Ivy League Weekly Roundup: Return of the Killer P’s

Last Week in the Ivy League: Princeton stayed perfect, while Penn stayed in the race. Columbia is reeling from an overtime collapse at Dartmouth, even after getting a reprieve in regulation by a fraction of a second. The first Ivy League Tournament is taking shape, and everyone is still arguing about it.

For Data Nerds: I haven’t been tracking every shot in Ivy play like I did last year, but I’ve charted several games, mostly between the main playoff contenders. For anyone interested in looking at the data, I’ve uploaded it here, and will continue updating with a few more games down the stretch.

Three Thoughts:

1. Pencil Princeton into the #1 seed. Friday night, the Tigers officially became the first team to qualify for an Ivy League Tournament after a 71-52 thrashing of Yale. After beating Brown the next night, Princeton has a two-game lead on Harvard with four to play. Barring a major collapse, the Tigers should win their first Ivy title in six years, and they have most plausible tiebreakers for the #1-seed.

Princeton has slayed a couple demons this year, winning at New Haven for the first time since 2011 after winning at Lavietes Pavilion for the first time since 2010. The Tigers’ defense remained stout this weekend, and their luck evened out from their first game against Yale: 13-23 three-point shooting, including seven from Devin Cannady en route to a joint-career-high 29 points.

The Tigers are now four games away from 14-0, and they’ll be favored in all four. No Ivy team has been perfect since Cornell in 2008, and that Ivy League wasn’t nearly as strong as the current edition. But, of course, 14-0 no longer guarantees a place in the NCAA tournament.

2. Hold off on filling out the women’s bracket. Penn’s unbeaten run came to a crashing halt Saturday, when the Quakers were upset by 2-7 Yale. That leaves Penn just one game ahead of Princeton, which will visit the Palestra for a March 7 finale. Both teams still have to visit Harvard the prior weekend, which could shake up the race even further.

Further down the bracket, Cornell beat Harvard to cap a perfect weekend, while Brown dropped tight games to Penn and Princeton, sending both into a tie for fourth place with two weeks remaining. Cornell has been a bit stronger on balance, but it’s at a major schedule advantage, visiting Princeton and Penn next week while the Bears stay at home.

3. We’re back to where we started the season. 10 days ago, Columbia was tied with Penn down the stretch, five minutes away from delivering a knockout blow at The Palestra. But the Zombie Quakers escaped with their first Ivyy victory, then won their next three as well, capped by impressive wins at Brown and Yale this weekend. As a result, the current standings eerily mirror the Ivy League’s preseason poll: Princeton-Harvard-Yale 1-2-3, Penn and Columbia fighting for fourth, Cornell and Dartmouth still technically in the mix, and Brown in the basement.

Columbia has gone in the opposite direction, losing four straight games and seeing their fourth-place lead vanish. But just as we shouldn’t have overreacted to their 4-2 start (guilty, to some extent), don’t overreact to their slide: All four defeats were on the road, and three were in doubt in the final minute, including better-than-expected performances at Princeton and Harvard. The bitter taste comes mostly from Saturday’s loss at Dartmouth, where they blew a four-point lead in the final 20 seconds of overtime:

As a result, Saturday night’s game at Levien Gym is maybe three-quarters of a play-in-game to the Ivy Tournament. If Columbia loses, it’ll need a miracle to make up that ground on Penn in the final weekend, since the Quakers will own the head-to-head tiebreaker. But if the Lions win, they’ll have the inside track to The Palestra, while Penn would probably have to beat Harvard in the season finale to sneak in. The Lions should hope to have a healthy Jake Killingsworth, statistically the key to their defense, who missed both games this weekend.

Weekly Awards:

Player of the Week: Ryan Betley, Penn — Betley missed the first nine games of the season, and his playing time was a bit uneven as he returned to the lineup and figured out how to defend at the college level. But he’s set playing time highs in each of his last three games, a big part of Penn’s offensive renaissance. The rookie scored 28 points and assisted 10 more at Brown, following up with 12 points, three assists and two steals at Yale. Betley, along with teammates like Jackson Donahue and Devon Goodman, is bringing more firepower back into Penn’s lineup, and the smaller, less experienced rotation is making it work just as well on the defensive end.

(Other) Rookie of the Week: Seth Towns, Harvard — One of the Crimson’s most highly touted recruits, Towns struggled for much of his rookie season. He posted an offensive rating above 100 in just two of his first eight Ivy games, chucking too many low-percentage shots; and he looked lost on off-ball defense, earning Mario Chalmers-like scolding from his teammates. But Towns broke out of his slump last weekend (at least on the first count), scoring 41 points across two victories. Towns’ best asset is his smooth jumper, but he’s also a dangerous off-ball cutter, and he showed great vision on this touch pass for a Zena Edosomwan dunk (all videos via ILDN):

Play of the Week: Not too many mid-major college teams can run a pick-and-roll that contains 14 feet of combined height, and Dartmouth had no answer for this tango with Luke Petrasek and Conor Voss:

The Week Ahead: The headline game will pit two sub-.500 teams: Penn at Columbia on Saturday, with the #4-seed potentially on the line. The Quakers’ offense has been on fire for two weeks, and it should get more open looks at Levien — but will its defense stay as strong against the bigger Lions? Columbia could get some insurance by knocking off Princeton on Friday, while Harvard and Yale rematch in Massachusetts the same night.

Power Rankings:

  1. Princeton (10-0) — Myles Stephens had perhaps the best game of his breakout season on Friday, scoring a career-high 20 points in New Haven. The sophomore battled Yale’s big men in the paint and took advantage of their discomfort on the other end, regularly beating Jordan Bruner in a fun one-on-one matchup we might see for three years. Check out this second-half sequence, where Stephens hits a three (not shown), deflects a pass and turns it into a layup in a 15-second span:

  1. Harvard (8-2) — When Corbin Miller started his career at Harvard, the Crimson still had yet to make a modern-era NCAA tournament. After a two-year mission, Miller returned to play a big part on the last two Harvard teams. But this season he’s found himself in the weird position of playing the fewest minutes of his career as a senior, and he’d scored in only one Ivy game entering the weekend. But after his sloppy pass gave Columbia its first lead with three minutes remaining, Miller responded with a three-pointer — the biggest shot of Friday night, giving Harvard an advantage it would not relinquish.
  2. Yale (6-4) — The Bulldogs’ 22-game win streak at John J. Lee Amphitheater, formerly the nation’s fifth-longest run, sure ended abruptly — Yale has now lost three straight games, all in its home gym. Individually, falling to Harvard, Princeton or Penn is no big deal, but dropping all three games at home (including two blowouts this weekend) isn’t encouraging with the tournament in sight.
  3. Penn (4-6) — AJ Brodeur has a 10.6% block rate (as a percent of opponents’ two-pointers), which ranks 19th nationally; for additional context, that’s better than Ivy career blocks leader Cedric Kuakumensah’s rate in either of his last two seasons. Amazingly, Brodeur ranks only third in this year’s Ancient Eight, behind Zena Edosomwan (12.2%) and Jordan Bruner (11.5%). Brodeur has a big advantage on the other two in playing time, however, and given how he’s transformed Penn’s defense, is a leading DPOY contender.
  4. Columbia (4-6) — In each of their last three games at Lavietes Pavilion, the Lions have trailed by at least 16 points at halftime — and they’ve come back to at least tie the game in the second half each time. (This week Alex Rosenberg told his story of last year’s game-winning shot in the Columbia Spectator.) Columbia is no stranger to big comebacks this year: it also erased a massive deficit at Princeton last week, but almost blew big second-half leads at home against Harvard and Brown.
  5. Cornell (3-7) — Matt Morgan and Evan Boudreaux had two of the best rookie seasons in Ivy history last year, and they had two more epic head-to-head battles as sophomores. The Big Red won Friday’s meeting behind Morgan’s 28 points on 19 shooting possessions, and despite Bourdeaux’s 27 — much like their late-January prequel, when Morgan dropped 22 while Boudreaux went for 23 and 14 rebounds in a loss.
  6. Dartmouth (3-7) — The Big Green overcame a four-point deficit in the final 20 seconds to beat Columbia, benefiting from Quinton Adlesh’s two missed free throws. But it was the hosts who almost gave the game away first, missing all four foul shots down the stretch of regulation and allowing an 11-2 run to tie the game. It was reminiscent of last week’s victory at Brown, both in the late slide and in the smash-and-grab finish.
  7. Brown (2-8) — How do you evaluate Steven Spieth’s case for postseason awards? He leads the league in scoring in conference play (19.7 ppg), he’s in or near the top 10 in assists, steals and rebounds, and his 112 offensive rating is best among all high-usage players. Based on those facts, he’s a strong Player of the Year candidate even from a last-place team, given how wide open this year’s race is. But Brown’s in last place because of its defense — precisely the thing that’s hard to measure with stats — and while Spieth has improved a lot from last year, he’s not a difference-maker on that end. How do you isolate Spieth’s defense, and how much do you hold that (plus his team’s performance) against him?