See the weekly analysis below as usual, but don’t miss our takes from Saturday’s games: Ray on how Harvard-Dartmouth got weird once again, John on Columbia’s dismantling of Cornell, and me with three more thoughts from the Empire State blowout.
1. Brown made the playoff race more interesting. Since the preseason poll, the top half of the Ivy League has been well established: Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Penn, in some order, were clear favorites to return to the playoffs. Brown put the first dent in that hegemony with an 81-80 win over Yale on Friday night, avenging a road loss from the prior week. The most likely playoff scenario still involves the preseason top four, but it’s now more likely than not that someone else crashes the party (perhaps depending on injury news).
The most likely contender is Brown, whose remodeled roster is coming together nicely. The Bears needed some end-game luck to top the Bulldogs — Obi Okolie’s game-winning free throws came on a call that often wouldn’t be made in the final seconds, and Miye Oni missed a layup off a beautiful inbounds lob that would have forced overtime — but they outplayed Yale on balance, taking advantage of turnovers and showing off their athleticism at the rim.
Yale’s loss and Harvard’s struggles have also opened a door for Columbia, which dropped 88 points on Cornell Saturday. The Bears and Lions both rely on a lot of underclassmen, so it’s no surprise they might be peaking at the right time.
2. But there are silver linings for the Bulldogs. Even as the Bulldogs suffered injuries elsewhere in their backcourt, Trey Phills was dropped from the starting lineup in December, as his turnovers and lack of scoring punch were dragging down Yale’s offense. But he returned to the A-team after the holidays, and he’s been a completely different player in Ivy League play. After scoring 23 points in a home win against Brown, Phills dropped 19 in Saturday’s return, posting an effective field goal percentage of 83% across the two games.
Phills has always showed flashes of explosiveness, flushing big dunks when given a clear path. But he’s been much more aggressive in the last two weeks, taking pull-up jumpers and making tough layups with both hands, and he’s cut down on his turnover rate. Phills will face tougher defenders in the future, especially if he keeps up this pace, but being a legit two-way threat will open up opportunities for his talented teammates.
More good news: Alex Copeland, previously limited by injury, looked like his old self on Friday (26 points on 10-13 shooting). The big question, of course, is if and when Makai Mason will return (the reported timetable is by the beginning of February). Mason won’t shore up the Bulldogs’ biggest weakness, interior defense, but if James Jones goes against form and runs a small lineup of Mason, Copeland, Phills and Miye Oni around one big, Yale might simply outscore everyone anyway.
3. This week will clarify the women’s pecking order. By non-conference performance and the current standings, Princeton and Penn seem on track to return to the postseason, while Cornell and Columbia’s odds are slim. But the four teams in between are all tied at 1-1, with home-and-home splits against their travel partners. And the other head-to-head permutations start this week, when Yale and Brown visit Harvard and Dartmouth.
Brown led by as many as 15 points in the fourth quarter, but a 17-2 Bulldogs run (over less than three minutes!) forced overtime. Though the Bears sport two of the league’s top three scorers in Shayna Mehta and Justine Gaziano, the difference-makers Friday evening were a pair of less familiar faces: center Janie White, who had 17 points, 12 rebounds, three blocks and a key drawn charge at the end of regulation; and rookie point guard Dominique Leonidas, who sped through the Bulldogs’ defense for 12 points off the bench.
Harvard’s offense exploded for 1.29 points per possession in its return home, thanks to an absurd 62% offensive rebounding rate (eight alone from Jeannie Boehm). Katie Benzan was back in All-Ivy form, hitting six three-pointers en route to 20 points, as the Crimson looked more like the team that was picked third in the preseason poll than they’ve shown for most of the year.
Player of the Week: Seth Towns, Harvard — With Harvard’s role players struggling to score at Dartmouth, they turned to Towns to do nearly everything. He did just enough, scoring 26 points on 15 shots in the overtime win. Towns also committed five turnovers, including two costly ones down the stretch of regulation, but those will be forgotten thanks to a fluky play and two less-fluky free throws.
Rookie of the Week: Desmond Cambridge, Brown — Cambridge led the Bears with 16 points in their victory, including two tough pull-up treys in a key second-half run. He outplayed Yale star Miye Oni head-to-head for much of the game, in one memorable sequence swatting an Oni three-pointer and drawing an intentional foul out of frustration on the fast break.
Play of the Week: Anna Ross hit this layup in the final seconds to give Penn a 79-77 win at Villanova, the Ivy League’s biggest victory this year:
Ross got the glory, but the game’s hero was rookie Eleah Parker, who scored 25 points on 10-16 shooting with nine rebounds, three blocks and three steals. The Wildcats entered last week on the fringes of the top 25 polls, though they beat Princeton by only three points on the road earlier in the season. If it wasn’t obvious already, Wednesday’s result proved that the Quakers won’t snap their two-year championship streak end without a fight.
The Week Ahead: The top two teams in the preseason poll will battle on Friday when Harvard visits Yale, featuring the highly anticipated point guard matchup of Bryce Aiken and Makai Mason uh, Christian Juzang and Eric Monroe? Perhaps just as important is the Crimson’s trip to Brown on Saturday. The Bears are actually favored by KenPom, but expect Harvard’s 16-game series win streak to continue, as its defense is perfectly suited to stop Brown’s rim-attacking offense. Columbia visits Cornell in a rematch that should be much more competitive, assuming the Lions don’t hit 16 three-pointers again.
- Penn (3-0) — Jake Silpe played 15 minutes in Penn’s defeat at Temple, his largest role in any game in 13 months. Sophomore forward Jakob Mijakowski also played eight minutes, his most ever outside of garbage time. Is Steve Donahue just messing around in his final non-conference games, or does he expect to rely on a new cast going forward?
- Princeton (2-1) — The Ivy League calendar is weird because Princeton is in its “fall” exam period this week, and doesn’t want to be playing conference games at the same time. The calendar should line up better next year, allowing Princeton and Penn to start back-to-backs with everybody else.
- Harvard (2-0) — Jokes in the previous section aside, Bryce Aiken will reportedly be ready to go at Yale on Friday. But he was ineffective in his first return, a four-minute stint at Dartmouth, so Harvard will hope he’s in better shape now.
- Yale (1-1) — The geography of Miye Oni’s rough 3-15 night against Brown:
- Brown (1-1) — Tamenang Choh was everywhere on Friday, stuffing Blake Reynolds on a dunk attempt early, throwing down a couple of his own throughout the game, and throwing a no-look pass for a Matt DeWolf layup late. Choh has been in and out of the starting lineup all year, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s back to stay soon.
- Columbia (1-2) — One benefit of depth is the ability to match up against different styles. Against a Cornell team that struggles to defend pick-and-rolls and similar action, rookie center Jaron Faulds hardly played, with the Lions instead spending long stretches in nimbler lineups with Myles Hanson as the de facto center.
- Cornell (0-3) — Cornell’s few defensive successes came when it tried new wrinkles — trapping Lukas Meisner aggressively in the post late in the first half, or switching to zone in the second. Columbia eventually figured both out, but continuing to mix in unpredictable looks might be a path toward improvement.
- Dartmouth (0-2) — The Big Green shot just 10-36 on two-pointers against Harvard; exclude centers Chris Knight and Will Emery and the rate falls to 5-26. Three-point shooting alone can take Dartmouth far, but not far enough.