Inside this week: With few games taking place, we’re looking at the big picture: Putting this year’s non-conference slate in historical context; peeking ahead to Ivy League play; and ranking the women’s Ancient Eight.
1. Is this the most boring non-conference slate of the decade? My ranking, best to worst:
- 2014-15: In a two-week stretch of December alone, we had Yale upsetting UConn at the buzzer, Brown shocking Providence, Columbia outplaying unbeaten Kentucky for a half, and the Harvard-Vermont phantom point game. Beyond those crazy games, the league was strong overall.
- 2016-17: No earth-shattering upsets, but the league’s best rookie class ever, plus three new coaches implementing their styles, were extremely entertaining.
- 2011-12: Harvard won the Battle 4 Atlantis and broke onto the national radar. Princeton beat a future 3-seed (Florida State) in an insane three-overtime game. Penn, Yale and Cornell had some big wins of their own.
- 2013-14: Harvard was outstanding and mostly played like it. This was the first real year for the #2BidIvy hashtag, even if it was always a long shot, and the last for #TMM. Columbia had the infamous student section game at Michigan State. Five teams ultimately qualified for the postseason.
- 2009-10: Cornell was nationally relevant — a first for the Ivy League in a long time — nearly beating then-No. 1 Kansas on the road. Harvard had Jeremy Lin surrounded by fun underclassmen. Honestly I wasn’t following the league so closely at this point, so maybe this ranking is wrong.
- 2010-11: Harvard almost sneakily put together an at-large case, getting two major-conference wins and nearly a third at Michigan. Princeton won three different overtime games, including a wild final-minute comeback against Siena. Steve Donahue lost more Ivy League games at Boston College (0-2) than he did in two of his final three years at Cornell.
- 2015-16: Yale and Princeton were great, making big games interesting. Columbia was greatly entertaining. Penn was finally interesting again with Steve Donahue’s arrival, and Harvard’s unpredictable cast of misfits was a break from normality, but injuries dominated the season more than usual.
- 2012-13: This was a weird season. Traditional powers struggled: Yale went 4-11 in D-I play, while Penn went 3-14. Columbia upset future 9-seed Villanova before eventually finishing dead last in league play. Princeton was up and down, with Ian Hummer carrying a usage rate of practically 100%. Harvard had the best season, but even that was overshadowed by Government 1310.
- 2017-18: Penn-Monmouth was memorable, and this is a golden age of Ivy dunking. But injuries, illnesses and flaws have dominated the season so far, and big games have been disappointing aside from Brown-Providence. We still have a few weeks to go, however, so maybe things will pick up.
2. But it could set up a very fun Ivy League season. In recent years, the Ancient Eight has been highly predictable: 11 of the last 12 champions were picked first in the preseason poll, and the other was picked second (Harvard in 2013).
And it’s also been rather boring: Over the same timeframe, only once have there been three legitimate title contenders — defined as teams less than two full games out of first place — entering the final full weekend of conference play (Harvard, Penn and Yale in 2012).
The Ivy League’s tranquility is an outlier among peer conferences, which have occasionally had wacky outcomes: The CAA had a four-way tie for first in 2015, and UNC Wilmington went from sixth place in the preseason poll to win the league the next year. In the 2015 Patriot League, the top three preseason favorites all finished below .500. A projected fifth-place team has recently won a regular-season title outright in the MAAC (Niagara, 2013) and America East (Vermont, 2011).
If there’s any season for something weird to happen in the Ivy League, it’s this one. Per KenPom, no team is projected to win double-digit games in conference play, and six teams fall between 9-5 and 6-8. A four-way title race between Penn, Yale, Princeton and Harvard (all ranked between #132 and #162 nationally) is clearly on the table. But think even weirder: What if a young Columbia team enters the fray? Or if Matt Morgan leads Cornell on an out-of-nowhere title chase exceeding even Zack Rosen’s? At the very least, with no great teams and hardly any terrible ones, every game will be in play.
Player of the Week: Matt Morgan, Cornell — I should just auto-fill this award into the template I use each week. Morgan scored 25 points on 15 shots in a Big Red victory at Longwood, his seventh straight game with more than 20 points and a usage rating well into triple digits. No Ivy player has scored 20+ points in half his games since at least 2010-11, but Morgan is well on his way there.
Rookie of the Week: Sebastian Much, Princeton — Much can’t be counted on to shoot 4-6 from three-point range every night as he did at Cal Poly (part of a teamwide 16-24 explosion), but his other contributions are much more important to the Tigers. In growing out of his rookie shell, Much has added ball movement to an offense that can stagnating into 1-on-1 play (eight assists over two games), and he blocked three shots on Saturday.
Play of the Week: This after-timeout set, resulting in Richmond Aririguzoh dish to a cutting Ryan Schwieger, gave Princeton exactly what it needed — offense from players outside its big three — and sparked a 20-2 run that flipped a deep early hole into an eventual 69-58 victory over Monmouth.
— Kevin Whitaker (@whitakk) December 18, 2017
The Week Ahead: Dartmouth (at Notre Dame, ESPN2) and Princeton (at USC) play high-quality competition on Tuesday, but most of the league’s action happens over the weekend. Princeton plays in the Diamond Head Classic, starting with Middle Tennessee State on Friday (ESPNU). Yale hosts Monmouth Friday night, and Harvard visits George Washington on Saturday in the second round of the Patrick Steeves Reunion Tour.
Power Rankings: Women’s Edition
- Princeton — By advanced metrics, Princeton has played one of the most difficult schedules in the nation, yet it’s 7-3 so far. Its early win at Seton Hall is the league’s biggest victory so far, and all three losses came against teams receiving votes in one of the major Top 25 polls (including a one-possession defeat to No. 20 Villanova). These Tigers aren’t as dominant as the league champions from earlier this decade — see a too-close-for-comfort 53-45 win at Lafayette last week — but they are in strong form with Ivy play around the corner, led by Bella Alarie (the nation’s #26 player per National Statistical’s Player Context Rating, for what it’s worth) and Leslie Robinson.
- Penn — We’ve seen this script before, right? The Quakers are just 3-4, having faced a tough schedule but also lost to relative lightweights Binghamton and La Salle. But they were also a perplexing 3-4 at this point last season, and they still convincingly won the league title and tournament. This is still much of the same core that won the last two ivy titles, plus one of the league’s top rookies in Eleah Parker, so it’s hard to bet against them yet.
- Brown — The Bears have a case to rank as high as first: They’re 9-1, with the only loss a competitive one to Cal, and most of the wins coming by double digits. By entertainment value, they’re clearly #1: Not only do they play at the league’s fastest pace (78 possessions per game), they have the most efficient offense, scoring 1.01 points per possession. As a result, they have three of the top four scorers in the conference: Shayna Mehta, Justine Gaziano and Taylor Will, each averaging over 17 points per game.
- Harvard — Seven teams have reasonable hopes of making the conference tournament. #4-7 are especially hard to pull apart based on how they’ve played so far; all rank between 125 and 160 in the Sagarin efficiency ratings. For now I’ll stick with the Crimson, who return most of last year’s third-place team and were picked in that spot again this preseason. Unlike last year’s two-and-a-half-month win streak, Harvard has been uneven in non-conference play, but it’s righted itself a bit after a rough showing at the Maine Tip-Off Tournament. Sophomore Katie Benzan leads the team in points and assists, but not so much by dominating possession (just a 20% usage rate) but by making passes and shots efficiently (a league-best 66% true shooting percentage).
- Yale — Per National Statistical (the source of most of the stats cited here), Yale actually has the league’s best defense on a per-possession basis, allowing just 0.82 ppp — it’s just masked by a traditionally high pace. The Bulldogs won at TCU last month (and nearly beat Kansas on the same road trip). They’ve won four straight since a close loss to Providence, and while none of the four opponents was too imposing, all four victories came on the road. It’s sort of hard to believe that at least one team from the five above will miss the playoff, and possibly more.
- Dartmouth — Picked a distant last in the preseason poll, the Big Green has exceeded all expectations so far, opening with four straight wins and now sitting at 7-3. They knocked off Boston College earlier in the year and last week won at Colorado, a fringe top-50 team per the Sagarin ratings. The biggest factor has been Cy Lippold, who went from a marginal bench player in her first two seasons to an All-Ivy-caliber point guard ranking seventh in the league in points, third in assists and third in steals. Lippold’s finest moment came at Colorado: 24 points, three steals, and seven assists without a turnover.
- Columbia — Behind star senior Camille Zimmerman — still on track to become the league’s fourth-highest all-time scorer — the Lions have scored 0.94 ppp, second among Ivy teams. Their overall 6-6 record is underwhelming, but it looks much better without the Cancun Challenge, with three games in three days against No. 21 Green Bay, No. 5 Mississippi State and formerly ranked Arizona State. Defense has been the Lions’ concern, as when a blown coverage on a last-second BLOB allowed 8-1 Buffalo to escape Levien Gymnasium with a two-point win.
- Cornell — Cornell stands out as perhaps the only disappointment in a league that has looked extremely strong thus far. Hard luck has contributed to a 2-6 record — the last four losses have each been by five points or less — but it’s also come against the league’s weakest schedule (per Sagarin). The Big Red was one game from reaching the conference tournament in March, but its path there looks much longer this season.