Ivy League Tournament Mini-Preview: #1 Harvard vs. #2 Penn

After a downright weird regular season, the Ivy League Tournament has given us a very normal final: #1-seed vs. #2-seed, co-champion vs. co-champion, Player of the Year against the presumed runner-up. Harvard and Penn split the season series, with each team winning in its home gym — and the rubber match will be at The Palestra, making the Quakers a small favorite on paper.

Penn killed Harvard near the basket, making 24 of 28 shots in the restricted area — surprising as Harvard, led by Chris Lewis, is generally strong at protecting the rim. The Quakers got good looks anyway by drawing Lewis away from the rim and moving the ball to keep Crimson defenders off-balance, then beating them with cuts or simply straight-line drives. In contrast, the Quakers didn’t shoot well from three-point range, aside from Ryan Betley’s first-half explosion at The Palestra.

Chris Lewis torched Penn for 25 points in the first meeting, scrambling the Quakers’ defense as they tried to adjust. His touches were more limited in the second meeting, a Penn win at The Palestra. He will continue to be a focus, but the Quakers’ defense — which generally avoids helping too much or too often in order to stay at home on shooters — has been susceptible to post scorers all year. (Though he was limited by foul trouble, Paul Atkinson co-led Yale with 11 points on 5-of-5 shooting in the semifinal.)

The top players to watch, however, will be Player of the Year Seth Towns and All-Ivy forward AJ Brodeur. Though they both nominally play the four, they’ll only go head-to-head occasionally — Antonio Woods mostly guarded Towns, while a few different Crimson players guarded Brodeur based on other matchups.

Towns led Harvard with 24 points in the semifinal, though he needed a lot of shots to get there. Penn’s defense is designed to force opponents into two-point jumpers, but Towns is the league’s best at making them, shooting over smaller players — as he did with Woods, scoring 39 points across two games. Towns drilled a few pull-up three-pointers in Harvard’s failed comeback attempt at The Palestra, and he’ll look to do the same there Sunday.

“He’s a very talented player, particularly at his size. Towns has a lot of different shots from different spots,” Penn coach Steve Donahue said. “He gets to the rim, he makes all his shots off the dribble. You have to continuously mix up all your coverages, all five guys have to be involved, and you’ve got to understand he’ll probably get his share — but you have to make him do it from two, not from the foul line and not from three.”

Brodeur dominated Yale in the post, scoring an efficient 25 points in Penn’s easy semifinal victory. He’ll face a tougher interior defense on Sunday, but he should be up to the challenge: Brodeur scored 31 points across two games against the Crimson, especially taking over down the stretch of the Quakers’ home win.

“I’m excited, to be honest. We’re ready to play them tomorrow,” Brodeur said. “We did a lot of things differently the second time we played them, where we won, than the first time, but we still have some little things to perfect to get us to where we want to be.”

The Prediction: Not much separates these two squads. Penn is firing on all cylinders and has home-court advantage, but Harvard has hot shooters and the league’s top defense. I’m taking Harvard 68, Penn 66.

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