What Happened Last Summer: The Ivy League got its name back. More elite recruits, and even bigger targets. First looks at new players and new coaches. Rankings upon rankings. The start of Hipster Linsanity?
1. Get ready for five months of tournament talk. You’ll be sick of the Ivy League Tournament before it even happens. On the preseason media teleconference, seven of eight coaches were asked at least one question about the playoff, which will remain the top story all season. Beat a big non-conference opponent? Be prepared to discuss at-large hopes. Lose your first Ivy game? Talk about how the tournament gives you a second chance. Previewing the final weekends? Break down who will get the 4-seed. I understand this attitude — and I’m sure I’ll be complicit in it — but remember to enjoy the regular season on its own merits, too.
2. There’s a clear pecking order of contenders. In contrast to last season’s mess, the top of this year’s preseason poll is rather orderly. Princeton is a considerable favorite (even more so among fans). Harvard was ranked first or second on all but one ballot, and Yale is in its own tier at third.
After the top three, order breaks down. Penn is the nominal favorite to finish fourth, but Columbia isn’t far behind, and Dartmouth and Cornell have their supporters. I tried to map out the full balloting, and my guess is that seven different teams got at least one top-four vote.
3. What have we seen so far? Harvard’s “Crimson Madness” showed, unsurprisingly, that the top-rated recruiting class in Ivy history will be asked to play immediately. Four rookies started the intrasquad scrimmage, and Seth Towns and Bryce Aiken were willing to shoot at every opportunity, topping their teams in attempts. This year’s Crimson is certain to be faster than past versions, with Siyani Chambers and Aiken leading the pace.
Yale’s scrimmage was more, uh, free-flowing, but Makai Mason flashed his Player of the Year candidacy, making smart passes, a 29-footer and even a dunk. Top recruit Jordan Bruner won the dunk contest, getting huge air on this off-the-wall dunk and a later 360:
What we see in October is less important than what we don’t see — injuries. As other teams scrimmage in the coming weeks, we’ll learn more about who’s healthy and who’s not. AJ Brodeur, Sam Jones and Darnell Foreman were all held out of Penn’s exhibition on Saturday, but the former two injuries are reportedly not serious, and Foreman returned to practice last week. In the Quakers’ game itself, juco transfer Caleb Wood scored 30 points, and rookie Devon Goodman added 19.
Olympics interlude: Goalie Ashleigh Johnson helped the US women’s water polo team win gold at the Rio Olympics — and then returned to Princeton for her senior year. Johnson, not your typical water polo star, was also named the World Player of the Year in 2015, prompting a question: Have any other active Ivy League athletes been the best in the world at their sport?
Individual stars have dominated college competition — such as Amanda Sobhy, Abbey D’Agostino and Kyle Dake — but none was the planet’s absolute best. (I only count athletes who compete in college, excluding anyone like Joey Cheek.) Johnson’s only peers I can think of play lacrosse, where the best college competition is comparable to the pros — meaning stars like Dylan Molloy and Rob Pannell are world-class. (If I’ve forgotten anyone, please let me know!)
Fellow Tigers Gevvie Stone (silver, single sculls), Diana Matheson (bronze, soccer) and Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum (bronze, equestrian) also reached podia, while Columbia swimmer Katie Meili won bronze in the 100-meter breaststroke and gold with the US medley relay. (And a basketball connection: Kristi Castlin, sibling of Columbia guard Kyle, won bronze in the 100m hurdles.) The surprise star of the Games was D’Agostino, a seven-time NCAA champion at Dartmouth, whose moment of sportsmanship with Nikki Hamblin became one of the fortnight’s lasting images.
Power Rankings: 2016-17 Schedules
I’ll save my real preseason rankings for next month; instead, let’s rank the eight non-conference schedules. My formula is extremely subjective: One part strength of schedule; one part how it fits each team’s postseason aspirations; and many parts how excited I am to watch.
- Penn — Bless the Big 5: Penn gets a home game against the reigning national champion, something an Ivy League team hasn’t had since the Quakers in 1986 (also against Villanova). Students will be in session for that Nov. 29 contest, making the atmosphere even better. Philadelphia keeps on giving, with St. Joseph’s and La Salle visiting for solid January non-league action, and several other good-but-not-unbeatable foes dot the Quakers’ schedule.
- Yale — The Bulldogs’ three new starters will be tested right away: They visit Washington, Virginia and Pitt in the season’s first 10 days. We might learn even more about Yale when it plays Lehigh, Vermont and Albany, three mid-majors capable of winning their leagues. The bottom half of this schedule falls apart — five of 12 D-I opponents could finish among the bottom 50 nationally, meaning the Bulldogs are hardly worth watching after early December. They’ve been hurt by the weakness of Connecticut basketball (except UConn, and we know why that series isn’t coming back).
- Princeton — Scheduling is hard when you’re a mid-major, especially when everyone knows you’ll be good. But Princeton found a good solution: Just play other top mid-majors, including BYU, VCU and Monmouth. The Tigers also have a neutral-site date with Cal, the best way to face a fringe top-25 team. But I dock points for playing so much on the road — Princeton fans will only see four home games before Ivy play (headlined by St. Joe’s). They should fill their time by catching the women’s team, which hosts Dayton, Rutgers and Seton Hall in November.
- Harvard — There isn’t a likely top-25 opponent on the Crimson’s schedule, but Stanford, Houston, Vermont and George Washington (for Patrick Steeves’ homecoming!) could crack the top 100. More importantly, there are hardly any cupcakes (aside from two non-DI’s), meaning every game should be competitive. I’m disappointed the series with Boston U. lapsed, as the Terriers would have been a great test for Harvard’s perimeter defense.
- Brown — I like what the Bears did with their schedule, a reminder that stronger isn’t always better. With a big senior class graduating, they will play a league-high nine home games, and each is winnable. Brown gets a couple big shots — two of which come close to home, at Rhode Island and Providence — but the rest of the schedule is quite soft, including two non-DI teams and 10 more projected to finish below #200 nationally (per T-Rank). For a team picked to finish last in the Ivy, those games should be competitive, and they give Brown the best chance to send its seniors out with a postseason appearance.
- Cornell — The Big Red’s schedule turned out to be one of the league’s strongest, with road games at Syracuse, USC, Houston, Monmouth, Siena and Albany. Cornell played some of those teams tough last year, but its non-conference record will suffer if it doesn’t take a big step forward this fall. Plus, the Big Red only plays four home games, none of which are very enticing.
- Columbia — This would have been a much better schedule last year, but several opponents — Stony Brook, St. Joe’s, Army, Hofstra — are a season removed from their peaks. The same might be true of Seton Hall and Miami, but they’re still decent headliners. On the bright side, Columbia is in the same boat, so its inexperienced rotation will be in fair fights.
- Dartmouth — Visiting Rhode Island is an exciting way to open the season, and there are a few interesting mid-majors in the mix (Fairfield, Old Dominion, Vermont). But the Big Green’s non-conference schedules were always weak under Paul Cormier, and this one, which was largely set before Dave McLaughlin took over, is no exception. Next year will test whether McLaughlin aims higher, much like the Northeastern teams he previously worked for.