Ivy League Preseason Roundup: Familiar expectations

Inside the preseason: The media poll showed little agreement as to the top contender, but it separated the Ivy League into familiar tiers. Departing seniors — even those with little hardware — got big grad transfer opportunities. Coaches gave injury updates and a few funny lines at the preseason teleconference.

Three Points: 

1. As expected, the preseason poll shows H-Y-P(-P?) hegemony. The Crimson is your nominal favorite, but the voting appropriately reflects a near-dead heat between Harvard, Yale and Princeton. Penn is squarely in fourth place, with Columbia leading another jumbled pack below. (Symptoms of the top-three toss-up: Ken Pomeroy’s projections go Yale-Princeton-Harvard; Bart Torvik says Harvard-Princeton-Yale; and an annual Twitter fan poll went Yale-Harvard-Princeton.)

The gap between the tiers is striking. The conference doesn’t release a full voting breakdown (my guess is here), but based on the point totals, at least 14 of the 17 voters picked an Ivy League Tournament of Harvard-Yale-Princeton-Penn in some order.

You may recall, those were the four playoff teams last year. They feature a combined three seniors among their expected starters, making them the likely favorites again a year from now. They’ve also been recruiting the best talent recently, making them the likely favorites in 2020 and 2021. And based on structural forces — prestige; history; entrenched coaches; and the fact that success begets success — there’s no reason that trend can’t continue well into the next decade.

In a sport where playing careers last only four years, it might seem unrealistic to project success 5-10 years ahead. But the balance of power in the Ivy League has been stable for quite a while now. Yale and Princeton have finished in the upper division for nine straight years, while Harvard is on an eight-year streak. Cornell has missed the top four in seven years running, while Dartmouth would be 0-for-9 if not for two wild comebacks in the final weekend of 2015. (Penn has not been dominant in the last decade, but it finished top-four in each of the prior 16 seasons.)

By no means are the other four programs doomed every year. There will be eras when talent comes together (like 2008-10 for Cornell, or 2014-16 for Columbia). And top programs will have injuries or down years (Princeton in 2007-09, Penn in 2014-16), opening up space in the upper division.

For sustained success, however, it looks increasingly hard to dethrone today’s powers. Yes, structural factors can change: A decade ago, Harvard was an also-ran in the Ancient Eight. Could another school make a similar leap? (If so, Columbia is the best bet.) Even so, the bar will continue rising as the top Ivies experience success.

(Also, Harvard is the proverbial exception that proves the rule due to the resources that accelerated its rise, including an unparalleled institutional brand and a powerful athletic department. The Crimson has won 53 Ivy titles across all sports in the last five years — a close second to Princeton, and as many as Brown, Columbia, Cornell and Dartmouth combined.)

As a result, would you be surprised if the first decade of the Ivy League Tournament sees H-Y-P-P make something like 10-9-8-6 appearances (in any order), and B-C-C-D making 3-2-1-1? And if so, for how long will the four-team tournament structure be viable?

To be clear, this is very much a long-term question, anticipating a scenario that might never happen. The four-team structure was well-received by many in its first season (including me!), and it isn’t going away in the near future: Ivy League Executive Director Robin Harris pointedly praised it on the preseason media teleconference, saying the four-team tournament “maintains and enhances the value of the regular season as teams are striving to qualify.”

Though the virtues of a small playoff are clear (more compelling regular-season races and a more competitive tournament), no other conference currently uses that model. If the balance of power and opportunity swings too far off-center, the downsides might become more persuasive.

2. Ivy League graduates continue to get great transfer opportunities. Hans Brase (Iowa State) and David Onourah (UConn) will suit up for perennial NCAA tournament contenders this year. Of note is that neither player ever made an All-Ivy team (not even Honorable Mention), showing the depth of the Ivy League’s talent base. Other low-profile players (no first- or second-team honors) who have received big grad-transfer offers in recent years include Patrick Steeves (George Washington), Tony Hicks (Louisville), Rafael Maia (Pitt), Dwight Tarwater (Cal) and Errick Peck (Purdue).

In other grad transfer news, Henry Caruso is now at Santa Clara, and Makai Mason announced he will play at Baylor after playing this year as a senior at Yale.

3. The Ivy League Tournament will be back at The Palestra. There is no perfect home for this event, which will make it a constant source of discussion for years to come. But this particular decision is a missed opportunity — the first few years are an ideal time to experiment with different options and better understand the trade-offs involved. As it stands, Penn will once again have a significant home-court advantage if it finishes in the top four. Given where the top teams stand in preseason projections, it’s not unthinkable that Penn might actually enter the playoff as the worst seed but the betting favorite.

And-ones: Cornell’s Jordan Abdur-Ra’oof, Troy Whiteside and Kyle Brown launched a website to tell minority Ivy students’ stories. Penn star Michelle Nwokedi fundraises for her hometown after Hurricane Harvey. A historical perspective on Ivy athlete activism. Koby Altman went from unpaid Columbia assistant to trading Kyrie Irving in just five years. Past and present Lions trained with LeBron and Jimmy Butler. Maodo Lo won a title in Germany. Princeton’s Dan Mavraides and Brown’s Damon Huffman represented the U.S. at the FIBA 3×3 World Cup. New courts at Cornell (thankfully) and Yale. Player of the Year Spencer Weisz has mixed success in other sports. Mourning the death of Penn senior Nick Moya, part of the basketball team’s analytics group.

Top quotes from the preseason coaches’ teleconference:

Penn’s Steve Donahue, who was previously skeptical of the postseason tournament: “Having witnessed what we did last year, in particular our personal situation here [starting 0-6], and watching our guys really be motivated by the opportunity of still making the tournament, really swayed me in the other direction.”

Dartmouth’s Dave McLaughlin: “Having never been an assistant or player in this league, you can’t take for granted how unique the back-to-back games are. Our first road trip was Columbia to Cornell, and I remember watching film Friday night on the bus, and we just kept driving and driving and driving. Then we finally get to the other place, and you’re like, okay, I have three hours of sleep ahead of me and then we have a staff meeting.”

Princeton’s Mitch Henderson, on the idea of resuming a series with Rutgers: “Do you have their phone number? We would love to play that game. We’ve made every effort, and we’re hoping that series will continue in the future.” (Per KenPom, Rutgers hasn’t ranked ahead of Princeton for a full season since 2011.)

Yale’s James Jones said that Makai Mason’s foot is 100%, but he strained his back in the weight room and was expected to be back on the court this week.

Brown’s Mike Martin said top returning scorer Obi Okolie is “out for a little while” with a foot injury, expected to return shortly after games begin.

What to watch for on opening weekend: The Ivy season opens with a bang, as all three teams playing D-I games on the first Friday (Nov. 10) visit major-conference foes. Cornell (at Syracuse) and Columbia (at Villanova, FS2) will be interesting to watch as teams with upside, but the big ticket is Yale at Creighton. The Bulldogs then visit Wisconsin on Sunday (BTN), at the same time as Princeton visits Butler (CBSSN) and shortly after Harvard hosts UMass. Two top contenders on the women’s side also face quality Opening Day competition: Harvard against Dayton in a neutral-site tournament, and Princeton hosting George Washington.

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