This is the weirdest Ivy League season I can remember.
The Ancient Eight has been rather predictable for much of its history. But not this year, when teams rise and fall in the blink of an eye. Princeton was playing the league’s best ball by far just two weeks ago; today the Tigers are on a four-game losing streak and on the outside of the playoff picture. Columbia has alternated excellent and terrible weekends. Brown came off its biggest win of the season only to get rocked at home by Cornell. Penn — the consensus #4 team before the season — has been steadiest, but even the Quakers have exactly one double-digit Ivy win (which came, oddly enough, at Jadwin).
As a result, literally every conference game is a crapshoot going in. And that remains true even as the game develops. Harvard has blown five double-digit leads in eight games (but still won four). Brown has gone to overtime three times in the last two weeks, even though two of those games seemed to be locked up within the final minute. And, of course, don’t forget every Dartmouth game. 41% of all Ivy contests have been decided by one possession, the highest of any conference in the nation.
Finally, it’s hard to know who will even be playing in any given game. Makai Mason and Bryce Aiken have been hanging over the entire season, seemingly “day-to-day” for more than a month. Nearly every other star has missed time here or there with injury or sickness, and the rest have battled foul trouble. (At one point while Friday’s game was still competitive, both Harvard and Princeton were playing without any of their Big Three.) Those who are actually on the court break out unexpected plays — from the league’s slowest center scoring on a coast-to-coast finger roll to the most exciting rookie breaking out a live 360-degree dunk:
— Brown Bears ILN (@BrownBearsILN) February 11, 2018
There is a downside to the weirdness, of course: Injuries and inconsistency have left the Ivy League without much non-conference success (the #22 conference per KenPom, its worst ranking since 2010), and whoever emerges from the tournament will be a severe underdog in March Madness. So the Ancient Eight will be better off if it returns to normalcy next season. But for now, I’m enjoying the weirdness and the drama it brings.
And-ones: Thirty-five Ivies are participating in the Pyeongchang Olympics. The art of the pregame handshake. The Fieldhouse on Matt Morgan. Henry Caruso reached 1,000 career points. Shame on Dartmouth’s coaches (and Ray even more so) for not fully committing to Flannel Night. Princeton’s 16-0 team is popping champagne. In case you forgot the Ivy League was the Ivy League, its “official car” is now Porsche.
Midseason Efficiency Rankings:
1. Harvard (7-1, +0.09 points per possession in Ivy play)
Note the efficiency margin: No team in the Ivy League is outscoring opponents by more than 0.09 ppp, a mark that has been surpassed by all but two champions in the last 15 years. (Those two came in 2002 and 2013 — not coincidentally, the other weirdest seasons of this century.) Harvard and Penn might be three games clear of the field at 7-1, but both have been far from dominant.
The Crimson are winning with defense, allowing a league-best 0.95 ppp. They’ve blocked a remarkable 15% of opponents’ two-point shots, led by center Chris Lewis, who is the league’s most dominant defender when he’s on the court. That inside presence allows Harvard’s guards to pressure the perimeter, which they do well, with abundant length and adequate speed. (The silver lining to Aiken’s injury and Siyani Chambers’ graduation is a bigger backcourt — the Crimson now starts four players at 6-5 or taller alongside 6-2 Christian Juzang.) Harvard’s wings still occasionally get lost off the ball, but they’ve improved by leaps and bounds over last year, especially Seth Towns.
Even without Aiken, the offense has been adequate so far (1.04 ppp). After a brutal non-conference season, Harvard leads the league with 40% shooting on three-pointers in Ivy play. But if that regresses, the Crimson will struggle to find another way to score. Towns is already stretched to his usage limit as the alpha dog, and the guards are all secondary scorers. Harvard may need to ask more from Chris Lewis, who was dominant against Penn and opened up opportunities for his teammates:
Penn's defense is scared to death of Chris Lewis. Watch here how the mere threat of a Lewis post-up takes the whole weak side out of rotation, resulting in an easy dunk: pic.twitter.com/gDS8aFSENv
— Kevin Whitaker (@whitakk) February 10, 2018
2. Penn (7-1, +0.08 ppp)
As Ray wrote this week (and Ivy Hoops Online’s Mike Tony wrote earlier), it’s remarkable that the Quakers are winning with defense. Steve Donahue entered his third year at Penn with a reputation as an offensive-minded coach, having engineered elite scoring units at Cornell and Boston College but rarely an even average defense. These Quakers have a top-60 offense nationally, per KenPom, and their defense has allowed 0.96 ppp in Ivy play.
Unlike Harvard, the Quakers block very few shots. Instead, they shut down the perimeter, allowing 33% of opposing field goals to come from beyond the arc and 27% accuracy there. The latter might not entirely be a fluke — by allowing so few good three-pointers in the first place, Penn might force opponents to rush bad ones — but it mostly is one, so some regression is due. With plus defenders at 3-4 positions and a firm commitment to running opponents off the arc, the Quakers’ defense will still be good, but it might fall from elite status.
Can their offense pick up the slack? Penn certainly looks impressive on that end, ping-ponging the ball through the paint for open looks. But in the end, it’s topped a point per possession in only three of its last nine games, in part because its starting lineup only has one dangerous outside shooter. The Quakers got open looks inside throughout last week’s game at Princeton, but it’s a struggle to repeat that every night.
The Quakers lost only one player from last year’s team, and they’ve started the same lineup for every game this season. Yet Donahue has still been tinkering, dropping Jackson Donahue and Devon Goodman from the rotation and elevating Caleb Wood and Jake Silpe midseason. Don’t be surprised to see more changes even as the postseason nears.
3. Yale (4-4, +0.03 ppp)
If Miye Oni keeps playing the way he did this weekend, when he scored a combined 36 points and dished 12 assists, Yale will cruise to an umpteenth straight top-half finish. That sort of performance is what we expected from Oni, but he had been slumping, posting an offensive rating below 100 in each of his first six Ivy games and scoring double figures only twice. And the schedule will only get tougher from here, with four road games followed by Princeton and Penn to close the season.
Yale assisted on 86% of its baskets this weekend, taking James Jones’ style to the extreme. On balance, however, this has been a defense-first team in Ivy play, and I’m not really sure how. Regression indicators are flashing red, with the Bulldogs benefitting from poor free-throw and three-point shooting. Yale may need an offsetting improvement from its own slumping shooters, especially Blake Reynolds. Trey Phills’ offensive breakout has been a nice surprise, and he remains the best put-back dunker in the league:
— Yale_Basketball (@Yale_Basketball) February 10, 2018
Makai Mason is still reportedly planning to return at some point this season. With less than four weeks remaining until the Ivy League Tournament, it’s too late to count on any certain impact, but his presence would add even more intrigue to an already fascinating season.
4. Columbia (3-5, +0.01 ppp)
Columbia is the only other team to beat Harvard or Penn so far, and despite a sub-.500 record its efficiency margin is in the black. Given those fundamentals — and the fact that the Lions still get to play the other playoff contenders at home — they still have a decent shot to make the Ivy League Tournament. It would be a better shot, however, if they had held on down the stretch against Brown on Saturday (their seventh loss in eight games decided by five points or less).
The Lions had the league’s worst offense last season, but most of the same core is leading the Ivy so far with 1.11 ppp. (An offensive explosion was key in the Harvard upset.) Columbia often has four shooters on the floor, and they’ve been making more than their share: Quinton Adlesh and Gabe Stefanini are both above 50% from distance in Ivy play, while Lukas Meisner is hitting 42%. After a rocky year and a half, Jim Engles’ system is finally clicking — giving Mike Smith and others freedom to take early shots, while also folding in deadly screening and handoff action on the perimeter and a few nice set plays:
This is a beautiful set and an insane pass by Mike Smith: pic.twitter.com/Ob2CQaUe95
— Kevin Whitaker (@whitakk) February 11, 2018
Defense — and perhaps pure luck — will determine whether the Lions can surge in the second half. Whether playing man or zone, the Engles-era Lions give opponents lots of space to shoot threes. So far, they’ve been getting burned: Ivy teams are taking nearly half their shots from beyond the arc and making 41% of them, both league highs. The latter rate is bound to regress, but so is the hot shooting of Columbia’s own wings. Which one will fall further?
5. Princeton (3-5, 0.00 ppp)
Welp. Four straight losses have left the Tigers below .500 in Ivy play for the first time in four years. The home loss to Brown could be written off as a Desmond Cambridge-sized fluke, but the three double-digit losses that followed are deeply concerning. Though Princeton is still a slight favorite to reach the postseason when projecting on its full-season track record, it’s been perfectly mediocre in Ivy play.
Defense is an ongoing weakness, one exploited by Penn and Dartmouth last week. The Tigers had an elite defense last season, and more than half of those minutes returned. So why aren’t they still at least average on that end? Princeton didn’t just downgrade at two positions — it was forced to overhaul its system entirely. Instead of having five players versatile enough to guard all five positions (or at least fake it) and nimble enough to recover after double-teams, these Tigers simply don’t have that. So, in addition to playing weaker individual defenders, Princeton is stuck with a conventional scheme that has killed its ability to get steals and limits the talents of players like Myles Stephens.
Furthermore, the same team that scored 103 points at USC hasn’t managed a point per possession in any of their last three games. The Tigers’ shooters aren’t connecting, led by Devin Cannady, who hasn’t been himself lately. Sebastian Much, a key part of Princeton’s winter surge, has been a non-factor for most of this month. Harvard and Dartmouth loaded up to stop Stephens and Amir Bell, and it worked.
Momentum is fickle, and Princeton could regain its form if a few more shots start falling. With road games at Cornell and Columbia this week, their current partners in the standings, the Tigers need that to happen now. They close their season at Brown and Yale, and it’s possible they’ll need a sweep to reach the postseason.
6. Dartmouth (1-7, -0.03 ppp)
It’s weird for a 1-7 team to be barely below par in efficiency margin, but again, it’s been a weird season. Dartmouth’s first seven losses were decided by 10 points or less, including five by one possession, before it finally got a win over Princeton that turned into a 15-point rout late. Give Dartmouth one more shot here or there, and it could be right in the thick of the playoff race.
The Big Green has totally transformed itself throughout the course of the season. In November, this was a guard-led, offensive team that tried to outshoot opponents; now it relies much more on its frontcourt and defense, as Ray wrote Saturday. Rookies Chris Knight and Adrease Jackson are developing, albeit with some growing pains, while center Will Emery has had a few big Ivy games. I still don’t really know what to make of this team going forward, but they’re more interesting than I expected after Evan Boudreaux left.
7. Brown (4-4, -0.05 ppp)
If the season ended today, Brown would be preparing to play at The Palestra. Yet the Bears, who got all four of their wins in the final seconds, could so easily be 0-8 instead. If Obi Okolie doesn’t get a 50/50 foul call against Yale, if Zach Hunsaker misses an off-balance game-winner against Dartmouth, if a wild deflection doesn’t bounce towards an on-fire Desmond Cambridge at Jadwin, if Tamenang Choh doesn’t come up with a huge free throw rebound Saturday, Brown’s season is much different. But style points don’t count in the standings, and every team needs some breaks.
The question is, how many more will the Bears get? Cambridge went down with a scary-looking ankle injury late in Saturday’s game. He sounded optimistic that he would return, and the Bears need him healthy. He’s hardly the only talented young Bear — Brandon Anderson quietly ranks second in the league in scoring for the full season, Hunsaker can make crafty shots, and I’m driving the Choh bandwagon (he made several big plays off the dribble Saturday before his clutch offensive rebound). But even with Cambridge, Brown has barely been able to overcome its other weaknesses (playing defense and handling ball pressure), which opponents will continue to exploit.
Per KenPom, Brown is currently an underdog in each of its final six games.
8, Cornell (3-5, -0.11 ppp)
Cornell’s efficiency numbers are ugly, but they’re skewed by two blowouts early in the Ivy season. The Big Red looked dead after a 26-point loss at Columbia dropped them to 0-3, but here they are with three wins in five games since, even if two came by the skin of their teeth.
The formula is exactly what we’ve expected: Let Matt Morgan and Stone Gettings run the show. Gettings has taken Morgan’s title as the team’s top scorer, at least temporarily, dropping at least 20 in four straight games. The two work best together, though, forming an unstoppable pick-and-pop combination. Only twice in eight Ivy games has another Big Red player scored more than 10 points, and the defense, while improving, still isn’t an asset.
It’s hard to see that formula carrying Cornell to the playoffs, but it wouldn’t be the weirdest thing that’s happened this season.
Once again, it’s a two-team race between Penn (6-1, +0.23 ppp) and Princeton (6-1, +0.23) — and they meet at Jadwin on Tuesday night, in a game that will likely decide the Ivy League title. Yale (5-3, +0.04) solidified its playoff hopes with a weekend sweep in New York, and its earlier double-digit win over Princeton now looks better and better. Harvard (5-3, +0.03) entered the week with a half-game lead in the standings, but losses at Princeton and Penn by a combined 53 points dashed those hopes emphatically.
Those four teams are highly likely to make the tournament, per projections, but Dartmouth (4-4, -0.02) still has a chance to crash the party. Brown (2-6, -0.08) finally snapped its tailspin with a close win at Columbia, but the Bears aren’t playing at the same level they were at in November (or last February). Columbia (1-7, -0.17) and Cornell (2-6, -0.19) will try to play spoiler against Penn and Princeton this weekend, but even with the favorites playing afternoon games off of a short week, the odds are slim.