Last Week in the Ivy League: The first full weekend of back-to-backs, and boy did a lot happen. Three games came down to the wire within minutes, including a bananas finish at Harvard. Columbia is the four-seed frontrunner. Yale swept in New York, staying an extra night due to a mid-game power outage. Replay reviews upon replay reviews. The nerdiest trash talk ever.
1. The two biggest plays of the Ivy season so far happened in Boston. Down the stretch on Saturday, Princeton’s game at Harvard seemed destined to end in a familiar manner — a competitive, tantalizing loss that slipped away at the end. Until it changed in seven wild seconds: Protecting a 56-53 lead, Justin Bassey tried to take a charge on Myles Stephens’ layup, gifting him a potential three-point play. (The bang-bang nature and championship implications reminded me of the Kyle Casey charge in 2012, which happened in the same spot on the opposite side of the court.)
Stephens missed, but a long rebound went to Steven Cook for the game-winning layup. (A nice full-court inbounds play gave Corey Johnson a nice look at the buzzer, but his shot went long.) The win — Princeton’s first at Lavietes Pavilion since Jeremy Lin was playing there — kept the Tigers at a perfect 5-0 in Ivy play, with the inside track to the league championship.
Princeton 57, Harvard 56 | Final
Princeton WINS! Steven Cook's put-back with 2.9 seconds left is the game winner! Tigers are 5-0 in the Ivy! pic.twitter.com/5JDxKH5Zto
— Princeton Basketball (@Princeton_Hoops) February 5, 2017
We’ve had many theoretical discussions about how the regular season would change in the #PathToThePalestra era. (For more, read my conversation last week with Ivy League Executive Director Robin Harris.) My observations: Championship-level games are still very important within the league. Even though Brown-Columbia was more pivotal from a playoff perspective, several of us at Levien Gym were transfixed by the Princeton-Harvard stream as both games came down to the wire. But games like this used to command national attention, even on Saturday nights. That’s now gone — aside from one or two mid-major die-hards, I saw nobody outside the Ivy community discussing Princeton-Harvard despite the wild ending. How much does that matter? I don’t really know.
2. It’s time to talk about Yale. In 2016, the Bulldogs went 13-1 in the Ivy League, with their only loss at Jadwin Gym, and beat Baylor in their first NCAA tournament appearance in 54 years. It was a historic season, which was followed by a historic amount of roster turnover: The Ivy POY, another All-Ivy first-teamer, and a Defensive POY frontrunner graduated; a third All-Ivy player went down with a season-ending foot injury. But twelve months later, the Bulldogs are right back where they started: 5-1, with their only loss at Jadwin, and with six of their final eight games at home, where they haven’t lost in two years.
Not only is their personnel different, so is their style: As Justin Sears said on Ivy Hoops Online’s podcast this week, “They build off momentum, with a fast tempo and everything, so it’s more exciting to watch than when I was playing last year — when we had those slow, free-throw games and just grinded it out.” They’re also not quite as good yet: Last year’s Bulldogs won nine Ivy games by double digits; this year’s have done so only once. Still, James Jones — long maligned for not taking his teams over the top — has a real chance to do so twice in a row, with totally different teams.
3. Is Penn done? The Quakers jumped out to a 19-4 lead at Harvard on Friday night — but that was followed by 72 minutes of disaster. The Crimson’s comeback was rather expected; Dartmouth’s win on Saturday, even in Hanover, was not. A month ago, Penn was considered a clear favorite to make the Ivy League Tournament; now they’re 0-5, the program’s worst start in Ancient Eight history.
The Quakers haven’t been outclassed; they’ve been in striking distance down the stretch of every game but one. In that way, they remind me of two other recent Ivy contenders that started terribly, representing two very different paths forward: 2013 Columbia, which started 1-4, and continued losing insanely close games to finish in the basement; and 2014 Princeton, which began a hard-luck 0-4, but bounced back for a third-place, 8-6 finish. The Quakers are capable of something like the latter (projections give them a 10-20% chance of finishing in the top four), but they’ll need to get AJ Brodeur more space (16.4 non-conference ppg, 9.4 in Ivy play).
Player of the Week: Spencer Weisz, Princeton — On a night in which his teammates struggled, Weisz kept the Tigers alive at Dartmouth. Princeton went to him on post-ups over and over down the stretch, and the senior delivered for a career-high 26 points. He added 13 more at Harvard on Saturday; for the season, his assist to turnover ratio trails that of only another senior, Siyani Chambers.
Rookie of the Week: Miye Oni, Yale — Oni shined in two games across the Empire State: 41 points, split almost evenly between ones, twos and threes; 18 rebounds, and nine assists. At Columbia, he almost single-handedly sparked an 11-0 second-half run that put the Bulldogs ahead for good. Oni is probably my Rookie of the Year favorite at this point, with apologies to AJ Brodeur, Bryce Aiken and Mike Smith, in a year in which that makes him a Player of the Year contender as well.
Play of the Week: I can’t stop watching this fake-spin by Stone Gettings, who’s quickly developed the league’s prettiest post moves (video via ILDN highlights):
— Kevin Whitaker (@whitakk) February 5, 2017
Non-Ivy Play of the Week: Because I can’t not share this own-basket three-pointer:
In .gif form, to prove that it happened and that it wasn't just a pathetic cry for attention. Petey on the bucket, assist to Weird Physics. pic.twitter.com/KoBFaC0h8V
— Hoya Suxa (@HoyaSuxa) February 3, 2017
The Week Ahead: The last midweek action for a while, when Princeton visits The Palestra. Despite its record, don’t count out Penn — the Quakers have played their rivals tough every year, and they have more depth for a five-games-in-nine-days swing. They stay at home for must-win dates with Columbia and Cornell, while Harvard visits Yale in the marquee showdown Saturday.
- Princeton (5-0) — When the Tigers struggled at Dartmouth, trailing for much of the game before pulling out a late victory, fans naturally connected it to their three-week layoff. That’s fair, but not borne out by history — the Tigers are 7-3 in post-finals games over the last 10 years, and two of the losses were close games to Harvard teams that won the league. But those are traditionally preceded by a D-III tuneup game, and perhaps that matters: The only other year it wasn’t, 2012, the Tigers got thrashed by Penn after a 15-day break.
- Yale (5-1) — James Jones’ rotation has been short all year, but it reached its zenith on Sunday, when only seven players appeared in a close game at Cornell. That doesn’t doom the Bulldogs — their core was down to six men down the stretch last season, though others chipped in spot minutes — but it leaves them vulnerable to any absence, such as Anthony Dallier’s illness at Princeton.
- Harvard (4-2) — I couldn’t agree more with Mike James (aka @ivybball), who suggested that the NCAA stop allowing help defenders to take charges. This was prompted by a late whistle against Bryce Aiken that was proven incorrect on replay, but similar calls swing games every day — not just close and late, but by putting key players in foul trouble throughout. It’s too hard to get right in real time, and eliminating it has a big benefit: Encouraging defenders to actually challenge shots, rather than ducking under drivers.
- Columbia (4-2) — After the Lions nearly blew a 24-point lead on Saturday, Jim Engles couldn’t explain what went wrong. “Honestly, I’d have to watch the game [tape]. If you want me to say something, I can say something, but it’s not going to be right,” he said. I was glad to hear that, because I completely agreed: Nothing obviously changed about the game flow, until all of a sudden it was a three-point margin. I suspect it has to do with the opponent — the Bears have played wild games all season.
- Brown (2-4) — In print, the Bears’ starting lineup this weekend of Travis Fuller, Brandon Anderson, Steven Spieth, Obi Okolie, and Tavon Blackmon is nothing remarkable. But on the court, their jersey numbers make a beautiful combination: 1-2-3-4-5. Can anyone think of another college team doing the same?
- Penn (0-5) — Though the men’s team is struggling, the Penn women returned to peak form, trouncing Harvard in an undefeated showdown before dispatching Dartmouth. The Quakers disappointed in non-conference play, but they now have a two-game lead on the rest of the Ivy League (after the Crimson lost at Princeton in overtime), and they’ll play the Ivy League Tournament in their home gym.
- Cornell (2-4) — It’s funny that Stone Gettings scored 28 points this weekend not against undersized Brown, but against the league’s biggest team, Yale. The Bears consistently doubled Cornell’s center in the post, and he dealt with it unevenly — four assists, but also four turnovers. But after taking 18 shots on Sunday, Gettings is now the league’s unlikely leader in usage rate (32%), with turnovers offsetting a strong shooting percentage.
- Dartmouth (1-5) — For a while now, the @DartmouthMBK Twitter account has been the league’s most creative, ranging from jersey opinions to behind-the-scenes commentary. (Though the competition has stiffened this year, thanks to Columbia’s graphics.) It apparently runs in the athletic department — Dartmouth’s men’s hockey account is even more colorful, adding extra doses of sarcasm.