 25 straight field goals made — one off the NCAA record. Sherrod has increased the degree of difficulty throughout; the two longest shots came in the second half against Princeton, one of which ba-a-arely rolled in. Here’s where all 25 shots came from:

Brandon_Sherrod_Yale_streak_shot_chart

The Week Ahead: The two remaining unbeatens battle Friday, when Columbia visits Yale (5 pm, FS1). The Lions will have their hands full with Yale’s powerful frontcourt, but forwards like Luke Petrasek and Alex Rosenberg should get open outside shots on the other end. Harvard visits Princeton later that day, a place it’s won two years straight after losing the prior 24. On Saturday, Yale will be tested by surging Cornell, while Columbia and Brown could produce a shootout

Power Rankings:

  1. Yale (4-0) — After a subpar start to Ivy play, Justin Sears returned to form against Princeton. He had 16 points and 10 rebounds, three blocks and three steals, and six assists — including one where spun past a defender and dribbled 70 feet against Princeton’s press, then fed Sherrod for an open dunk. Maybe this means more early-morning practices to a Justin Bieber soundtrack are coming?

  1. Columbia (4-0) — I would still take Princeton in a neutral-court game today, but I think Columbia is in a (slightly) better position to win the league. The Lions have two wins in hand on Princeton, and they’re done with the increasingly dangerous Cornell. Of course, with a win Friday, the Lions can become the unquestioned Ivy favorite.
  2. Princeton (2-1) — Mitch Henderson has always been aggressive about end-game fouling, but his strategy Saturday was particularly clever. Trailing by nine points, the Tigers started fouling as early as the four-minute mark — but only when poor shooters touched the ball. It worked: Brandon Sherrod, Anthony Dallier and Justin Sears combined for two points from four such possessions. If Princeton falls behind Harvard on Friday, look for more of the same.
  3. Harvard (1-3) — Cornell fronted Zena Edosomwan relentlessly in the post; the junior was mostly contained in the first half, but he exploded in the second and finished with 24 points. After the game, Edosomwan talked about how he approaches fronting defenses. “I think a lot of teams have kind of scouted that now, so sometimes they’ll have another guy in the back. So for me, I really have to focus on my catch,” he said. “I’m trying to ward off this [front] guy to make sure he doesn’t get the ball, and then when that ball is going over, I have to make sure I’m strong and high with it, because the little guards will try to strip it. That’s something I’ve grown at as the season’s progressed.”
  4. Cornell (2-2) — Will this year’s Cornell be last year’s Dartmouth? Both teams were an afterthought in the preseason, so they stayed under the radar in non-conference play, alternating an impressive win or two with a couple bad losses (and playing some thrilling games along the way). KenPom projects the Big Red to finish at 7-7, fourth in the Ivy League, which would make it postseason-eligible at 14-14 overall — exactly where Dartmouth finished last season.
  5. Dartmouth (1-3) — Dartmouth couldn’t stop fouling the Lions on drives, and it lost to Cornell because it couldn’t stop fouling the Big Red on drives late. The Big Green surrendered a total of 71 free throws for the weekend (thanks in part to tight refereeing), many of which came outside the paint rather than directly on shot attempts. Harvard wasn’t built to expose this weakness, but Princeton — especially Henry Caruso — will be ready this weekend.
  6. Penn (0-4) — Darien Nelson-Henry played only three minutes this weekend, nursing an ankle injury he suffered earlier in practice. The senior has battled injuries throughout his career, so it will be a shame if this derails his final season, in which he’s averaging 11.5 points and eight rebounds per game.
  7. Brown (1-3) — The Bears had the league’s toughest opening schedule, playing a home-and-home with Yale before taking on Princeton. But their worst defensive efficiency of the Ivy season actually came Saturday against Penn, when they leaked 1.28 points per possession. (IT could have been worse if Penn hadn’t shot 56% from the free-throw line.) But the Bears still won an 89-83 shootout, thanks to season-best performances from Cedric Kuakumensah (26 points on 16 shots) and Tavon Blackmon (23 points, 10 assists), who combined to make nine of 10 threes.

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