What Happened Last Week: Games started, but not before a season-changing injury. Yale upset another pack of Huskies despite missing two top players. Princeton fell short at BYU, and Harvard lost to Stanford on the other side of the world. Penn and Columbia looked like playoff contenders.
1. For a second straight season, the league’s most indispensable player will not play. Tuesday afternoon, just before it was overshadowed by other news, SportzEdge reported that Makai Mason suffered a season-ending injury in a scrimmage. Not only was Mason the Player of the Year favorite, he was the paste holding together a rebuilding Yale team. Now all five Opening Day starters from the reigning champions are gone, leaving the Bulldogs historically inexperienced. They return 22% of last year’s possessions, the lowest figure in recent Ivy history — even below Harvard last year, which lost another star point guard, Siyani Chambers, last preseason.
Making matters worse, star recruit Jordan Bruner injured his knee, keeping him out for the first couple weeks of the season. And yet, the Bulldogs scored 1.31 points per possession at Washington, surpassing top prospect Markelle Fultz and the Huskies in a 98-90 shootout. Miye Oni, perhaps taking Mason’s place in the starting lineup, scored 24 points in his debut, while Sam Downey added 22. Washington is not a great team — it’s hardly hanging onto the top 100, per KenPom — and one big win does not prove you’re a title contender (see Brown over Providence, or Columbia over Villanova). But it’s a great way for Yale to start.
2. Harvard’s loss to Stanford felt straight out of last year. The most frustrating part of last year’s Ivy League season was the series of close losses to good teams. Over and over, contenders played almost even with good teams (SMU, Northwestern, St. Joe’s, Illinois, Miami) but lost in frustrating ways: Good shooters going cold; foul trouble; missed free throws. This year’s first headliner followed the same script, with the exception of some new Chinese business commentary by Bill Walton. The Crimson was within two possessions for most of the game, but lost due to 24 points and 17 rebounds from a familiar face — Reid Travis, brother of former Harvard forward Jonah.
In the abstract, a 10-point loss to Stanford is no big deal, but Harvard had chances to win. Some of the issues should be easily fixed (terrible transition defense, foul trouble). Others might take more work: Even when on the court, Zena Edosomwan looked like his younger self, uncomfortable when double-teamed. Bryce Aiken and Seth Towns flashed their talent (lightning-fast step-backs from the former; a powerful baseline drive and dunk from the latter), but both need to improve their shot selection (a combined 8-23). Harvard’s Class of 2020 played two-thirds of the team’s minutes in its debut, with strong frontcourt play by Chris Lewis and Henry Welsh keeping them in the game.
3. Princeton misses its first opportunity. The curse of being a great mid-major is that your non-conference season comes down to a small handful of games. Princeton scheduled well this year, but if it doesn’t beat one of the three true at-large contenders it faces — BYU, VCU, Cal — it will be all but dismissed in national conversation. So it’s always frustrating to see a team lose such a game for unusual reasons. In Princeton’s case, it was below-average shooting (29% on threes, plus missed layups and dunks), questionable fouls, and a rare inability to clear the defensive glass that doomed the Tigers to an 82-73 loss at BYU. Princeton couldn’t match BYU’s force, surrendering 41 free throws while earning just 12; center Eric Mika did much of the damage, scoring 26 points and collecting 18 rebounds, nine offensive.
Player of the Week: Miye Oni, Yale — Oni wasn’t even the most-heralded recruit in Yale’s class, but he was the star on Sunday night. He dropped 24 points on 15 shooting possessions in the Bulldogs’ big victory at Washington, adding six rebounds and three steals. With Oni in the lineup, Yale starts four players 6’6” or taller — a way they can continue to dominate the glass even without Justin Sears and Brandon Sherrod.
Rookie of the Week: AJ Brodeur, Penn — This is obviously Oni too, but let’s spotlight another rookie: Brodeur, who had 23 points and 11 rebounds while missing more free throws (1-5) than field goals (11-14). Brodeur will continue to be the fulcrum of Penn’s four-out offense all season, so he’ll have to keep doing heavy lifting on both ends of the court.
The Week Ahead: Yale (Thursday) and Princeton (Sunday) face Patriot League favorite Lehigh, which nearly pulled off an even bigger upset last weekend. The Bulldogs also visit Virginia on Sunday, while Penn goes to Miami the prior day. Dartmouth (vs. Fairfield) and Cornell (vs. Colgate) play home openers, but the majority of the league stays on the road for another week.
- Princeton — Hans Brase can shoot well enough to make opposing centers very uncomfortable. I bet more teams will follow BYU’s lead and largely leave him open beyond the arc. Brase is a career 34% shooter, which is impressive for someone of his size and skill. But large volume at that rate is a net negative for a Princeton offense that could be one of the top 25 nationally. The Tigers should mix in other actions for the fifth-year senior beyond spotting up, especially because he’s a good playmaker and great rebounder.
- Harvard — Siyani Chambers’ stat line wasn’t jaw-dropping — 12 points on 10 shooting possessions and four assists — but he was every bit his old self; he commanded Harvard’s offense and deserved a few more dimes with better finishing from his teammates. He took a hard fall late in the game and came up favoring his left leg, where he tore his ACL last year.
- Yale — Three days ago, Yale seemed the hardest team to rank. How would a team with recent success and young talent, but so few proven players, fit in? They answered that question emphatically on Sunday. I still don’t believe the Bulldogs can contend for a full season without Mason, but they’re a dark horse contender for now.
- Penn — The Quakers’ offense had some great sequences in its 67-50 win at Robert Morris (which wasn’t even that close). But it finished with less than a point per possession, which won’t be good enough against better teams. Caleb Wood and Jackson Donahue shot a combined 4-20, which likely won’t happen often. Don’t expect too many defensive performances like that either, though; the Colonials made several unforced errors and shot very poorly.
- Columbia — This wasn’t your slightly older cousin’s Stony Brook — without most of last year’s players and head coach, the Seawolves aren’t likely to contend for the America East title again. But road wins are always appreciated, especially against a team that had dealt the Lions several frustrating defeats in the last two years. Columbia got blown out by St. Joe’s on Monday, though.
- Dartmouth — Rhode Island is really, really good this year, so I’ll write off even an 84-61 loss on the road. Evan Boudreaux was back to his double-double-y ways, but he needed 18 shooting possessions to get his 14 points.
- Cornell — Losing at Binghamton is not a great look, but the Big Red probably wins that game with normal three-point shooting. Brian Earl’s influence is visible already; there’s more passing and off-ball screening, and Stone Gettings has been elevated into a Princeton-forward role (seven assists in two games and some pretty hook shots). Their offense was better in losing to a good Siena team on Sunday, but defense remains a big question.
- Brown — No Ivy League player has had a triple-double since at least 2010, but Steven Speith came as close as possible against Niagara, notching 27 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists.