Ivy League Weekly Roundup: Previewing the Openers

Last time, I wrote that this Ivy League season was the most boring one of this decade so far. The very next day, Dartmouth gave Notre Dame a close game and Princeton won at USC. So now I’m going to declare it the worst season of all time and watch what happens this week.

Two Thoughts, on this week’s Ivy openers:

Princeton at Penn: The Quakers have been the Ivy League’s most consistent team this year. After a long layoff, they didn’t miss a beat in thrashing Delaware State 105-52, the Ancient Eight’s largest D-I victory since at least 2008. An 85-72 home loss to Toledo wasn’t great, but the Rockets are a decent team that shot 9-14 from three; certainly everyone else in the league has taken a worse loss already. It’s sort of hard to figure out how exactly Penn is doing this — only Ryan Betley is averaging more than 10.5 ppg — but they play solid defense inside and out without many blown assignments, and shooters like Caleb Wood and Jackson Donahue open the floor off the bench.

The Tigers started slowly, but they’ve been playing at an elite level since something clicked against Monmouth in mid-December (see chart of game scores below via Bart Torvik). They beat USC on the road in overtime, then took Middle Tennessee State (the nation’s best mid-major by some definitions of the term) to the wire in the Diamond Head Classic before winning the final two games there. There are some mitigating factors — USC was without two of its top five scorers, and MTSU might have won by more had it not missed several wide-open layups — but overall Princeton is back in form on both ends.

Tactically, Princeton-Penn is the most fascinating pairing we’ll see all season. Without a traditional center in the starting lineup, the Tigers have struggled to guard opposing big men (like MTSU’s Nick King and Hawaii’s Mike Thomas last week) — which will be dangerous against AJ Brodeur and Max Rothschild, especially when they play off each other. But Penn has its own matchup issues: When the starters are in, not only will Brodeur and Rothschild each be chasing around a three-point shooter, but either Darnell Foreman or Antonio Woods will be giving up several inches to Amir Bell. (Toledo ran some Princeton-like inverted offense sets, which the Quakers struggled to stop.)

This game is a pure toss-up to me; the only thing I know is that both teams will struggle to get stops. Given that, it might come down to which coach is more willing to think outside the box. Can Penn roll the dice with a zone to keep a rim protector in the paint? Can Princeton break out its 1-3-1 defense, which has been limited so far to a few isolated possessions?

Dartmouth at Harvard: Even against a very tough schedule, few would have expected Harvard to be 4-8 in D-I play at this point in the season. Injuries and illnesses have been significant factors, most recently a knee injury that has kept Bryce Aiken out for the last three games (though he reportedly may return this week). Compounding those absences, Tommy Amaker has been especially experimental this season: 16 Harvard players have started multiple games (the most of any D-I team this year). The rotation tightened to 6-7 last week, but will the lack of game time together cost the Crimson down the road?

Dartmouth played its two best games of the season just before Christmas, scoring 87 points at Notre Dame in a game that was within one possession in the final five minutes before stomping Bryant at home. The Big Green shot 45% on three-pointers across both games, which is pretty much their only path to success against decent competition. Between Brendan Barry, Miles Wright, Aaryn Rai and Taylor Johnson, Dartmouth has enough shooting to scare anyone, but defense remains a major concern — as it showed in giving up 1.30 points per possession to a New Hampshire team that entered at 1-10 in D-I play.

Harvard’s defense has been downright excellent since the start of December, most recently holding Minnesota to 1.00 ppp on the road. Offense has been the issue (currently ranked #270 nationally per KenPom) — largely due to 28% three-point shooting, which should improve even if none of the freshmen turn out to be decent shooters. But the Crimson should find their footing against a soft Big Green defense. There’s a path to victory for Dartmouth — if Aiken isn’t healthy yet, if Harvard remains ice cold, or if its defense sleeps on dangerous shooters — but expect Harvard to roll comfortably at home.

And-ones: Over 100 Penn fans got their cheesesteaks. Yale got triple-doubled by Monmouth’s Austin Tilghman, only the fifth such D-I performance this year. The Princeton women won the Gator Holiday Classic, beating top-100 Chattanooga in the final. Javier Duren made the big leagues (in a different sport). The top 25 college basketball players in New Jersey history (you know who’s #1). Kyle Smith’s San Francisco pulled off “a Festivus miracle” against Nevada.

(Bi-)Weekly Awards:

Player of the Weeks: Myles Stephens, Princeton — 30 points on 16 shots in a win at USC is award-worthy in any context. (I’m covering two weeks here due to holidays.) Stephens was quieter in Hawaii, but his last-second layup clinched a victory over Akron, and he’s been an integral part of Princeton’s defensive resurgence.

Rookie of the Weeks: Desmond Cambridge, Brown — Cambridge dropped 33 points in a blowout win over Marist, including seven three-pointers, and followed with 22 at Northwestern. Cambridge is a pure scorer at this point, but he’s extremely efficient at it, posting a 117 offensive rating thanks to eight turnovers in 11 games. He’s the clear Rookie of the Year favorite at this point, but unfortunately his most viral highlight of the season so far came on the wrong end of a Dererk Pardon dunk.

Play of the Weeks: Cornell destroyed Lafayette on inbounds plays throughout its 80-71 victory, including this one, where Matt Morgan drew two defenders to free Stone Gettings for a wide-open three:

(Honorable mention to this high-flying Joel Davis dunk from the same game.)

Power rankings:

  1. Princeton — Teams 1-3 here could easily go in any order, with #4 not too far behind. The pattern we’ve seen this decade is, while depth is nice to have, the teams with the best starting five win in Ivy League play. In that light, it’s hard to bet against a team headed by Stephens, Cannady, Bell and Much.
  2. Harvard — Aiken’s absence has hurt the Crimson, but they’ve been helped by injuries too: Minnesota was without second-leading scorer Nate Mason, and Vermont will be missing top scorer Anthony Lamb tonight due to a fractured foot.
  3. Penn — Jake Silpe had played almost exclusively in garbage time over the prior 12 months, so it was surprising to see him in the game for a couple of key defensive possessions in the final four minutes against Toledo. It didn’t work — the Rockets hit a three and a jumper to pull away — but it was a creative way for Steve Donahue to use his depth given that his core rotation of 7-9 players is now well established.
  4. Yale — Alex Copeland returned to the lineup against Kennesaw State after missing the previous game, but he left after seven minutes without scoring. But even without much of their second-leading scorer, the Bulldogs still scored 1.24 ppp in a comfortable road win. If Yale returns to the Ivy League Tournament despite all its injuries, James Jones will be hard to beat for Coach of the Year.
  5. Columbia — Kyle Castlin returned from a six-week absence to score eight points in Columbia’s win over Maine on Saturday. Castlin isn’t a savior, but he can help the Lions if the injury-plagued senior can stay healthy into Ivy play.
  6. Cornell — Matt Morgan and Stone Gettings each scored 30 points in consecutive games against Niagara and Delaware — but the Big Red lost both games. (That feat had previously happened 10 times since the 2015-16 season, including twice by Central Michigan’s Marcus Keene and Braylon Rayson last year.) Given Morgan and Gettings’ talent, their lack of help, and Cornell’s lack of defense, I’d bet on it happening again this year — perhaps against Brown, another fast-paced team with defensive woes.
  7. Brown — Morgan will probably put the Ivy League scoring title out of reach, but Brandon Anderson is currently second with 19.6 ppg so far. Anderson was expected to take on a leading role for the Bears this year, but I didn’t expect this level of success — Brown’s fast pace inflates raw numbers somewhat, but Anderson’s 108 offensive rating on 29% usage is impressive in any context.
  8. Dartmouth — The Notre Dame game was Dartmouth’s first on an ESPN network in 34 years. Given the outcome, maybe it should bribe the Worldwide Leader to show Big Green games more often.

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