What Happened Last Week: The Ivy League got off to a great start: Yale hung with Duke for a half, Penn and Columbia topped solid teams, and Princeton and Harvard beat D-I opponents by D-III scores. But the weekend was brutal for everyone not named Miles Wright.
1. It’s not yet panic time for Columbia, but this weekend perfectly illustrated the problems they will face in their Ivy League title bid. The Lions’ offense was good against Fairfield (1.08 points per possession), even though the Stags’ zone forced them to take more than half their shots from three-point range — but Marcus Gilbert burned their defense for 33 points, all of which were necessary in the overtime win. The following night, Columbia scored even better against Longwood (1.19 ppp) — but the Lancers dropped 42 second-half points on 27 possessions for a 70-69 upset.
The Lions are capable of playing brilliant offense, as they did against Lehigh, or in the second half against Wofford. But when their scoring is anywhere below that level, their defense isn’t good enough to close out games easily. Columbia doesn’t have the pressure to force lots of turnovers, nor a shot-blocker to ward opponents away from the paint.
The Lions are still three shots from being 6-1. These concerns would still apply in that world, but the narrative would be much different. Given Columbia’s history, however, their actual start is all too familiar — the Lions have had lots of tough luck, most memorably in 2012-13, when they went 0-8 in games decided by five points or less. Analytically, bad fortune in the past is not predictive of what will happen this year. But emotionally, it’s hard to picture Columbia winning the close games necessary to take the title.
Columbia MBB is 349 out of 351 in terms of kenpom luck. Pretty lucky by Lions standards.
— Ryan Young (@RYoungNY) November 29, 2015
2. Princeton hosted Lafayette on Wednesday night, and the result was one giant fire emoji:
Lafayette’s defense has always been bad — even last year’s NCAA tournament team — but 104 points, Princeton’s highest total in 44 years, would be remarkable against five crash-test dummies. No Tiger had even 15 points, in part because none played more than half the game, but the scoring came from places expected (59% shooting from the five starters) and unexpected (a combined seven three-pointers from Noah Bramlage and Mike LeBlanc). And the defense, which held the Leopards to .68 ppp, was just as impressive.
Princeton is now one of 29 remaining undefeated teams nationally, in part because it has played only three games, but the schedule gets much tougher in December: The Tigers will play four potential top-100 teams this month, all on the road.
3. In any other week, Penn center Darien Nelson-Henry would appear in the next section’s weekly awards. The senior has struggled with injuries throughout his career, but when on the court, he has always had good post moves and a nose for rebounds. Both of those were in ample supply this week, as he scored a career-high 31 points with 14 rebounds in the Quakers’ big win over La Salle, then added 20 and nine at Lafayette, shooting a combined 22-29.
Nelson-Henry has thrived at the center of Steve Donahue’s offense, enjoying the improved spacing and his purposeful rolls to the hoop. He now ranks second in the league with 17.0 ppg, fourth with 8.8 rebounds, and his 122 offensive rating is by far the highest of his career. For his sake, hopefully Nelson-Henry has a full season to show what he can do when healthy.
Player of the Week: Miles Wright, Dartmouth — Reigning Rookie of the Year Miles Wright was quiet in his first two games, shooting a combined 4-18 with nine points, but he broke out on Sunday: Wright scored 39 points, second only to Jim Barton’s 48-point effort in 1987 on Dartmouth’s leaderboard. The sophomore did most of his damage on corner three-pointers and transition layups, shooting 7-9 on threes and 13-22 overall, with six rebounds and three steals to boot.
Rookie of the Week: Tommy McCarthy, Harvard — McCarthy had a rough start to the season against tough competition, but he led Harvard’s offense in its first D-I victory, scoring 16 points with eight assists against Bryant. The point guard added eight points at Holy Cross on Sunday, but his minutes were limited, and he has been asked to do more than his fair share as Harvard’s offense struggles.
The Week Ahead: Harvard travels to Kansas on Saturday (ESPN2), but the most interesting games feature quality teams outside the power conferences. Don’t miss Wednesday’s slate, which includes Harvard-Northeastern, Vermont-Dartmouth and Columbia-Bucknell; the fun continues over the weekend, with Friday’s St. Joe’s-Columbia appetizer followed by Princeton-Stony Brook, Vermont-Yale, and Penn-George Mason on Saturday.
- Yale — Makai Mason and Brandon Sherrod got more headlines as Yale led for much of the first half at Duke, but there’s no doubt who is the Bulldogs’ most important player — certainly not after this weekend. After dropping 19 points, three blocks and two steals at Cameron Indoor, Justin Sears sat out Sunday’s game at Albany due to illness, watching the Bulldogs get blown out 88-54. That can’t all be attributed to Sears — Albany is good, and its trio of ballhandling guards is a particularly bad matchup for Yale — but he is the difference between a solid team and an Ivy favorite.
- Princeton — Freshman Devin Cannady will take your Princeton Offense stereotypes and shove them like this:
— Princeton Tigers (@PUTIGERS) November 26, 2015
- Columbia — Even though the Lions lost in overtime, Grant Mullins’ game-tying three at the end of regulation was slick:
Ooooovertime (Thanks to Grant Mullins) pic.twitter.com/NR6ZouEzR2
— Ray Curren (@currenrr) November 27, 2015
- Harvard — Senior Patrick Steeves spent his first three seasons confined to the bench by injuries, never even stepping on the floor for the Crimson. When the Montreal native played 12 minutes and scored eight points in Harvard’s blowout of Bryant, it was a feel-good evening that fired up the Harvard players — and it also paved the way for a bigger role for Steeves, who saw 26 minutes off the bench on Sunday, finishing with six points, 12 rebounds and seven assists in the 50-49 loss. “There’s a sense of hunger with someone like that, and when the opportunity’s there, they don’t want to miss it,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said of Steeves on Wednesday.
- Dartmouth — The Big Green forced 18 turnovers on Sunday, bringing its defensive turnover rate to 27%, third-best in the nation. Dartmouth also only sent the Blackbirds to the line six times, improving what had been a weakness in its first two games.
- Penn — Much has been made of the Quakers’ revamped offense, but they have embraced one aspect of Steve Donahue’s defensive philosophy just as quickly: They commit very few fouls, currently ranking ninth nationally with a defensive free-throw rate of 22.1. The caution comes at a cost, however — the Quakers are in the bottom 20 in block and steal rates. That hurts against good shooting teams such as Lafayette, which committed only eight turnovers and shot 66% on two-pointers en route to 1.26 ppp in its 92-86 win over the Quakers on Sunday.
- Brown — For nearly everyone outside this little corner of the Internet, Steven Speith is known only as Jordan’s little brother. The New York Times wrote this week about his life as the sibling of a Masters champion, including parents who don’t play favorites. The younger Speith made four of his team’s 15 threes in a homecoming game at No. 25 SMU, helping the Bears scare the hosts before losing by eight.
- Cornell — The Big Red forced a season-high 23 turnovers at UMass-Lowell, but they still gave up a point per possession in an 80-77 loss, thanks to 10 three-pointers and 11 offensive rebounds by the River Hawks. After playing five of its first six D-I games on the road, Cornell gets more home cooking in December, but the opponents will be tougher.