Checking In On… the Ivy LeaguePosted by Brian Goodman on January 20th, 2012
Contenders and Pretenders: The first Ivy League back-to-back weekend is in the books, though for only half of the league’s teams. In true 14-game tournament fashion, it took just one weekend for the Ivy title race to change pretty drastically. With a road sweep of Cornell and Columbia, Pennsylvania immediately vaulted into the number one contender spot behind Harvard. The New York trip will be the second-toughest in the Ivies this season (the Princeton/Philadelphia swing will be slightly more treacherous), so escaping it with a 2-0 mark puts the Quakers in great shape to hang around the title race deep into the season.
The weekend wasn’t as kind to Columbia, which had two separate comeback bids fall short against Pennsylvania and Princeton, losing both games by a combined six points. The Lions had entered Ivy play at 9-1 in their last ten games, but all it takes is one rough back-to-back to see title hopes get dashed. Columbia still has a chance at a postseason berth in one of the 16-team events, but will likely need to close with eight or nine wins in its final 12 games – a slate that includes two meetings with Harvard.
The Tigers and Big Red emerged from the weekend alive, but endangered.Princeton is in better shape than Cornell, as road splits are excusable, while home splits can be deadly. The Tigers face the daunting task of playing their first five games on the road, which also means seven of the final nine at home, so Princeton can fall a little behind early and still maintain a realistic hope to catch the leaders down the stretch. Cornell doesn’t have that luxury. The Big Red must sweep travel partner Columbia over the next two weeks to stay in the race and set the table for a battle with preseason favorite Harvard at Lavietes Pavilion.
Yale survived a surprising scare at home against lowly Brown, trailing by seven at the half and six with just over three minutes to go before closing the game on a 13-3 run. The Bulldogs look to complete the sweep this weekend to remain perfect heading into their meeting with Harvard on January 27.Non-Conference Awards
Just two games remain in the non-conference slate, so let’s hand out some hardware before the Ivy race kicks into high gear.
- Best Team: Harvard – With 14 victories, the Crimson tied the 2010 Big Red for the most regular season non-conference wins in Ivy history. The campaign was highlighted by a triumph over Pomeroy Top 30 Florida State in the Battle 4 Atlantis Semifinals, as well as a win over Central Florida to claim the preseason tournament crown. Harvard would go on to beat a solid Saint Joseph’s team at home for its third RPI Top 100 victory of the season. The loss to Fordham will hurt the Crimson a bit in the eyes of the tournament committee, but the only other blemish was a defeat at the hands of Connecticut in Storrs. Most projections have Harvard at about the 10-seed line, and if the Crimson ultimately lands there, it would be the best seed for an Ivy team since Princeton’s #5 seed in 1998.
- Top Guard: Zack Rosen, Pennsylvania – The senior guard started off on at an All-American pace and slowly regressed as the non-conference season went on, but the end result was still enough to be considered the league’s top backcourt player to this point. Rosen used 26% of the team’s possessions when on the floor, posting an assist rate near 40% – among the best nationally – with a 56% effective field goal rate. His final campaign is shaping up to be his best, which is saying something for a player who has already made First Team All-Ivy twice in his career.
- Top Forward: Ian Hummer, Princeton – There’s leading an offense, and then there’s carrying it. Chalk Hummer down for the latter. The 6’7” junior essentially used every third possession when on the floor and took every third shot. So, while the effective field goal percentage of 50 doesn’t exactly scream anything other than average, with so much reliance on his output, he didn’t really have a lot of latitude to be choosy with shot selection. Providing that kind of performance at that level of usage is incredibly difficult and is a strong testament to Hummer’s ability. He’s no slouch at the other end either, racking up rebounds, steals, and blocks at solid rates while avoiding the fouls that would keep him off the floor.
- Top Rookie: Gabas Maldunas, Dartmouth – Speaking of fouls, committing 5.5 per 40 during the non-conference slate limited Maldunas to 60% of team minutes, but still the 6’8” freshman posted nine points and seven rebounds a game. His rates are even more impressive. Maldunas has managed a replacement-level offensive rating while using 26 percent of possessions, which is saying something as Dartmouth has struggled recently to find replacement-level talent on even average usage rates. He’s also been pulling down over 22 percent of the defensive boards, which ranks in the top 100 nationally. Maldunas might not be the highest-ceiling player in the 2011 Ivy class, but he has produced the most for his team thus far.
- Surprise Team: Columbia – After hanging around with Connecticut for much of the season-opening affair, the Lions looked the part of the Ivies’ surprise team. Then, Noruwa Agho went down, and Columbia skidded to a 0-4 start. A miraculous defensive renaissance gave the Lions new life though, as it held five straight Division I opponents to an average adjusted defensive rating (points per 100 possessions) in the 70s. A post-holiday flop at Marist failed to derail a Columbia team that went on to rip off four-straight wins and close out the non-conference campaign with an 11-5 mark.
- Harvard (15-2) – The most impressive non-conference performance might have been the Crimson’s last – a 69-48 drubbing of George Washington, in which Harvard held the Colonials to just 13 points in the first half and led by as many as 29 before ceding an 8-0 run to close the game. The Crimson had looked downright beatable against Fordham, Dartmouth and Monmouth – its first three games of 2012 – but used an 18-2 run over the final ten minutes of the first half to spark the dominating performance. Injured shooting guards Christian Webster and Corbin Miller are day-to-day with a hip and thumb injury, respectively, so Harvard might be back at full strength for the rematch with Dartmouth in Hanover this Saturday.
- Pennsylvania (9-9) – Last year, the Quakers jumped out to a 3-0 start in league play, but dropped three straight games in overtime to see their surprising title hopes dashed just as quickly as they arose. Once again, Pennsylvania has started fast with an opening weekend sweep, but unlike last season, the Quakers began on the road, making the wins far more impressive. League play takes a back seat briefly with a visit from Saint Joseph’s this weekend, but then Pennsylvania hosts Princeton and follows that with a trip to Yale and Brown. If the Quakers can get through that gauntlet at 5-0 in the league, their league win expectation would rise to an average of 11, a mark which would keep them in the title hunt until the final weekend.
- Princeton (10-8) – An impressive swing through Florida had most Tigers fans assuming that once again the squad was peaking at just the right time. Now, though, four of Princeton’s last five opponents have posted adjusted offensive ratings above 100, and with an offense that has struggled more than last year’s edition, the lax defense bit the Tigers in a loss at Cornell. Defense has reigned supreme in the Ivy League this year, so if Princeton can’t figure things out soon, the Tigers might fall further off the pace – especially with their next three Ivy games on the road.
- Yale (11-4) – The defensive performance against Division III Saint Joseph’s Long Island was abysmal, but it’s hard to tell anything from non-Division-I games, right? Well, after Brown waltzed into John J. Lee Amphitheater with its one-dimensional offense and posted 64 points on just 61 possessions (moving Yale’s adjusted defensive rating over the past seven games to 107), maybe it’s time to start questioning the Bulldogs on that end of the floor. That new concern crops up just as Yale had seemingly solved its bench issues with Michael Grace, Brandon Sherrod, Sam Martin, and Jesse Pritchard all providing decently efficient alternatives to the Bulldogs’ big four.
- Cornell (6-10) – The Big Red closed 2011 going 4-1 over the final five league games and kept the momentum going with a win over defending champion Princeton in its Ivy opener. Pennsylvania proved too much to handle on Saturday night, though, as the Big Red’s stagnant offense doomed it to defeat. Cornell must find consistent scoring if it is going to be successful in league play. The Big Red has only topped an Adjusted Offensive Rating of 100 three times in 16 games this season, and while its defense has been very good, Cornell hasn’t been good enough on that side of the ball to carry its struggling attack.
- Columbia (11-7) – It’s back down to earth for the Lions, which got swept at home to open Ivy play last weekend. That alone is probably enough to end any realistic hopes for an Ivy title, but a postseason berth is still on the table with a strong finish. Columbia now must rebound against travel partner Cornell, which it swept last year for the first time since 2002. Even without the injured Noruwa Agho, the Lions have a bunch of interesting pieces including one of the top performing freshmen in the league in Alex Rosenberg, a dynamic backcourt with Meiko Lyles and Brian Barbour and one of the Ivy’s better bigs in Mark Cisco. Defense let Columbia down in its first two Ivy contests, as an average adjusted defensive rating of 107 was much worse than the mid-90s the Lions had been averaging in non-conference games.
- Brown (5-12) – The Bears are exactly who we thought they were. The coach hasn’t mattered much at all. Glen Miller and Craig Robinson got better gigs despite never dropping Brown below an adjusted defensive rating of 104, and Jesse Agel has done nothing to reverse the trend of terrible defense. But the Bears have always had talented scorers, and that’s enough to remain a deadly upset risk for better opponents. Just ask Princeton, which has only managed to split with Brown each of the past two years, or Yale, which nearly fell to the Bears at home last weekend. Quality shooting and the 20th highest rate of three-pointers in the nation means that Brown can put up points in a hurry. Not enough to win the Ivy title, but certainly enough to win a surprising game or two.
- Dartmouth (4-13) – By all objective metrics (including the recent performances against common opponent Longwood), the Big Green should be ahead of the Bears. The strong showing at Yale gets Brown out of the cellar for a week, but Dartmouth has its chance to impress as it hosts Harvard this weekend. Freshman Gabas Maldunas had a high output, if not highly efficient game, against the Crimson the first time around, but the Big Green will need more support in the scoring column to hang with a Harvard team that might have one or both of its injured shooters back.
- January 21 – Saint Joseph’s at Pennsylvania – The final Big 5 battle for the Quakers is also the league’s last chance to make a non-conference impression before the eight Ivies start fighting over the RPI points they have earned outside the league. Pennsylvania’s 73-61 win over the Hawks snapped a Big 5 losing streak that spanned back to 2007, and while the Quakers are slightly improved this season, Saint Joseph’s has taken a huge step forward despite being just 2-3 in the Atlantic 10. For Pennsylvania to win and send senior guards Tyler Bernardini and Zack Rosen out with the second city win of their careers, it is those two players who will have to have monster nights and carry the Quakers to victory.
- January 21 – Yale at Brown; Harvard at Dartmouth – The top of the league struggled mightily with the bottom of the league at home in the first leg of both of these travel partner series. The Crimson trailed by seven in the second half before using a 22-4 run to put the Big Green away for good, and the Bulldogs came even closer to disaster, needing a 13-3 run over the final three minutes to escape by four. Both Harvard and Yale will be heavy road favorites, but Dartmouth’s defense has been too stingy and Brown’s offense has too high of a ceiling to take either team lightly. A split for either the Crimson or the Bulldogs would deal a huge hit to their Ivy title hopes, while a sweep would bring both teams to 2-0 heading into our next featured game.
- January 27 – Harvard at Yale – No reminders will be necessary for the Crimson about what happened the last two times it stepped into Payne Whitney Gym. The first was a broken play, which ended with a missed layup by Brandyn Curry at the buzzer, handing Harvard a one-point loss at Yale. The second was a converted shot at the horn, but this time it was by Princeton’s Douglas Davis in the Ivy playoff, as the Crimson missed out on an NCAA Tournament berth by a single point. Yale has the size to neutralize Harvard’s frontcourt – something few other Ivies can do – but the question remains whether the Bulldogs are deep enough to survive 40 minutes. If the bench can provide even adequate minutes, Yale has a good shot to spring the early upset.
- January 29 – Princeton at Pennsylvania – The historic Ivy rivalry will have a strong role in shaping the Ivy race, at least to start. After splitting their opening weekend, the Tigers almost face a must win at The Palestra to stay in the Ivy race. Meanwhile, the Quakers could really turn the heat up on Harvard with a 3-0 start. The matchups won’t be great in this one, as Princeton’s big frontcourt goes up against Pennsylvania’s inexperienced but talented set of forwards, while the Quakers scoring guards will attempt to take advantage of the Tigers’ weak perimeter defense.