Checking in on the… Ivy LeaguePosted by rtmsf on March 6th, 2009
Dave Zeitlin is the RTC correspondent for the Ivy League.
Right now, the Ivy League is a mess. Somehow, heading into the final weekend of conference play, a Cornell team that is superior to any other in the league has yet to clinch its berth in the Big Dance (remember there’s no conference tournament in the Ivies). Somehow, Princeton – the same Princeton that started 2-8 with losses to mighty teams like Maine, Central Connecticut and Lafayette on its resume – controls its own destiny. And somehow, Yale and Dartmouth – yes, Dartmouth! – are still mathematically alive with two games to play.
Here’s the deal in simplest terms: If Cornell (9-3 league) takes care of business and beats Penn tonight and Princeton tomorrow night at home (where they are undefeated this season), then they win the league. They can also win the league if they beat Penn while Princeton loses at Columbia tonight. But if Princeton (7-4) is able to sweep Columbia and Cornell this weekend, then the Tigers’ game Tuesday against Penn – the final game of the Ivy League season – could either make or break their chances of winning at least a share of the league title. (In the case of a tie at the top, there would be a one-game playoff between the co-champs with the NCAA berth on the line).
If that doesn’t make any sense, I enlisted the help of my buddy Brian Delaney, who covers Cornell for the Ithaca Journal. Of the dozens or so of reporters who cover the Ivy League, Delaney is probably in the top 10. So I feel pretty comfortable in letting him tell you all about the conference while I contribute only witty banter and the occasional semi-informed comment.
Here’s our chat, which hits on everything from Cornell’s up-and-down season to the league’s best players to seven-foot twins:
Dave Zeitlin: Be honest, you thought Cornell would have clinched by now, right?
Brian Delaney: Yes. I thought at worst they’d be a 12-2 team this year. The doubts started creeping in after that Princeton loss though.
DZ: It’s pretty obvious to everyone, I think, that Cornell has the most talent in the league. What exactly has gone wrong?
BD: I think it’s a combination of a two things. One, it shows just how difficult it is to go 14-0, especially with a roster of sophomores, juniors and one senior. Two, I put a ton of stock in the mental approach to Ivy League weekends because the athleticism from team to team is just not that different, so preparation, execution and energy play greater roles. When Cornell does those three things well, they’re almost impossible to beat in the league. But when they fail in one or two of those categories, like they did Saturday at Harvard (11 first half turnovers, 9 of 16 free throws), they become susceptible. Third, I think there’s a lot of young, maturing talent on six of the eight teams (Yale and Cornell are the exceptions). When those guys have good nights, they catch you by surprise. There was a lot of turnover elsewhere in the league.
DZ: Wow, that’s a very detailed answer. I’ll let you slide for saying there were two reasons and then writing a third though.
BD: Never was a math major.
DZ: Ok, so as a Penn grad you know how I feel about Princeton. Please reassure me this mediocre Princeton team will not represent the Ivies in the NCAA tournament.
BD: Can’t do it. When Princeton beat Cornell and Columbia by 20 and 28 points a month ago, then lost to Brown the following weekend, I vowed to stop making predictions. This has been the toughest league to predict of any season or sport that I’ve covered in the last four years. A potential powder keg every weekend.
DZ: So I guess my next question will be tough for you. Do you see Cornell clinching this weekend or do you think it will come down to the Penn-Princeton game Tuesday?
BD: I feel like the odds are that Cornell will wrap it up on Saturday night. For the majority of their home games, they’ve been extraordinarily difficult to beat. They’ve won 19 straight at Newman Arena, and not necessarily because the crowd gives them a great sixth man night in and night out — although that should be the case this weekend. They just seem to shoot the heck out of the ball at home.
DZ: If the Big Red get into the Dance, are you thinking Sweet 16 or Final Four?
BD: I can’t think of anything witty. Pass.
DZ: Ok well then seriously, do you see them as a 15 seed? And what has to happen for them to pull a first-round upset?
BD: I would think a 15 seed makes sense, but there seems to be some opinion out there that a 14 seed is still possible. If they get a 15, the one thing that needs to happen above all else is that Louis Dale needs to play close to, if not the, game of his life. A team that doesn’t have two Lopez twins probably also is a good thing.
DZ: That’s weird. Most guys love twins. Or something. So all Ivy fans know about Ryan Wittman, Jeff Foote and Louis Dale. Is there anyone else who’s having a big year for Cornell?
BD: Freshman Chris Wroblewski comes to mind first. When Dale sat out the first eight games with a hamstring injury, Wroblewski exceeded all expectations as his replacement. He’s been playing big minutes, and for a guy who came in fairly unheralded, that’s no easy position to play. He shoots it well – I think he’s at about 46 percent from deep in league play ‑ he plays with a lot of confidence, limits mistakes and probably needs serious consideration for rookie of the year.
DZ: Over my boy Zack Rosen at Penn?
BD: I really like Rosen. He’ll be a good one in this league when his shooting and scoring catches up to his floor game. I think it probably comes down to Doug Davis and Noruwa Agho, although I haven’t seen Davis in person yet. It’s a pretty good crop of freshmen. Agho’s a future first-team all-leaguer, and even David Rufful at Dartmouth has made a good impression. Tough call for sure.
DZ: Since you’re far more informed than me, tell me about the rest of the league. Which team has been better than you thought and which team has choked worse than your favorite movie character, Ray Finkle?
BD: You got the years on me in this league, man. I can’t compete.
I don’t think I have a “choke” team like last year, when Yale clearly underachieved. I think most people down your way would point to the Quakers, but my observation from four hours north is that injuries have played far too much a role in their season for this to be considered a choke year.
That said, Dartmouth, Princeton and Columbia have surprised me. I thought that when Brian Grimes went down with a knee injury, Columbia was going to struggle. Those guys play tough, tough basketball. And they’ve been banged up all year. I’d wager a guess that Patrick Foley hasn’t been 100 percent since early December, if that. Niko Scott, too, from what I’ve heard.
I thought last year Sydney Johnson was doing a lot of positive things with Princeton. The talent wasn’t quite there, but his kids played hard both times I saw them. The energy and pride were back.
And then Alex Barnett has just been great this year, and the guys around him have picked up the slack.
DZ: Yeah, I think the fact that Dartmouth is still technically alive going into the last weekend may be the biggest surprise. Is Barnett the Ivy League Player of the Year?
BD: I think so. Wittman’s a close second.
DZ: What about Jeremy Lin?
BD: I think Harvard not having a .500 record in the league this year hurts him, but he definitely deserves consideration. Great player.
DZ: Speaking of Harvard, I just read in Sports Illustrated’s Faces in the Crowd section that another quality high school recruit is headed that way. Is it only a matter of time before Tommy Amaker has Havard at the top of the league?
BD: I seem to sense people thinking that way, but who knows? He certainly has an advantage with the financial aid packages he can give; I’m sure that has helped. And he does have some talent coming in. When I look at the next five years, I see Harvard and Princeton as teams on the rise. If Sydney Johnson is committed to staying at Princeton – for now, we have to assume he is – I think he’s the bigger threat long-term to the rest of the league.
DZ: I notice you left out Penn. If my Quakers aren’t on the rise over the next couple of years, I may have to smash the frame of my diploma over my head a few hundred times.
BD: It’s impossible for me to imagine them not getting better. I just give Princeton a slight edge now because Penn, Princeton and Harvard all have comparably young teams. And Princeton, without question, plays the most consistent defense night in and night out. I put a lot of stock in that.
DZ: Well I think I’m one of the few remaining optimistic Penn fans out there. Still, going to the Palestra recently has made me ill. Should Glen Miller be fired for the sake of my own well-being?
BD: No. A little adversity never hurt you, man.
DZ: But I like my Ivy titles four at a time! This is not as much fun.
BD: 1-5 at the Palestra is a stunning statistic.
DZ: I was there for that one win. But they beat a Brown team that is truly awful. Now that former Brown coach and First Brother-in-Law Craig Robinson is doing very well for himself at Oregon State, should Brown be scouring the White House for a new head coach?
BD: T.J. Sorrentine is a Brown assistant. That has to count for something.
DZ: That’s right. I imagine people up your way still talk about his shot to kill Syracuse.
BD: I loved watching that Vermont team play.
DZ: Yeah we need a mid-major to make some noise this year. Make it happen, Cornell.
BD: Seriously, the shot’s around the 1:00 mark. Incredible.
DZ: I thought this was an Ivy League interview? Maybe that will be Louis Dale in a couple of weeks?
BD: Who knows? Anything’s possible right?
DZ: That’s right. Gotta love March Madness. Ok, so I think we’ve talked about every team in the league except Yale really. Is there anything interesting about them this year?
BD: Nope – not really.
DZ: One last thing then. This is very important. As a graduate of a completely mediocre college, do you ever feel dumb interviewing brilliant Ivy Leaguers?
BD: Every single time, man. I’ll never forget my first interview on this beat was with Lenny Collins, who now studies at Harvard Law. I knew after the first question I was overmatched. Been downhill ever since.
DZ: Well, you kept up with me pretty well. And I’m as smart as they come.
DZ: I’ll pretend that wasn’t sarcastic. Thanks for taking some time. Hope you get to see your team in the Dance.
BD: Thanks for having me. It’s a lot of fun covering this league.