Inside this week: Harvard stays perfect, though not without trouble. The other Ivy contenders struggle to get separation, with Yale, Brown and Columbia each taking losses. And the women’s race heats up, with Harvard pulling ahead and Brown falling into trouble.
1. Harvard keeps winning by the skin of its teeth. A week after their fluky win at Dartmouth, the Crimson skated by Yale at New Haven, scoring the go-ahead points on a three-point shooting foul on Justin Bassey and then trading three scoreless possessions to all but run out the clock. The Crimson, with Bryce Aiken still hobbled, didn’t look the part of a championship contender in scoring 0.84 points per possession, but their defense remained elite in flustering Yale. The following day, they needed their best three-point shooting performance of the season to top Brown. But 4-0 is 4-0, and all but a lock to make the Ivy League Tournament.
Harvard’s rocky play has opened up some criticism of its highly touted sophomore class, but that is sorely misplaced. The Crimson’s sophomores have improved this season: Seth Towns is playing much better on both ends of the floor; Chris Lewis is one of the league’s two best pure big men; and Justin Bassey is sometimes showing newfound skills. Even with Aiken’s injury, Harvard’s sophomore class is easily the most productive single class in the league:
(Win Shares can be skewed by differences in games played, strength of competition, etc., but they are advanced enough to make the general point.)
Harvard’s sophomores are fulfilling their end of the bargain — the other classes are letting them down. No senior has appeared yet in Ivy play. The entire rookie class is averaging about one basket per game this month. Until Corey Johnson found his stroke this weekend, Harvard’s non-sophomores had been essentially replacement-level players, surpassing the contribution only of Cornell’s secondary talent.
(As an aside, note that no Ivy team is being led by its seniors this year — an encouraging sign for a rebound in 2018-19.)
2. Princeton’s consistency is impressive in context. Two weeks ago, I remarked that Princeton hadn’t lost to a bottom-half Ivy League team in nearly three years. After running some numbers, that streak looks even more impressive: It entered this season as the sixth-longest streak in the nation. We won’t know exactly which losses count until the end of the season, but based on losses to date and KenPom’s projected end-of-season standings, the Tigers now likely have the fourth-longest active streak, behind only Wichita St., Gonzaga and Villanova:
(Penn has the longest such streak in Ivy history, spanning from 1968 to 1976. That’s also the third-longest streak in D-I history among teams that did not change conferences, behind Davidson from 1966-76 and Coppin St. from 1987-96.)
3. Brown’s women are in trouble. The Bears lost nailbiters at Dartmouth and Harvard to fall to 1-3, tied for last place in the Ivy League — where they might stay next week after playing Penn and Princeton, winners of a combined 12 straight. After going 12-1 in non-conference play, Brown now faces a very real risk of missing the postseason entirely. Even without injured starter Taylor Will, the Bears clearly have talent, and their losses haven’t been bad (all three on the road, in close games). So it would not be shocking if they went on a late run when the schedule gets softer. But they’ll likely have to pass two of Harvard, Dartmouth and Yale to reach the playoffs, and they’re losing ground in the tiebreakers.
Harvard, meanwhile, is trending in the other direction, winning four straight after a slow start. Senior Taylor Rooks was this weekend’s star, scoring 22 points on 12 shooting possessions against Yale and 24 on 14 against Brown.
And-ones: Penn’s women shared their second-ever Big 5 title. Tamenang Choh alley-oops from halfcourt. Introducing Flannel Night at Leede Arena. “A wedgie with no time remaining! Unprecedented!” Find a man who talks to you the way Steve Kerr talks to Steph Curry.
Player of the Week: Matt Morgan, Cornell — After a two-week mini-slump, Morgan bounced back in his return to Newman Arena, scoring 29 points on just 16 shooting possessions in an 82-81 win. The junior hit all four three-pointers, adding five assists against two turnovers.
Rookie of the Week: Desmond Cambridge, Brown — Cambridge scored 22 points against Harvard, keeping the Bears in the game down the stretch. Two of those came on this magnificent alley-oop coming out of halftime:
Play of the Week: Zach Hunsaker beats the buzzer, and Dartmouth:
The Week Ahead: Brown and Yale make the hardest road trip of the season, visiting Princeton and Penn. Games against top teams are extra important for the Bears and Bulldogs (and any others likely to chase the last playoff spot), as they could prove valuable in tiebreaker scenarios. In the other pairing, Harvard and Dartmouth visit Columbia and Cornell, which seems like precisely the right level of competition for the Crimson to keep winning close games in annoying fashion.
- Penn (3-0) — The Quakers avoided a Big 5 sweep by beating St. Joseph’s, holding the Hawks to 0.78 points per possession and shutting out their bench entirely.
- Princeton (2-1) — Princeton-Yale on Friday will present interesting tactical matchups. If Blake Reynolds is still out (he missed Saturday’s game with a hamstring injury), Amir Bell and Myles Stephens might feast on size advantages against Yale’s small lineups; but if the Bulldogs are at full strength, their big men will be out of place chasing Princeton’s rookie forwards around the perimeter.
- Harvard (4-0) — Bryce Aiken was still tending to his injury at Brown on Saturday, but he managed 18 points in 20 minutes (on 16 shooting possessions, a 38% usage rate). It was an improvement from the prior night, when he hit an early three-pointer at Yale but was otherwise a non-factor.
- Yale (2-2) — Alex Copeland dropped 25 points on Dartmouth, showing off all his shifty moves. The Bulldogs needed more of that against Harvard, when he scored a team-high 11 points but only took five shots, limited by foul trouble and turnovers.
- Brown (2-2) — The Bears haven’t been as offense-dependent as they were last year, but they scored 1.04 points per possession against Harvard, the best performance against the Crimson since Kentucky scored 1.08 nearly two months ago. They would’ve likely won if Harvard hadn’t gone a sizzling 11-for-18 from three-point range.
- Columbia (1-3) — How surprising was it that Cornell beat Columbia on Saturday, just one week after losing by 26 points on the road? Not as surprising as you think. Several years ago, Ken Pomeroy found that a team that wins a home conference game by 15 points is a coin flip to win the rematch, and a home team winning by 25 wins the rematch by less than five points on average. Home-court advantage contributes, but the main factor is simply regression to the mean.
- Cornell (1-3) — Even in scoring 82 points, no Big Red players besides Morgan and Stone Gettings were in double figures. After a Jimmy Boeheim three-pointer took the lead with 7:20 left, the Big Red scored their final 16 points from the foul line.
- Dartmouth (0-4)— The Big Green dominated Brown in the paint (Chris Knight, Will Emery and Adrease Jackson were a combined 17-23 for 39 points) but they lost in brutal fashion, as they went 1-17 from three-point range and Emery missed a go-ahead free throw in the final seconds.