What Happened Last Week: Princeton is 14-0, thanks to another Harvard-killing shot (now with Titanic music!). Penn is the 4-seed, thanks to its own Crimson-beating game-winner. On the women’s side, Penn is the repeat champion, and Brown won a de facto play-in game to punch its Palestra ticket.
1. Hopefully Friday was a preview of the type of games we’ll see in the Ivy tournament. The Tigers and Crimson played one of the best Ivy League games I can remember in front of an ESPNU audience on Friday. Harvard, unfazed by Jadwin Gym’s unfamiliar sightlines, was red-hot from outside (13-28), but Princeton stayed in the game with steals and 1.14 points per possession of its own.
The tactical battle between Tommy Amaker and Mitch Henderson is always fascinating, and this weekend was no exception. Henderson ran a super-small lineup for most of the final 4:30, forcing Amaker to choose how to respond throughout the back-and-forth finish. It paid off on the final possession: With big man Chris Lewis caught guarding Amir Bell, Henderson pocketed his final timeout and let Bell attack the mismatch, resulting in the game-winning layup.
The Cannady-Bell-Weisz-Cook-Stephens lineup is risky — with nobody above 6’5”, it hurts Princeton’s defense, and they have to hit three-pointers to maximize damage on the other end. But it gets the Tigers’ five best players on the court, and I’d expect to see it for any crunch-time minutes Princeton faces in the postseason.
2. The 4-seed race wasn’t pretty, but it ended well. As expected, the battle for the final tournament bid captured lots of attention — but for most of the season, it was more “trainwreck” than “thriller”. Every team with an opening seemed to lose, a pattern that continued Friday night: Columbia was waxed at Brown, which scored on 11 straight possessions to end the first half (while playing without Tavon Blackmon), while Penn lost to Dartmouth as a double-digit favorite. By the second half of Saturday night’s games, Columbia was caught in the weird situation of playing a game that wouldn’t affect its postseason chances, thanks to the tiebreaker logic. But most of that will fade into history, leaving the highlight of Jackson Donahue’s playoff-clinching shot:
That leaves the Ivy League in the ugly position of 14-0 Princeton playing a semifinal game against 6-8 Penn on the Quakers’ home court. That sucks — which is why the league should explore other sites for future years — but keep it in perspective: Depending whose math you prefer, Princeton’s odds of winning the tournament are about 45-50% as is, compared to about 55% on a neutral court. That’s a real difference, but both are well short of 100%.
If you think the NCAA tournament is the be-all and end-all of college basketball, an honor that should reward the season’s best teams, then any conference tournament feels like an injustice. If you think March Madness is a giant postseason event designed for maximum enjoyment, conference tournaments just add to the fun — and a misplaced home-court advantage is a small price to pay if necessary. (In the MAAC yesterday, 1-seed Monmouth lost at 4-seed Siena, which was a sad result but a thrilling game.) There’s no solution that satisfies every viewpoint, which is why we’ll keep having this argument every year.
3. Shayna Mehta had the biggest performance of the season so far. The tournament might not start until Saturday, but we already had a playoff game last weekend, when the winner of Brown-Cornell was guaranteed the final slot. Mehta, a 5’7” sophomore, scored or assisted 35 of Brown’s first 49 points. She finished with 28 points on 17 shooting possessions and Brown shut down the hosts over the final 30 minutes, cruising to a 67-46 victory and a dangerous spot in the Ivy League Tournament.
They’ll play in the first semifinal against Penn, which earned its home-court advantage with a 12-1 record (pending Tuesday’s game against Princeton) and a second straight league title. #2 Princeton (1-2 in its last three) and #3 Harvard (1-4 in last five) are sputtering into the other semifinal. The experienced Quakers are a solid favorite, but nothing would surprise me in this bracket.
Player of the Week: Matt Howard, Penn — Howard made sure the biggest game of his career wouldn’t be his last. He carried the Quakers early on in a must-win game and made two huge baskets down the stretch, finishing with 24 points and 12 rebounds. (He also had a turnover-free 19 and seven in the prior night’s loss to Dartmouth.) The senior also had one of his best defensive games, erasing three Harvard shots:
Rookie of the Week: Seth Towns, Harvard — After an up-and-down winter, Towns is peaking at the right time, scoring 15+ points in five of his last six Ivy contests. He had his best game yet at Jadwin, dropping 26 points on 14 shooting possessions from all over the court — post-ups, three-pointers, and drives to the rim. Towns took a hard fall late in the second half and limped off the court, only to come back and dunk a minute later.
Play of the Week: Steven Cook and Spencer Weisz are two classic Princeton Offense players, and their era will be fondly remembered through plays like these:
- Princeton (14-0) — The outright Ivy League title wasn’t Princeton’s only big athletic achievement this weekend: The men’s lacrosse team hammered #3 Johns Hopkins, its biggest win in years; the men’s hockey team scored a literal last-second goal to stay alive and eventually advance in the ECAC Tournament; and the wrestling team — which couldn’t even field full lineups a decade ago — finished third at the Eastern regionals and sent six grapplers to NCAAs.
- Harvard (10-4) — Several Harvard fans said they might root for Penn in the season finale, because it would make Princeton’s road to the championship game harder. I think that was too clever by half — after all, Penn at home would also be a difficult opponent for Harvard in a potential title match (as Saturday showed!). According to Bart Torvik’s simulator, the Crimson’s NCAA odds would have been 24% whether Columbia or Penn was the 4-seed. (Harvard’s players were certainly trying their hardest on Saturday — just watch Bryce Aiken’s deflated reaction from the bench after the buzzer.)
- Yale (9-5) — In a season filled with standout rookies, Jordan Bruner never quite lived up to the major preseason hype after missing the start of the season with a knee injury. Bruner had his moments — 25 points against Hartford, 15 at Princeton — and had the league’s second-most blocks, but he managed double figures in just two Ivy games. With Sam Downey graduating, Yale will need Bruner to step into a bigger role next year.
- Penn (6-8) — Bret Strelow of the Winston-Salem Journal wrote my favorite article of the season, analyzing whether “hard rims” and “soft rims” exist in college basketball. I thought of it when watching this weekend’s action—particularly at The Palestra, where shooters from all teams seemed to get friendly rolls (Matt Howard’s rattling floater is one example of many). But the soft-rim highlight of the season came on Staten Island, where Keith Braxton’s line-drive heave rolled 540 degrees around the hoop and through to send Saint Francis University to the NEC finals.
- Columbia (5-9) — A year after having a top-60 offense nationally, the Lions finished with the worst offensive efficiency in Ivy League play at 0.99 ppp. With the graduation of Luke Petrasek, their most efficient scorer, others will have to improve for Columbia to challenge for a playoff bid again next year.
- Cornell (4-10) — Matt Morgan and Stone Gettings are a great core to build around, but who will join them for the next two years? Wil Bathurst and Troy Whiteside have had good games, but neither has proven capable of being a full-time third banana, and the Big Red got very little out of its rookie class this season.
- Brown (4-10) — Steven Spieth closed his career in style, totaling 51 points over two games at the Pizzitola Center. That vaulted him to the Ivy scoring title (19.5 ppg), but he was more than a scorer on offense — watch this brilliant one-touch pass to give JR Hobbie a wide-open three:
- Dartmouth (4-10) — Guilien Smith hit the eventual game-winning shot at Penn on Friday, but an earlier bucket was more remarkable — his corner three that somehow scored off the glass. That was my favorite HORSE shot growing up (technically from the opposite corner), but the backboard of my $40 driveway hoop had a sloped top, making it a bit easier to pull off.