Last Week in the Ivy League: Harvard came out of its finals break with a huge road victory. Dartmouth doubled its win total. Yale, Cornell and Princeton all held their own at top-100 teams in one of the league’s best weeks yet.
1. If Harvard defends like it did Friday, it will win the Ivy League. The Crimson went to Houston, a top-25 offense per KenPom, and held the Cougars to 0.89 points per possession in a 57-56 win. Credit Harvard’s frontcourt with a great performance: Zena Edosomwan blocked five shots, and the Cougars frequently passed up contested layups to take lower-percentage shots. Edosomwan scored the game-winner off a Bryce Aiken feed in the final minutes, but Harvard really sealed it on the other end, holding Houston scoreless in its final four possessions. With the clock winding down, Justin Bassey mirrored Rob Gray and forced an off-target jumper, giving the Crimson a close victory.
(Houston’s last-second play out of a timeout was misguided: Aiken was originally guarding Gray, but a ballscreen allowed Bassey, Harvard’s top defender, to switch onto him. Kelvin Sampson would’ve been better served running a straight isolation, or at least using a different screener.)
Harvard hit its nadir at the end of November, when it was still winless in D-I play. But it’s won four straight since then, all against capable opponents. The Crimson still makes defensive lapses, but it’s starting to overcome them with raw talent, taking pressure off the offense.
2. Princeton and Monmouth played a classic. A decade ago, Princeton and Monmouth played one of the worst college basketball games ever, a 41-21 rockfight that produced the fewest total points in the modern era. Tuesday’s game was … not that. The New Jersey rivals put on a 96-90 thriller, with four players scoring at least 25 points and Monmouth pulling away for its ninth straight victory.
Princeton recovered to win at Bucknell on Thursday, but the preseason Ivy favorites stand below .500 for the season. More than key injuries, the Tigers have been hurt by their schedule, currently rated as the nation’s 25th strongest per KenPom. And the shape of their games has been unfortunate: Princeton is +31 in first halves and -51 in second halves (excluding the D-3 Rowan game). That adds up to a disappointing start, even though the Tigers are still playing like a borderline top-100 team, very much an Ivy title contender.
3. Play of the Week: Laugh at Jordan Bruner’s totally unnecessary swat of an airball, but stay for Alex Copeland’s behind-the-head dish to Miye Oni for a fast-break dunk:
Player/Rookie of the Week: Bryce Aiken, Harvard — Aiken had a pedestrian first half in Houston, committing back-to-back turnovers and making just one shot. But he took over down the stretch, burying the Cougars with drives, three-pointers from in front of his bench, and a crucial pass delivered at the last moment.
The Week Ahead: Most teams return to action after finals and holidays. Cornell makes its annual trip to the Carrier Dome, which usually ends badly, but Syracuse just lost to St. John’s by 33 there, so you never know. Columbia visits Miami before taking on Albany. The rest of the league plays exclusively at home, and will be favored in almost every game.
- Harvard — Harvard’s low-scoring, one-point win over Houston flashed back to another ugly victory against an AAC team: Yale’s upset of UConn in 2014. That game was a bigger deal at the time, but the Huskies faded down the stretch and ended up squarely in the NIT; Houston’s in-conference play will influence how big Harvard’s win ultimately looks. If nothing else, it’s the second straight season Harvard got to celebrate over the holidays. (Just don’t ask what happened the year before.)
- Princeton — After playing nine of their first 10 D-I games away from home, the Tigers won’t leave Princeton again until February. They have a special home-court advantage at Jadwin Gym and they’ll be favored in every game, but two of their January opponents are Penn and Yale, who have frustrated Princeton in recent seasons.
- Yale — The Bulldogs spent Thursday night losing shooters, making sloppy passes, and getting beat to loose balls — and yet they still had a chance to beat 9-4 Temple on the road. They can thank their frontcourt: Sam Downey had 15 points and 17 rebounds (nine offensive!), Jordan Bruner set or matched career highs with 15 points and four blocks, and Temple shot just 32% inside the arc. Yale is not as fundamentally solid as last year’s team, but its ceiling is really high.
- Penn — Before playing only three minutes in Louisville’s big win over Kentucky, Penn grad Tony Hicks had played 10+ minutes in three straight games, all blowout wins. In his limited time, Hicks has a 24% usage rate — down from his Ivy-leading peak (30-33%), but still second-highest on the Cardinals. That’s come mostly in garbage time; he’s taken hardly any shots in his few minutes against top teams, when playing with more talented teammates.
- Columbia — The Lions have been off for a couple weeks, but catch up on history by listening to the Columbia Sports Management Program’s podcast with Jerry Sherwin, a former team manager who has been involved with the program for more than half a century.
- Cornell — USC 37, Cornell 34 was one of this season’s most surprising halftime scores, given that the No. 23 Trojans were playing at home with an unbeaten record. They kept it that way by a final margin of 79-67, but the Big Red was in it until the final six minutes. Stone Gettings, Robert Hatter and Matt Morgan took 77% of Cornell’s shots that night, and 64% against Troy three days later.
- Brown — The Bears have won seven of their last eight games, but only one of those wins came away from home, and the best team they beat (per KenPom) was #292 Bryant. On Thursday, Maine committed several unforced turnovers and allowed two four-point plays in the decisive second half, but it was still within one possession in the final minutes. Brown can’t count on getting the same sort of help once Ivy play begins.
- Dartmouth — It’s been a disappointing start for the Big Green, but one bright spot has been the emergence of sophomore Guilien Smith. After mostly coming off the bench last season, Smith has thrived in a starting role, posting a 106 offensive rating on 23% usage. He scored career-high 29 points at Bryant, including five three-pointers.