Last Week in the Ivy League: In the last full week before conference play, the Ancient Eight lost a spontaneous #AEIvyChallenge (which I demand royalties for). Dartmouth continued its turnaround with a wild win. Columbia lost to Miami and Albany, but Nate Hickman became TSA-worker-level famous.
Play of the Week: This Nate Hickman dunk led SporsCenter after Friday night’s Orange Bowl:
— Columbia Basketball (@CULionsMBB) December 31, 2016
That gets my vote as the best #omgIvydunx in my time covering the league (dating to 2010 or so). The rest of my top five, in rough order: Ian Hummer on Cornell at Jadwin, Kyle Casey on Princeton in a 2011 regular-season showdown, Shonn Miller’s alley-oop at Penn, and Miles Cartwright on Princeton. (Leave any other nominees in the comments!)
Pre-League Play Power Rankings:
1. Yale — Ranking anyone #1 feels wrong, because the top contenders don’t quite match up to the high standard set by recent champions. There are lots of reasons to be skeptical about Yale. Four Bulldogs are shooting 40% or better from three-point range with mediocre or nonexistent track records; some regression is probably coming. Alex Copeland has been playing at an All-Ivy pace, unprecedented in the modern era for someone coming from so far off the radar. Will that continue as he gets scouted better? Yale still misses a lot of assignments on defense, and smart Ivy offenses will take advantage.
That said: The Bulldogs have played the best ball in the Ivy League for two months. And they have perhaps the most upside over what they’ve shown so far, as Jordan Bruner has been playing into full strength (25 points against Hartford on Monday). They have length and shooters in the backcourt, and they once again have the top three-man frontcourt rotation in the league. If Yale is even in the championship conversation come March, this might be James Jones’ finest coaching performance yet.
2. Princeton — Even without Hans Brase or Henry Caruso, the Tigers are a legit title contender. They went 12-2 without Brase last year, and they replaced Caruso with Myles Stephens, previously one of the league’s most underrated talents. Princeton doesn’t look as imposing as it did in the preseason, but all six losses came to teams currently in KenPom’s top 100, and the Tigers remain sure-handed and experienced.
The reasons for pessimism are more nuanced. I’m not worried about Princeton’s late-game struggles this year; small segments can be fluky, and the same players were involved in late comebacks last year. More interesting is a pattern, now two full years long, of the Tigers underperforming against top teams. Princeton has consistently dispatched weaker foes (as it did this week, routing Hampton and Cal Poly at home), and they’re most likely to go 8-0 against the league’s bottom division. That has real value in the regular season, but in such a bifurcated league, head-to-head matchups between contenders will be more important. And of course, starting this year, the only road to the NCAA tournament is to beat two great teams in March.
3. Harvard — An inexperienced Harvard squad started slowly, losing several November games to local foes. But it quickly turned around, picking up the league’s best win over the holidays and looking like a true title contender. Sound familiar? The Crimson followed the same arc last season, only to lose five straight Ivy games and finish below .500.
This year’s squad is more talented, and it won’t go 6-8 again. But it’s a reminder that there are two ways to read Harvard’s recent surge — as a young team finally finding its true level, or as a mere hot streak with some luck. This might be the worst Crimson defense in a few years, and two rookies are being asked to consistently carry the offense. Tommy Amaker has experimented plenty with lineups so far; he must avoid that impulse in Ivy play, especially when opponents go on runs. (And those runs will come, even from the bottom half of the league, which has plenty of offensive firepower.)
It also feels unfair to rank any of these teams #3. This is the most balanced three-team race the Ivy League has had in a very long time.
4. Penn — Per Bart Torvik, four teams each have a roughly 85% chance or better of making the Ivy League Tournament (depending a bit on how you do the tiebreaker math). Yale, Princeton and Harvard are no surprise, but few expected Penn to be in the same class so quickly. KenPom-based projections aren’t quite as optimistic, but they still have the Quakers as a solid favorite to play postseason games on their home court. Despite the strong start, Penn changed up its starting lineup last week — favoring rookies Devon Goodman and Ryan Betley over Caleb Wood and Darnell Foreman — so it’s unclear what exactly the Quakers will look like in Ivy play. (Despite suggestive tweets, Antonio Woods’ status also has not been announced.)
Penn has been roughly average offensively this season, but the real question comes on defense. The Quakers currently rank 135th nationally on that end (per KenPom), which would be the best mark ever in Steve Donahue’s 16-year career as a head coach. The addition of AJ Brodeur and Matt MacDonald has helped on that end, but the Quakers are also forcing turnovers at a very high rate, even without relying on any stereotypical ball-hawks on the perimeter. Is Penn’s defense an early-season fluke, or will it make them a dark-horse title contender?
5. Columbia — The Lions looked impressive in a 98-73 rout at Maine on Monday, but it was their first D-I victory in more than a month, and they still haven’t beaten a good team yet. Nonetheless, Columbia is the most likely team to break the Ivy League’s hardening two-tier structure, due to its offensive upside. Mike Smith looks like the real deal at point guard (21 points in each of his last two games), Hickman is a monster on good days, and few players have the size and skills to match up with Luke Petrasek.
The problem — and this will be the start of a recurring refrain — is on defense. Columbia struggled to protect the rim last year, but its experienced guards rebounded well, forced turnovers and didn’t foul much, a formula the Lions rode to the CIT championship. They still can’t protect the rim this year (allowing 54% shooting on two-pointers), but they haven’t done anything else well either, and Maine was only the second team they held below a point per possession.
Columbia has a favorable Ivy schedule, opening with a home-and-home against Cornell and then playing four straight at Levien Gym, so we’ll know within a month if the Lions have a chance to surprise.
6. Dartmouth — Perhaps this is buying too high on the Big Green, who have won three straight games after losing their first 10. In any case, the bottom three are as tightly bunched as the top three. In all three of its wins, Dartmouth allowed less than a point per possession; it’s no coincidence that Wesley Dickinson, the team’s best defender inside, has taken on a bigger role lately. Throw in some personnel changes on the perimeter that have cut down on hand-check fouls, and the Big Green’s defense is looking adequate.
During the 0-10 start, new coach Dave McLaughlin took plenty of criticism for his tactics (including here). He’s been much better lately: In addition to the personnel changes, he called a great play at the end of the New Hampshire game that resulted in Brendan Barry’s game-winning three:
— Dartmouth Athletics (@dartmouthsports) December 31, 2016
7. Brown — We’ve seen this formula from Brown before: A fun offense, a fast pace, and no defense. It wasn’t enough to avoid a joint last-place finish last year, and it’s not likely to fare much better this season. That’s not to say Brown will be fun to play, though: They have veteran scorers, they grind out games from the free-throw line, and they’ve wisely turned up the pressure on defense. But when they don’t get steals, they just can’t get enough stops.
Brown is 9-6 thanks to a super-soft schedule, putting it in contention for a .500 record and playoff eligibility. (A 92-89 loss to Stony Brook was a big missed opportunity.) The Bears have a brutal start to Ivy play — at Princeton and Penn, home-and-home with Yale, at Cornell and Columbia — so they’ll need a strong finish.
8. Cornell — The Big Red lost to UMass Lowell at home on Thursday, but an even bigger loss came in the waning seconds of overtime, when Matt Morgan injured his leg and limped off the court. He didn’t play at Albany on Monday, the latest (and most important) in a decimating line of injuries. Jordan Abdur-Ra’oof has missed every game and David Onourah hasn’t played since the season opener, thinning Cornell’s frontcourt. Sophomore Donovan Wright left the team last week.
Brian Earl has made his priorities known: The Big Red has improved its shot selection and defensive rebounding while toning down the aggression. But as long as the injuries persist, we’ll have to wait another year to make any useful conclusions.
Player/Rookie of the Week: AJ Brodeur, Penn — Brodeur scored 19 points in a win over Drexel, followed by a masterpiece against Fairfield: 27 points, 10 rebounds, three blocks and two assists. Even in a league full of sensational rookies, Brodeur has stood out, topping freshmen in scoring (14.4 ppg), steals (1.3) and blocks (2.1, best in the whole league). Down the stretch of both games, the Quakers fed Brodeur in a big spot, and he sealed victory with a layup.
Brodeur puts Penn up 71-67 with less than 30 seconds left in regulation! pic.twitter.com/LrlEaeTUmg
— Penn Basketball (@PennBasketball) December 28, 2016
— Penn Basketball (@PennBasketball) December 30, 2016
The Week Ahead: Dartmouth puts its winning streak on the line at CSU Bakersfield, and Brown gets an interesting test at NJIT. But the real excitement comes Saturday evening, when Ivy League play finally begins. Princeton hosts Penn, a team that scared the Tigers twice last year — and that was without AJ Brodeur, the type of high-usage center that recent Princeton teams have struggled to stop. The Tigers should handle Penn’s pressure and outscore them anyway, but we’ll learn a lot about both sides. Dartmouth will be an underdog against Harvard, but that was true for the last two years, and the Big Green split both series anyway.