Inside this week: Penn is officially back (if it wasn’t already), one playoff race heats up, and another ends prematurely. Don’t miss our weekend coverage of Columbia’s big, whistle-filled victory over Brown, and Yale clinching a top-four finish (a scheduled post for every spring until the end of time).
1. Penn is one win from its first Ivy League title in 11 years. The Quakers are suffering the longest championship drought in program history, but one win in their final two games (at Yale and Brown) will clinch at least a share of their 26th title. That’s because Penn topped Harvard 74-71 at The Palestra on Saturday night. It was the game of the Ivy season so far, featuring a crowd of 6500, 20 lead changes — and a possible preview of the Ivy League Tournament final, which will take place in two weeks in the same location.
Penn and Harvard have had the league’s top defenses by far this season — so naturally, their second meeting was an offensive slugfest in which each team topped 1.10 points per possession. Ryan Betley was the first-half hero, canning four three-pointers to keep the game close; AJ Brodeur took over in the second period, scoring 14 points on perfect shooting (finishing the game with 17 points, 12 rebounds, four assists and four steals).
The Quakers’ guards scored several times with hard backdoor cuts, a typical strategy against the Crimson. But they also had surprising success with straight-line drives off the dribble, beating Harvard’s strong defenders before help could arrive:
The hosts also bottled up Chris Lewis much more effectively than in the first meeting, getting a surprisingly large advantage in the paint.
The Quakers have been improving under Steve Donahue, but a title wasn’t supposed to come this soon. They’ve had some help from injuries and mediocrity around the league (per KenPom, they would currently be the lowest-ranking Ivy champion since at least 2002), but they’ve legitimately been the best team this season.
2. Once again, the race for the 4-seed is wild. Columbia and Cornell are tied for fourth at 5-7, but Princeton and Brown are each alive at 4-8. You can play with specific tiebreaker scenarios here (via the Yale Sports Analytics Group), but in summary:
Columbia is in the driver’s seat. The Lions control their own destiny: A sweep of Dartmouth and Harvard would guarantee the 4-seed regardless of other results. Even a split likely sends Columbia to Philly, unless Brown sweeps, Cornell sweeps, or Cornell beats Harvard and Columbia doesn’t.
But given the Lions’ track record away from home — 11 straight losses dating back to Nov. 14 — the rest of the field is very much alive. Princeton and Brown each need a sweep to have any chance at the postseason, making Friday’s duel in Providence an elimination game. That wouldn’t be enough: Both would need Harvard to sweep Columbia and Cornell; Princeton would also need Dartmouth to beat Columbia, while Brown would need the same for Cornell.
The Big Red’s easiest path is to win fourth place outright, but it can also win a tiebreaker in two ways: A tie at 6-8 in which it beats Harvard but loses to Dartmouth (as long as Columbia doesn’t do the same), or any deadlock that includes Brown. The disaster scenario is a multi-team tie at 5-9 — in that case, Cornell advances if Brown is part of the five-win group, otherwise Columbia does.
Penn will be the #1 seed unless (a) Penn loses to Yale and Harvard sweeps; (b) Penn gets swept and Harvard doesn’t; or (c) Penn loses only to Brown, Harvard sweeps, Brown beats Princeton and Columbia loses to Dartmouth.
3. The women’s playoff field is already set, a week ahead of schedule. No team had officially clinched a postseason berth when Friday’s games tipped off; 26 hours later, all four bids were locked up. Sweeps by Yale and Harvard, combined with two home losses by Dartmouth, gave the Crimson and Bulldogs a two-game lead at 8-4. The Big Green could still tie for third or fourth place at 8-6, but they will lose any tiebreaker — a bitter ending to a breakout season. (Perhaps they should be allowed to enter the men’s tournament instead of whatever likely sub-.500 team eventually comes in fourth?)
As late as 6:30 Saturday, things were looking up for the Big Green: Yale trailed Columbia by 15 points in the second half at home. A loss would have forced the Bulldogs to knock off one of the league leaders on the road next weekend or else open the door for the Big Green to finish fourth outright; instead, Yale guards Roxy Barahman and Tamara Simpson took over in their usual fashion, getting four second-half steals and combining for 24 points in that time to lead Yale to its first Ivy League Tournament appearance.
Seeding within the four-team field only got more complicated, however, thanks to Harvard’s surprising home sweep of Princeton and Penn (two teams it lost to by a combined 53 points on the road). Princeton, at 10-2, needs only one win to clinch the #1-seed and at least a share of the title. Penn, at 9-3, is alone in second place, although one loss at home this weekend would likely cost it the #2-seed. It might not matter much, as Penn-Harvard is the likely 2-vs-3 matchup either way — but if Yale manages to sweep the Quakers and Tigers on the road, it could put in play a four-way tie scenario in which the Bulldogs actually come out #1.
And-ones: Strength coach Bryan Doo goes from the Celtics to the Crimson. Dan Dwyer’s long journey. Tony Hicks is making a case for BBL MVP. The largest comeback in D-I history. Multi-sport athletes aren’t super rare in the Ivy League, but winning Ivy titles in soccer and the triple jump is pretty far out there. Handsome Dan celebrates a playoff bid.
- Penn (11-1) — As strong as Penn’s defense has been this year, it hasn’t forced too many turnovers — but the Crimson committed 14 on Saturday (a 22% rate), including three in Penn’s late 10-2 run that decided the game. Watch the Quakers’ pressure if these teams meet for a third time in the Ivy tournament.
- Harvard (10-2) — Seth Towns had one of his best games of the season Saturday: 22 points on 13 shooting possessions against a top defense, including a pair of late NBA-range threes to keep the Crimson close. But Antonio Woods and the rest of Penn’s defense didn’t make it easy: Towns took only one shot in the paint, and even his free-throws were drawn with up-fakes on jumpers.
- Yale (7-5) — If you had “Noah Yates hits a game-winning three-pointer” on your preseason Ivy bingo card, congratulations. Yates, a former Yale football player, has been pressed into regular playing time by the Bulldogs’ injuries this season. He scored a career-high 17 points at Cornell, including the go-ahead shot with 20 seconds left, and Yale turned to him again to beat the halftime buzzer at Columbia.
- Columbia (5-7) — The Lions have one of the nation’s lowest free throw rates, but you wouldn’t know it from this weekend’s games — they shot 38 freebies against Brown (who fouls everyone a lot) and 24 against Yale, especially in the second half. “We wanted to spread them out, and put ourselves in a position where we could not only get to the rim but also kick to shooters at the three-point line,” coach Jim Engles said Saturday. “But as the half wore on, the clock started to get away from us, and it became more individualized at the end.”
- Cornell (5-7) — Jordan Abdur Ra’oof missed all of last season with injuries and has played only spot minutes this year. But during Senior Night — his first start in two years — Ra’oof made key plays, opening the game with an alley-oop, assisting on a tying three-pointer and then hitting one himself to put the Big Red ahead in the second half.
- Princeton (4-8) — Myles Stephens scored exactly half of the Tigers’ points against Harvard, going for a career-high 33 in the overtime loss. The junior scored on his usual drives and post-ups, but he also showed new tools: A step-back three-pointer off the dribble to end the first half, and even a backdoor cut, not usually his forte despite the name on the front of his jersey.
- Brown (4-8) — Desmond Cambridge hasn’t shot better than 36% in any of his last four games. He still got to an efficient 26 points at Columbia by making 13 free throws, but he’ll need to repeat his Princeton/Penn magic in rematches this weekend for the Bears to make a playoff push.
- Dartmouth (2-10) — Dartmouth had a weirdly good point differential for a last-place team at the halfway point, but blowout losses at Penn and Princeton have left the Big Green with a more traditional profile: -0.09 points per possession, last place in the league.