Ivy League Weekly Roundup: Rivalries Turn at The Palestra

Inside this week: Recapping the first week of Ivy action, including two rivalry games at The Palestra that set the tone for this season’s race, and looking ahead to more debuts this weekend.

1. Max Rothschild was Penn’s X-factor on Saturday. Before the season, I was skeptical of Steve Donahue’s plan to move Rothschild into the starting lineup. The junior had established himself as a solid part-time player who could perhaps fill a bigger role if needed. But starting for Penn meant moving AJ Brodeur, an All-Ivy-caliber center as a rookie, out of position — a price I didn’t think was worth it.

Well, Rothschild earned his starting spot and more with his play against Princeton. His box-score numbers, 10 points and six rebounds, were nothing special. But he spent most of the game guarding Myles Stephens, who led Princeton’s comeback in their last meeting in the Ivy League Tournament. Stephens has had success scoring off the dribble against bigger defenders, but Rothschild stayed in front of him all afternoon, holding him to 10 points on 10 shots and forcing two turnovers down the stretch.

Rothschild also had five clever assists and a key offensive rebound with the Quakers up by two points in the final two minutes. Penn scored 1.13 points per possession for the game, most of which came near the basket:

For Princeton, this was hardly an ugly loss. Visiting The Palestra might be the toughest game it plays all Ivy season, and Devin Cannady was the only Tiger who really played well — yet Princeton was still within one possession in the final two minutes. But the visitors were beat on several defensive miscommunications down the stretch, issues they will have to figure out by the meat of Ivy play.

2. Harvard has a very fortunate Ivy schedule. After missing the first four games out of the holiday break, Bryce Aiken returned to face Dartmouth on Saturday — but he only played four minutes (none after halftime), hardly looking like himself. “[Aiken] needs some time to practice I think to build himself up and get his feet wet in the game, like he did today, and get ready for practice,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said per The Crimson.

Harvard isn’t the same team without its All-Ivy point guard; the hosts committed 15 first-half turnovers on Saturday (five from Aiken’s primary replacement, Christian Juzang). Even while shooting nearly 50% from deep, they managed less than a point per possession against one of the Ivy League’s worst defenses, and they trailed at the six-minute mark before putting the game away with a barrage of open threes.

But the schedule will give Aiken as much time as possible to get healthy. Harvard doesn’t play an Ivy game again for two weeks, when it visits the Big Green. It doesn’t play another top-4 favorite until it visits Yale on Jan. 26, and the first Princeton-Penn weekend is Feb. 9-10, the midpoint of conference play. If Aiken doesn’t suffer a setback, he should be rounding into shape by the time Harvard’s biggest games come.

3. Princeton’s women are now in the driver’s seat. Penn dominated the Ivy League for the last two years, going 24-2 against conference foes and reaching the dance twice, and it was named the preseason favorite again for 2018. But Princeton made a loud statement at The Palestra on Saturday, winning 70-55 and snapping a five-game losing streak to the Quakers. Nothing is guaranteed one game into a 14-game season, especially as the Ancient Eight is strong this year — Penn should be hungry for the Feb. 13 rematch, and 12-1 Brown will have its say as well. But based on non-conference performance and a convincing road win, Princeton has the inside track to the title.

The first half looked like a few recent Princeton-Penn tilts: The Tigers led by as many as 10 points early, but they relied almost exclusively on outside shooting (attempting only two layups in the first 20 minutes), while Penn got easier shots and made a late charge to pull within three. But the second half was totally different: Princeton finally solved the Quakers’ vaunted defense, scoring 39 points (1.18 ppp) with only two three-pointers. Bella Alarie (18 points, 12 rebounds, eight blocks) and Leslie Robinson (15 points, five assists) outplayed Penn in the paint in a way we haven’t seen from Ivy opponents in a while.

And-ones: Dartmouth’s women beat Harvard 63-56, already matching last season’s eight total wins. Jordan Bruner’s rehab is “ahead of schedule”. The Curry generation has reached college basketball. The first women’s D-I quadruple-double in nearly a quarter-century.

Weekly Awards:

Player of the Week: Ryan Betley, Penn — Princeton was determined not to give Betley space to shoot — so he drove instead, making layups and tough floaters off the dribble early. When he did get space from outside, he delivered, hitting all three treys en route to 19 first-half points. He was quieter after halftime, but his final line of 21 points on 12 shooting possessions (without a turnover) propelled the Quakers to a big win.

Rookie of the Week: Paul Atkinson, Yale — In a tough week for rookies, Atkinson reached double figures against a power-conference opponent, adding two assists to 10 points at Georgia Tech. Atkinson hasn’t posted the gaudy single-game numbers that some other rookies have so far, but he’s been a consistent scorer — and an extremely efficient one, making 70% of his shots.

Play of the Week: Even from a point guard, this drive and perfectly timed dish through two defenders would make a highlight reel. Coming from a six-foot center like Leslie Robinson, to all but clinch a victory at Penn, it’s Play of the Week-worthy:

The Week Ahead: The remaining four teams open Ivy League play. Columbia and Cornell visit Princeton and Penn, where they will each be significant underdogs. Perhaps the most intriguing game comes Friday night, when Brown visits Yale in a fun clash of styles and trendlines. Yale has struggled lately while the Bears have been feisty over the past month, but the Bulldogs’ ball movement and scoring skill should be too much for Brown to handle, especially in New Haven.

Power Rankings:

  1. Penn (1-0) — Steve Donahue has gotten some decent production from his bench this year, but he rode his starters hard against Princeton, playing all five at least 32 minutes. Saturday’s decisions were likely matchup-driven (Devon Goodman, who didn’t even play the prior game against Toledo, was the top sub with 12 minutes for his defensive skill) but it’s worth watching if Donahue tightens his rotation even further for Ivy play.
  2. Harvard (1-0) — Justin Bassey scored eight of the Crimson’s first 11 points against Dartmouth, though he managed only three more for the game. Baseey has taken less than 10% of Harvard’s shots while on the floor in each of the last two seasons, but as a result he will be open frequently, especially if Aiken returns to full strength. Bassey’s ability to knock down those shots is one of the differences between a mediocre Harvard offense and a good-enough one.
  3. Princeton (0-1) — The Tigers are averaging 65.5 possessions per game, nearly three lower than any other Ivy team. The system is one reason, but personnel is a bigger one: Amir Bell and Devin Cannady played all 40 minutes, while Myles Stephens played 37, sitting only briefly for early foul trouble.
  4. Yale (0-0) — Atkinson currently leads the Ivy League (by a wide margin) with a 130 offensive rating. That should be no surprise to Ivy fans, as Sam Downey and Brandon Sherrod before him were among the league’s most efficient scorers as well.
  5. Columbia (0-0) — Non-DI games mean approximately nothing, but seeing Kyle Castlin healthy enough to play 28 minutes against Sarah Lawrence (and aggressive enough to take 18 shots, even if only six went in) in his second game back from injury is encouraging.
  6. Cornell (0-0) — In his two-year career, Matt Morgan has scored at least 25 points in a game against every Ivy League team except Princeton (high of 23 at Jadwin last year). He’s averaging 25 per game this year, but Princeton’s slow pace and tough wing defenders will pose a challenge.
  7. Brown (0-0) — Brown beat a weak-shooting NJIT team at home on Wednesday, but it gave up some open three-point looks by blowing rotations or helping from one pass away. Opponent have made only 33.6% of their threes this year, but expect that to rise in Ivy play.
  8. Dartmouth (0-1) — Ever since winning the Rookie of the Year award with a tremendous three-week stretch in 2015, Miles Wright has had seemingly unfulfilled potential (the occasional 39-point game aside). But after scoring 23 efficient points against the league’s best defense on Saturday, Wright is at career highs in offensive rating (110), three-point shooting (40%), and even assist rate, though that’s still far from a strength (10%). His defense is back as well, with seven steals in his last four games and a decent block rate.