Ivy League Weekly Roundup: The Mania Begins

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.

Three Thoughts:

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.

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).

Weekly Awards:

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):

Non-Ivy Play of the Week: Because I can’t not share this own-basket three-pointer:

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.

Power Rankings:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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?
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.

6 thoughts on “Ivy League Weekly Roundup: The Mania Begins

  1. srp

    1. Ivy Tournament Fever! Catch it and die! The malign effects of the tourney are already visible with national attention falling off the league’s strong programs and the ratio of discussion of mediocrity vs. excellence soaring. We see more attention paid to parsing the relative weakness of near bottom-feeders than there is to parsing the relative strengths of the good teams.

    2. Mike James and you are very wrong about charges. The rules and their interpretation already favor dribblers to a ridiculous degree, and shot-blocking is only one option (often not the most sound one) for playing help defense. Sound position defense, not jumping, is fundamental to basketball.

    3. Yale is indeed very real. Their freshman seem better than Harvard’s more-touted group.

  2. Hanoverian

    I agree with “srp” immediately above.

    (1) It’s sad how now so much of the attention and chatter concerns whether Columbia, Brown, Dartmouth or Penn will snare the fourth seed. We will spend seven weeks discussing mediocre teams and one week discussing the best teams.

    (2) Seriously, why don’t we prohibit defense completely? Each team can inbound the ball and then has three seconds to score while the other team watches, then reverse.

    (3) James Jones has really stepped up his recruiting in the past few years. It’s odd when any coach suddenly becomes a significantly more effective recruiter late in his career. How did this happen? Two likely explanations, not mutually exclusive:

    (3a) He decided that Yale had better lower its academic standards for basketball players to keep up with Harvard’s approach and he somehow convinced his administration to play along.

    (3b) He learned from Amaker and got much more aggressive about using academic boosters to keep the team AI average acceptable to Yale while recruiting more players right above the minimum AI score.

    1. Kevin Whitaker Post author

      Re (1): The biggest games certainly aren’t as big a deal now, but I haven’t seen them actually overshadowed by the race for fourth place. IMO Harvard-Princeton was Saturday’s most-discussed game, even though Columbia-Brown had a much bigger impact on who made the tournament.

      (3): Every Ivy team is recruiting much better these days, mainly due to the expanded financial aid, and partly because of the recent success feeding on itself. Not that it precludes your explanations either.

      1. Hanoverian

        Kevin, thank you for your response and for your excellent columns at NYC Buckets.

        I agree with you that improved financial aid has in general lifted all Ivy boats. And as you say, now the league-wide improvement has some momentum which feeds on itself. But let’s not forget the specifics involved in this evolution.

        First, Tommy Amaker arrived at Harvard in April 2007 and immediately started recruiting much more athletic players than Harvard had ever pursued before. These included guys who were currently playing for junior colleges (Cem Dinc from Marshalltown Community College in Iowa) and high school stars who publicly admitted that they did not have the minimum AI score necessary to play Ivy ball (Frank Ben-Eze).

        In March 2008, the New York Times published its article outlining how Harvard was lowering its academic standards for basketball recruits. Among the sources quoted were former Harvard assistant coaches, Brown head coach Craig Robinson and Yale head man James Jones, who said that he “couldn’t touch some of the players Harvard was now bringing in.”

        I’ll bet Jones agreed to be quoted hoping that this public embarrassment would bring Harvard back to the Ivy pack academically. His hopes were probably raised even further when, in the wake of the New York Times article, Harvard AD Bob Scalise told The Crimson that he would use the incident as a “teaching moment” for Amaker.

        But, in retrospect, we know that the summer of 2008 is when Amaker began aggressively recruiting current Harvard point guard Siyani Chambers. Nine years ago, Chambers was an eighth-grader in suburban Minneapolis when Amaker began flying to Minnesota regularly to pursue a star point guard who was still three years from taking an SAT exam. Obviously, Amaker did so with no idea whether Chambers would clear the minimum AI threshold.

        In the summer of 2010, the NCAA concluded its investigation of Harvard’s recruiting practices with a conclusion that the behavior of Amaker and one of his assistant coaches constituted impermissible recruiting behavior. Amaker was formally penalized with punitive recruiting restrictions for the 2010-11 season.

        Until this specific period (circa 2010-11), I would say that Yale’s recruiting track record had been consistent under James Jones. His players were of roughly the same quality since the beginning of his tenure in 1999. It was around 2010-11 when Jones’ recruiting appeared to take a step function higher. Think about how much stronger Yale’s recruits have been in the past six years **relative** to the rest of the League.

        I think that, after the New York Times article was published in 2008, Jones waited for two or three years, hoping that Amaker would be forced by Harvard to return to traditional academic standards for Harvard, Yale and Princeton. But by 2010-11, it was evident to Jones that, contrary to improving Harvard’s academic standards, Scalise was giving Amaker more latitude than ever to pursue excellent players with little regard for their academic qualifications.

        The winter of 2011 is also when Amaker recruited a high school player from the junior varsity team at Harvard-Westlake School, which Amaker was visiting regularly in pursuit of his biggest prize to that time, Zena Edosomwan. Amaker was ultimately successful in securing Edosomwan, but he too lacked the minimum AI score for matriculation so he was forced to spend a PG year at Northfield Mount Hermon School. Meanwhile, the JV player was made a member of the recruiting class of 2012 with his excellent SAT scores incorporated into the Harvard team AI average. Upon his matriculation in September 2012, he was dismissed from the team and the Go Crimson website went back to its basketball archives to scrub his name from the original August press release which included his name with five other recruits.

        Shortly thereafter, the Harvard men’s basketball team was identified by the NCAA as not having a sufficient Academic Progress Rating to qualify for the NCAA tournament for the past two academic years. If Harvard was not able to remedy this state for another two years, the Crimson would be disqualified from tournament participation even if they won the Ivy bid. In 2012, two basketball players took a year off from Harvard after the Government 1310 cheating scandal, further putting the team’s APR at risk (although both men eventually returned and graduated).

        It appears that the period 2010-12 is when Jones decided that Harvard was not ever coming back to the Ivy pack academically. The new Harvard was a permanent condition and Scalise was not taking his foot off the accelerator chasing players with weaker transcripts and SAT scores.

        Since then, Jones has brought in better players than he did in the first decade of his coaching career at Yale. As I said in my initial post, it’s very rare for a coach to suddenly get better at recruiting in such a step function manner.

        This sequence of events and the specific timing of each is why I think that, around 2010-12, Jones got permission from his superiors at Yale to emulate to a degree Amaker’s strategy at Harvard, chasing weaker students and/or covering up that approach with a more aggressive use of academic boosters to keep the team AI score acceptable.

  3. srp

    I don’t know, Kevin. I agree with you about this: “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.”

    But I don’t agree that there is anything like the attention or interest in “big” games among the top teams within the league’s fan base. The Harvard fans with whom I interact were quite blase about the loss at home to Princeton (and generally are taking a wait-til-the-tournament attitude toward their freshman-laden rotation), whereas previously they’d be wailing and gnashing their teeth about the way the last 30 seconds of that game played out. Princeton fans are happy about the record so far, but expressed more relief about (probably) ensuring that Penn won’t be able to get a home playoff game in the Palestra after their Feb. 7 smackdown than they did about getting an early lead on Harvard and Yale for the regular-season crown.

    It’s not that no one cares (I do), but the tension and relief simply aren’t the same. In principle, we could all be obsessing over possible tourney matchups between the leading teams, discussing the relative strengths and weaknesses of the best players, but in practice it seems premature until slots are locked down, especially since there will be further regular-season tests. Maybe if Columbia pulls away quickly for the fourth spot, then attention will flow back to wondering whether Harvard and Yale have an answer to Princeton’s small lineup, whether Yale needs Trey Phills to be the X-factor, whether Bryce Aiken needs to find his amygdala for Harvard to win big games, etc.

    1. Kevin Whitaker Post author

      I think that’s mostly fair. We’re gaining three insanely intense games in the playoff, but certainly at a cost to the impact of the first 14 games for the best teams.

      Some of the anti-tournament talk was that nobody would pay attention to the top teams, only focusing on the race for fourth place — that’s what I think has been false this year (recognizing everyone has a different experience). The best teams’ games aren’t as big a deal as they used to be, but they’re still the biggest games.

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