We’re at the halfway point of Ivy League play, with each team having played seven or eight games. The conference has sorted itself nicely: Yale, Princeton and Columbia are undefeated against the other five — who are all bunched at 2-3 wins — and the Bulldogs have the inside track to the championship. How did each team get there? Find out below.
(The charts and many of the stats below are based on shot location data I’ve been recording throughout the Ivy season. Take the exact percentages with a grain of salt, since there is some subjectivity involved in assigning exact locations, but I’ve tried to highlight robust patterns backed up by the “eye test”.)
- Yale (8-0)
Efficiency Margin: +.24 points per possession (1.18 scored, 0.94 allowed)
Click shot charts to enlarge
The Bulldogs have hardly showed any flaws in Ivy League play. They lead the Ancient Eight in offensive and defensive efficiency; they’re the best shooting team on two-pointers and three-pointers; they’re on the fringe of KenPom’s top 50 nationally; and, of course, they’re 8-0 in Ivy play.
Yale has gotten there with very little drama: It’s won every league game but one by at least nine points — the exception being a four-point victory over Princeton in which it led wire to wire. According to KenPom’s calculations, the Bulldogs’ win probability has dipped below 50% just once, for a three-minute span in the second half at Dartmouth. By efficiency margin, it’s been as dominant as any recent Ivy League team.
Everything starts at the basket, as Yale takes a league-high 40% of its shots inside the restricted area. Brandon Sherrod leads the league in made baskets there (36-50), while Justin Sears is second (27-48). Sam Downey is further down the list, but he’s tied for the lead in accuracy at 83%. Many of those shots are earned on the glass — Yale’s 37% offensive rebound rate tops the league — but the Bulldogs are also patient in their offensive sets, looking to set up their forwards for easy baskets.
Force them back a step or two, and not much changes. The Bulldogs have made 47% of their shots from 4-10 feet; no other team makes even 40%. Sears is the master of that area, shooting 15-26 on his patented, herky-jerky hook shots and floaters, but Sherrod and Makai Mason are also above 50% there.
On defense, it’s a similar story: With Sears protecting the rim (and Nick Victor often sneaking in from the weak side), opponents shoot well below average in the restricted area. The Bulldogs don’t gamble much for steals, but they close off the three-point arc and play strong defense inside of it.
Now for the caveats: Yale has made 45% of its threes through eight league games, a fluky rate for a team that was below 35% in non-conference play. Anthony Dallier (55%), Jack Montague (50%), Nick Victor (49%) and Makai Mason (45%) are all shooting above their established levels in Ivy play; some will come down to earth. Fortunately for the Bulldogs, they take fewer threes than any other team, so the impact will be limited.
More concerning is the schedule: After a favorable front half, they still have their two toughest road tests left at Princeton and Columbia, plus threatening trips to The Palestra and Newman Arena. Those games wlil determine whether Yale ultimately goes down as one of the best Ivy teams of this era — and snaps its 54-year NCAA tournament draught.
2. Princeton (6-1)
Efficiency Margin: +.18 ppp (1.14 scored, .96 allowed)
In most seasons, a team as dominant as Yale would be running away with the title. But they’re not, because the 2016 Tigers are having a championship-caliber season of their own. They have the league’s second-best offensive and defensive efficiency, and they can tie the Bulldogs in the loss column with a win at home Friday.
The Tigers are still within one game thanks to that dot on the top left, but they’re better served shooting from the top of the key, where they’ve made 48% of threes so far (a favored spot of Amir Bell in particular). Four players are shooting above 40% from beyond the arc, led by Henry Caruso at 48%.
As always, Princeton uses its three-point threats to set up chances inside. There are still some backdoor cuts, but these Tigers more often drive past closing-out defenders to get into the lane. And as Penn fans will attest, Princeton finds its way to the free-throw line often, taking advantage with a league-best 78% accuracy.
Princeton has held opponents to 49% shooting at the rim, best in the league by a fair margin. That doesn’t seem sustainable; the Tigers’ block rate is below average, so they’ve benefited from opponents missing easy chances on their own (as Columbia did several times in the first half). On the other hand, Princeton’s defensive fundamentals are strong — they keep foes off the three-point and foul lines better than anyone — and their 41% three-point shooting allowed should regress.
3. Columbia (6-2)
Efficiency Margin: +.05 ppp (1.04 scored, .99 allowed)
Before the season, if I’d known that Columbia would have a top-three defense in the Ivy League, I’d have put most of my chips on light blue. But their vaunted offense has been pretty mediocre in conference play. They rank third in offensive efficiency, a full .10 ppp behind second-place Princeton.
This still looks like a Kyle Smith offense. Columbia’s senior-laden backcourt is surehanded, committing turnovers on only 15% of possessions. And as shown above, the shot selection is as progressive as ever; only about 20% of the Lions’ shots have come from 4-20 feet, by far the lowest in the league.
The problem is, not enough outside shots are falling. The Lions have made 35% of their three-pointers in league play, which is okay — but this team was built to be great there, not merely okay. Grant Mullins (49%), Luke Petrasek (40%) and Maodo Lo (39%) can’t be blamed, but Alex Rosenberg is slumping (26%), and the rest of the Lions have combined to shoot 27% on eight attempts per game.
That shot chart doesn’t look like a successful defense. As Kyle Smith has said, the Lions don’t have a true rim protector on their roster, and it shows: They’ve allowed opponents to shoot 70% in the restricted area, by far the highest in the league, and they’re foul-prone in the paint. But they’ve been great at the things that don’t show up on the chart — their steal rate is a league-best(!) 11%, and they allow few offensive rebounds.
Most teams that shoot lots of three-pointers also try to prevent opponents from taking them, but Columbia has both taken and allowed the highest share of treys this year. Turning games into three-point contests seemed like a winning strategy for the Lions — but instead they’re being slightly outshot from long range, which is why their title hopes are on life support.
4. Penn (3-4)
Efficiency Margin: -.04 ppp (1.01 scored, 1.05 allowed)
DonahueBall is back. The Quakers have taken first-year coach Steve Donahue’s priorities to heart: They’ve attempted the fewest two-point jumpers from 10-20 feet (3% of shots) while forcing opponents into the most (12%). Nearly all of Penn’s shots come from the paint or the three-point line.
The Quakers aren’t outstanding at the latter, but their 35% long-range accuracy in Ivy play is a huge jump from their putrid non-conference rate. (They’ve been especially potent from the left corner, where Jackson Donahue often spots up.) They’re even better at the former, shooting a league-best 61% in the restricted area. Darien Nelson-Henry and Max Rothchild have earned plenty of chances in that area, and among all players with at least 20 such shots, Matt Howard leads the league in accuracy (83%).
Just as much of Penn’s improvement can be credited to defense. The Quakers don’t block many shots, but they avoid fouls, run opponents off the three-point line, and allow a below-average share of attempts at the rim. But they might find it hard to keep all those up next year without Nelson-Henry, the team’s top rebounder and shot-blocker.
T-5. Dartmouth (2-6)
Efficiency Margin: -.05 ppp (.99 scored, 1.05 allowed)
Evan Boudreaux is the post master: The rookie has taken 38 shots from 4-10 feet, 11 more than any other player in the Ivy League. But that’s a difficult place to make shots; he’s shooting 32% from that range, slightly below average. (He has drawn 12 shooting fouls in that zone, however, so he’s not killing the Big Green’s offense.) Like all players, Boudreaux is better closer to the rim (66% on 38 shots in the restricted area), and he’ll likely get there more often as he develops.
Boudreaux and Connor Boehm can step out to hit open threes, but for much of the season Dartmouth was lacking an ace shooter. Taylor Johnson has stepped up to fill that role in Ivy play, shooting 47% from distance (and a league-best 70% inside the arc). The Big Green’s other role players aren’t so efficient, however, and the team ranks last in effective field goal percentage.
Dartmouth isn’t lacking size, but it is lacking rim protection — it’s blocked only nine shots in Ivy play, less than half any other team’s total. As a result, opponents are shooting above average from all areas of the court. And the Big Green has allowed the league’s highest free throw rate, often with hand-check fouls on penetration.
T-5. Harvard (2-6)
Efficiency Margin: -.11 ppp (.93 scored, 1.04 allowed)
In six games with Zena Edosomwan at least partially healthy, Harvard has only been outscored by .06 ppp; in two games without him, that ballooned to .23. That’s not a perfectly fair comparison — he missed two road games against top-half teams — but it illustrates how important the Crimson’s star center is.
The falloff was actually greater on defense than offense. Harvard’s defense isn’t as strong as last year’s title-winning group, but it’s still been above average this season. It relies on rim protection from Edosomwan, Evan Cummins and Agunwa Okolie, who have led the Crimson to a league-best block rate. (Cummins was also ill in the games Edosomwan missed.)
The Crimson’s offense is designed to feature Edosomwan and three-pointers. But whether or not the big man is on the court, the shooters haven’t held up their end of the bargain. They’ve shot a league-worst 33% from distance, including a dismal 21% from Corbin Miller. Harvard’s offense requires patience, but it lacks a creator when the shot clock winds down, leading to lots of ugly jumpers. Tommy McCarthy (14%) and Okolie (18%) have the worst shooting percentage on long two-pointers (among players with at least 10 such tatempts).
Harvard should shoot better from three-point range in the second half, and it can’t be any worse from the free-throw line (54%!). But by the same token, opponents will also make more threes (a league-low 34% so far). With a healthy Edosomwan, they can probably upset a top-tier team on the right night, but this certainly isn’t the Crimson we’re used to seeing.
T-5. Brown (2-6)
Efficiency Margin: -.12 ppp (1.03 scored, 1.15 allowed)
Brown’s defense is poor in many ways, but perhaps the most surprising is its defense in the paint. The Bears have allowed a 62% shooting percentage in the restricted area (better than only Columbia) and 41% from 4-10 feet (worst in the league). Why is the team with the best shot-blocker in league history so porous inside?
The answer lies in the rest of the rotation. Brown typically plays a small lineup around Kuakumensah; Steven Spieth, a natural wing, is usually defending power forwards, some of whom can bully their way to the rim. Secondly, the Bears need Kuakumensah on the floor — Travis Fuller spells him off the bench, but he can’t replace the senior’s impact on both ends — so he plays carefully to avoid fouls, especially when defending powerful centers one-on-one.
The Bears run a lot of pro-style action on offense, and their pick-and-rolls, cuts and spacing are fun to watch. Brown has the league’s fourth-best offense, but mostly because of three-pointers — including hot streaks from Kuakumensah (58%) and Tavon Blackmon (52%) out of line with their career norms. The Bears have made a league-worst 45% of their two-pointers, and if their outside shooting cools off — especially with four of their final six on the road — they could struggle down the stretch.
T-5. Cornell (2-6)
Efficiency Margin: -.13 ppp (.96 scored, 1.09 allowed)
Based on its shot chart, the Big Red might as well be playing a different game than the rest of the league:
- Around 25% of their shots have been in the restricted area, last in the league by a wide margin.
- They take more two-pointers outside the restricted area than any other team, especially in the 10-20 foot range (about 15% of shots).
- Matt Morgan alone has taken 26 NBA-range three-pointers, nearly a quarter of the league total. Throw in Jojo Fallas and Robert Hatter, and Cornell as a team has taken more than 40% of the league’s extra-deep treys.
- More than 40% of opponents’ shots have been in the restricted area, by far the league’s highest.
Sometimes this works! Cornell is shooting above 50% from 10-20 feet. It’s made a whopping 38% of NBA-range three-pointers. The Big Red’s system of quick shots and one-on-one play limits turnovers, and the fast pace can rattle opponents.
But over time, getting few shots close to the basket — and allowing many of them — is hard to overcome. Despite all its pressure, Cornell has forced turnovers at about the league average, and it routinely gets outrebounded. The Big Red can snap its four-game losing streak with home games against Dartmouth and Harvard this weekend — two good matchups, and teams already it beat on the road — but the closing schedule is brutal.