Last Week in the Ivy League: After losing several close games Saturday, the Ancient Eight are a combined 11-24 in D-I action. Though Nate Hickman had lots of heroics, Columbia got 88-83’d again. Harvard is reeling, Penn and Columbia took bad losses, and even Yale went winless.
1. Is it time for Harvard to panic? Last week in this space, I asked the same question about Princeton. But while the Tigers’ struggles came against really good teams on the road, Harvard was dominated at home by Holy Cross, projected as a middling Patriot League team. (Granted, the Crusaders took a very good Monmouth team to the wire on Sunday.) After losing at UMass on Saturday, the Crimson is still winless against D-I teams — and their next five opponents are all tough.
There’s still a strong case for optimism. Some of Harvard’s struggles can be chalked up to inexperience — blown switches, an inability to recognize backdoor cuts, and ugly turnovers. (Bryce Aiken’s injury was particularly painful on Tuesday, leaving Siyani Chambers alone to face Holy Cross’ pressure, which turned out about as poorly as it did two years ago.) We expected volatility from such a young team — doubly so after key injuries — so three losses, two of which came against bigger programs, aren’t the end of the world.
But Corey Johnson can only take so many three-pointers, and eventually someone else needs to make shots. Zena Edosomwan is back to the enigma he was as an underclassman, and Chambers is playing like a pure distributor. That seems to leave Harvard’s season in the hands of two rookies, Aiken and Seth Towns. Both are clearly talented scorers, but will they put it together this season?
2. Steven Spieth is making his own name. Ever since 2013, when Steven Spieth was a strong Rookie of the Year contender, Ivy League fans have known him as more than just Jordan’s brother. Now he’s making others take notice: The senior leads the league with 19.7 points per game, to go with 4.7 assists and 7.3 rebounds. As of Sunday, the only other player in the nation averaging at least 19-4-7 is NC Central’s Patrick Cole.
Spieth is playing almost every minute, inflating his per-game stats, but his offense has been efficient and outstanding by any measure. He’s scoring from all over the court — wide-open threes to reverse layups — but his passing has been even more impressive (video via ILDN):
3. Penn is blowing out (some) bad teams, and that’s a good sign. The Quakers hadn’t won any road game by more than 11 points since 2012, but they’ve already done so twice in 2016 — beating Robert Morris 67-50 and Central Connecticut 87-65. Those teams aren’t good, but Penn played bad teams in the last four years too, without as much success. Even though they lost at Navy on Saturday (going scoreless in the final five minutes to blow a seven-point lead), they’re still looking like the best Quakers since the Zack Rosen era, and a favorite to play on their home court in the first Ivy League Tournament.
Player of the Week: Nate Hickman, Columbia — Hickman spent his first two years playing bit minutes behind a backcourt that led Columbia to a CIT championship and its best seasons of the modern era. Now a junior with more opportunity, Hickman is emerging as a star of his own. He scored 30 points against Army, most in the Ivy League this year, by making tough shots off the dribble early and getting easier points in transition late.
Saturday, in the waning minutes of overtime, he hit a game-winning shot from nearly the Lion:
Rookie of the Week: Miye Oni, Yale — Oni continues to impress in his debut season: The guard had a double-double at Pitt, then led the Bulldogs with 19 points and eight rebounds at Vermont. Oni has done most of his damage from long range, making 15 triples in his first five games, helping open up the paint for the rest of Yale’s offense. In a crowded field, Oni is the early frontrunner for Rookie of the Year.
The Week Ahead: Tuesday is perhaps the best single day of Ivy games yet: Penn hosts reigning champion Villanova, Princeton visits VCU, Harvard hosts George Washington, and Columbia hosts Hofstra. On Saturday, keep an eye on Yale against Albany, which already has solid wins over Penn State and Siena.
- Princeton — With so much talent returning, it seemed there would be no room for newcomers to break into the Tigers’ rotation this season. But with the visitors sputtering at Lafayette on Wednesday, freshman center Will Gladson entered the game and made his first two three-pointers. Gladson only played nine minutes, but as the team’s biggest body (6’10”, 255) and a highly rated recruit who can shoot, expect to see him again when Princeton needs a boost.
- Yale — The Bulldogs are on pace to more or less match their 2015 non-conference resume — one big win over Huskies (then UConn, now Washington), close losses to other power-conference teams, splits with solid mid-majors, and wins over everyone else. That season ended with an Ivy co-championship, but also an NIT snub.
- Harvard — Only one team had beaten Harvard three straight times since the start of the 2010-11 season: UConn, which won four straight from 2011-14. But now Holy Cross has unexpectedly joined that club (which BC, Columbia and Yale can join later this year). The Crusaders have owned the Crimson everywhere — on a neutral court in 2014, at home last year and in Allston last week — despite ranking outside the top 200 nationally for most of that time.
- Penn — Juco transfer Caleb Wood has been a game-changer for Steve Donahue’s offense. He scored 25 points at CCSU (hitting seven threes) and added 15 at Navy, though he had six turnovers (including an iffy charge on the game-deciding play). He and Jackson Donahue must be marked at all times, while Matt Howard and Matt MacDonald can hit the occasional open trey, giving the Quakers’ offense lots of spacing.
- Columbia — Jim Engles’ tendencies have already taken hold in Manhattan: The Lions are playing packed-in defense and allowing opponents to shoot three-pointers; on the other end, they’re shooting more quickly and with less careful shot selection. The scheme is working on offense, but defense is an issue, as both Army and Colgate hit 13 treys.
- Cornell — Stone Gettings has been the clear winner from Cornell’s coaching change; he’s playing starters’ minutes with a 27% usage rate and averaging 13 ppg. I love a center who leads his team in assists, but Gettings has taken almost as many three-pointer as twos, and it’s not yet clear he can shoot — he’s at 27% this season after shooting 21% from deep last year. Those are small samples, but the sophomore will have to improve for his outside shot to add value.
- Brown — Playing small has helped the Bears’ offense, but they just don’t have any rim protection. Opponents have made 61% of their two-point attempts against Brown, 11th-highest in the nation. Sometimes the Bears score enough anyway, but when they suffer a turnover spell, they’re prone to giving up big runs (like 14-0 and 10-0 spurts from Morgan State).
- Dartmouth — Dartmouth’s rim protection problems are even worse — as a team, the Big Green has blocked just one shot all season (Miles Wright against Fairfield). That’s not really a fluke; their top six players in minutes are five guards and Evan Boudreaux, who swatted only one shot in Ivy play last year. Dave McLaughlin needs a fresh face to develop into a shot-blocker (Ian Carter? Ike Ngwudo?) or give more minutes to someone like Wesley Dickinson, who has at least shown that skill in the past.