2013-14 RTC Conference Preview: the Ivy LeaguePosted by Michael James (@ivybball) on November 6th, 2013
- Best Ivy Team Ever? Every league preview from this summer and fall seemed to start with the assumption that Harvard would not only cruise to the Ivy title, but that it could very well end up as the best team the league has ever seen. Putting aside the great Penn teams of the 1970s – one of which reached the Final Four and two others which finished third in the final AP poll – it’s extremely tenuous to predict that the Crimson will even end up as the best Ivy team of the 64-team era. The 1998 edition of the Princeton Tigers set that bar, finishing the regular season with just one loss and nabbing a #5 seed before falling to Michigan State in the round of 32. While that’s the best known example, five other Ivy teams spent some time in the national polls, including Princeton’s 1991 squad, which lost by two to Villanova as a #8 seed in the first round. Two Penn teams from the mid-90s cracked the Top 25 and one scored an NCAA win as a #11 seed, while Harvard and Cornell recently rode appearances in the Top 25 to #12 seeds with the latter advancing all the way to the Sweet Sixteen. Given that most pundits have the 2013-14 Crimson as a fringe Top 25 team, it would seem that the hype about Harvard possibly being the best Ivy ever is mostly indicative of how soon most have forgotten the very good Ivy teams of the recent past.
- Going Digital – Just two years ago, the Ivy League office took a ton of flak as it struggled to farm out its premier basketball properties to television or even specialty streaming channels like ESPN3. Only six Ivy League contests were picked up that season, despite a dramatic race which ended where Princeton defeated the rival Quakers to send Harvard to its first NCAA Tournament in over 65 years. Last season, that number crept to nine broadcasts with the new league television deal with NBC Sports Network, but still the only way to watch Brown defeat Princeton to send Harvard back to the Big Dance was via a grainy web feed. Shortly after the season ended, however, the league announced a massive new infrastructure project to merge all of the web feeds into one Ivy Digital channel and provide professional, multi-camera, high-definition broadcasts of all events for the league’s revenue sports. Now, simply by paying one flat fee (roughly $100 for all sports), fans can watch any Ivy home contest and all league games without having to buy each individual school’s package and could access every game in one place. Add in features like quad view, which can allow viewers to watch four games at once, and the Ivy basketball fan has everything he or she needs to keep live tabs on the league race as it unfolds on Friday and Saturday nights in February and March.
- Stability in an Unstable World – While the Ivy League and its core eight institutions weathered the conference realignment storm without even a joking rumor about possible new arrivals or departures, pardon the players and coaches if they stumble over the new affiliations of some of their non-conference foes this season. The four conferences that the Ivies have played the most over the past two seasons (America East, Patriot, NEC and the Atlantic 10) all underwent varying levels of changes, and that’s before considering the six games the league will play against the American Athletic Conference, which didn’t even exist last season. The result of all the chaos is a composite schedule with a diverse set of non-conference opponents, as Ivy teams will play members of 23 different leagues this season.
Predicted Order of Finish:
- Harvard (13-1)
- Penn (9-5)
- Yale (9-5)
- Princeton (9-5)
- Brown (5-9)
- Columbia (4-10)
- Cornell (4-10)
- Dartmouth (4-10)
All-Conference First Team:
- Sean McGonagill, G, Brown – A wildly undervalued skill in any sport is the ability to perform at a level slightly below greatness, but for a period of time so far extended that merely being able to remain in the game is impressive in and of itself. McGonagill is precisely one of those players. The 6’1″ senior guard managed to consume 24 percent of his team’s possessions and still post an offensive very near the national average, while playing 92 percent of his team’s minutes (12th nationally). His assist rate dipped a bit last season, as he took on even more of a scorer’s role, and he will have to step up even further this season, as he will most likely be flanked by two freshmen in the backcourt.
- Nolan Cressler, G, Cornell – Projecting any All-League awards requires understanding not only the talent of the player in question, but also the opportunity. Cressler was arguably the most talented freshman scorer among a deep class of rookies in the 2012 class. More importantly, however, with the Big Red decimated by roster turnover and injuries, he should have the green light to hoist shots until his arms get tired throughout the 2013-14 campaign. He might not match his 110 offensive rating that he posted as a freshman (in fact, he might not even hit triple-figures), but he will have every opportunity to post the gaudy points-per-game mark that gets the coaches’ attention in voting for these awards.
- Wesley Saunders, G/F, Harvard – The 6’5″ Crimson swingman developed a credible enough jumper to keep defenses from sagging off and pressed that advantage perfectly, racking up the 44th highest rate of free passes to the line in the nation. Saunders took half of his shots around the rim last season, and when he wasn’t getting fouled, was able to finish 64 percent of his chances. His absolute numbers might decline given the increased number of weapons around him, but his offensive efficiency should rise as defenses now must focus more on his supporting cast.
- Fran Dougherty, F, Penn – After struggling with turnovers and being a liability at the line during his first two seasons with the Quakers, Dougherty turned it all around to become a legitimate First Team All-Ivy candidate through 10 games as a junior. Injuries and illness caused him to miss almost all of the remainder of the season, but it would be foolish to discount what a fully healthy Dougherty could accomplish. The 6’8″ senior forward must stay productive and injury-free for the Quakers to have any hopes of catching Harvard for the Ivy title.
- Justin Sears, F, Yale – If Sears can avoid foul trouble and stay on the floor close to 30 minutes per game, he should easily post the numbers necessary to be in the All-Ivy conversation. As a rookie last season, Sears showed an uncanny knack for getting to the rim and finish at an astounding rate (69 percent). He was a menace on the offensive glass, grabbing 15 percent of available boards, good for 29th in the nation and best on a team that finished 63rd nationally in that category. If he can convert more of his opportunities from the charity stripe and find a way to create offense when being forced out of the paint, he could go from a contender for the Ivy First Team all the way to a contender for Player of the Year.
- Brandyn Curry/Siyani Chambers, G, Harvard – The reality is that neither the reigning Rookie of the Year Chambers nor the two-time Second Team honoree Curry will likely come off the bench and be a true sixth man, but both will be sharing the point guard role that was once exclusively their own. Curry is an average shooter, but is a playmaker off the dribble, especially in end-of-shot-clock situations. Chambers displayed a lethal lefty jumper as a freshman, while getting to the line at a 50 percent rate (209th nationally). While the sophomore Chambers might have the advantage offensively, Curry has made a name for himself as a defensive stopper, forcing numerous five-second calls and posting the third-highest steal rate in the Ivy League as a junior. The two will likely form a dynamic backcourt tandem, but probably won’t be able to do enough individually to crack the All-Ivy First Team.
- Zena Edosomwan, F, Harvard – The safest bet for Ivy Rookie of the Year is that a Northfield Mount Hermon alum will take home the title. That should be of little surprise, since the northwestern Massachusetts prep school sends four players to the Ivies this season as part of its robust pipeline which has funneled roughly 20 student athletes to the league over the past six years. Edosomwan will have to fight hard for minutes on a competitive Crimson squad, but as a Top 100 recruit, he might just have enough game to get solid playing time as a rookie. If the rotation proves too tough to crack, look for fellow NMH alums Anthony Dallier (Yale) or Pete Miller (Princeton) to leverage their shots at greater playing time to post the numbers necessary to take home the Rookie of the Year honors.
- Harvard (NCAA Seed: #11): The Crimson’s dreams of wearing white in the NCAA Tournament likely died with its anemic scheduling, but Harvard should have a good shot of garnering the best seed for a league team since 2003 Penn (#11 seed), if not since 1998 Princeton (#5 seed) – the standard bearer of the modern-era Ivies. Harvard isn’t entirely without chances to impress, as it faces two potential Top 25 teams on the road (Colorado in Boulder and Connecticut in Storrs). Otherwise, it will have to hope for positive outcomes from a deceptively tricky Great Alaska Shootout field and the first visit from Boston College since 1991. The Crimson is poised to rack up a gaudy number of wins during the 2013-14 campaign, but the lack of many of the quality variety will likely be what keeps Harvard stuck on the double-digit seed lines.
- Penn (CIT/CBI): Just one season without a major injury would be nice. For the Quakers’ postseason dreams to come true, it will be a necessity. Penn could have some future stars in guard Tony Hicks and center Darien Nelson-Henry, who will both pair nicely with Quakers senior guard Miles Cartwright and forward Fran Dougherty. The problem lies in who will play the remaining minutes. The most pressing need would be a competent swingman, but Penn really only returns one such player (Dau Jok) who has played significant minutes and fits that mold. More likely, the Quakers will either need to go too big with forwards Henry Brooks and Greg Louis or too small with guards Patrick Lucas-Perry, Steve Rennard or Jamal Lewis. Penn’s relatively solid 2013 recruiting class could yield one or more contributors, which, if combined with an injury-free run from the team’s stars, could be enough to keep the Quakers competitive with Harvard down the stretch.
- Yale (CIT/CBI): Had the Bulldogs opted against playing a non-conference schedule ranking among the Top 50 teams nationally last season, they might be going for three-straight postseason appearances during the 2013-14 campaign. Yale hasn’t posted four Top 200 caliber seasons in a row in the modern era of the Ivies, but with over 60 percent of its minutes and four starters returning from a team that swept preseason favorite Princeton en route to a third-place league finish, the Bulldogs seem poised to achieve that mark comfortably. Yale hasn’t eased up too much on its scheduling, as it still projects to have the third-toughest non-conference slate in the Ivies, but it should find enough wins to be postseason eligible for the third time in four seasons.
- Princeton (CIT/CBI): After winning three games in the CBI over two different trips flanking their NCAA Tournament appearance in 2011, the Tigers opted to take a year off from the postseason in 2013. That move was a surprising one, as it unexpectedly made Princeton’s 71-58 victory at Penn the final appearance in a Tigers uniform for star forward Ian Hummer. Now, Princeton must move forward without the player which led it in possession usage rate every season since the 2008-09 campaign. The Tigers always seem to have a deep bench of quality shooters, so Princeton should figure things out on the offensive end of the floor. Given that Princeton’s four best defensive rating seasons all came with Hummer on the floor, the biggest question is whether the Tigers can generate enough stops without the 6’7″ forward anchoring the defense.
Reader’s Take II
The Year of the Rookie
Of the 37 Ivy players to see the floor for half or more of their team’s minutes last season, over a third have either graduated or are expected to miss the 2013-14 campaign due to injuries. That doesn’t even include the myriad rotation players seeing limited, but still significant, time off the bench who won’t be back this season either. The result is a league which lost over 30 percent of its minutes, although that stat even obscures the problem a bit, as Dartmouth and Penn bring back 90 and 100 percent of their on-court time and Harvard clocks in just behind at 83 percent. The remaining five teams have anywhere between a third and two-thirds of their minutes up for grabs, making it a near imperative that they leverage their incoming rookie talent.The ironic news is that the Crimson and Quakers brought in arguably the two best Ivy classes with Harvard reeling in the Top 100 forward Edosomwan as well as three-star forward Hunter Myers and Penn nabbing three, three-star prospects in guards Tony Bagtas and Matt Howard and forward Dylan Jones. Those weren’t the only quality players in a deep 2013 Ivy class, however. Brown managed to wrest forward Aram Martin from a variety of strong mid-majors while Cornell brings in a pair of frontcourt players in David Onuorah and Braxston Bunce (a second-year player who missed his freshman year with an injury) who each had offers from high-major schools. Princeton and Yale each brought in the aforementioned NMH alums in Miller and Dallier, respectively, to join deep and potentially underrated classes. Finally, Columbia and Dartmouth both brought in five freshmen with each including a solid point guard (Kendall Jackson and Mike Fleming, another NMH alum, respectively) and few intriguing prospects at the forward spots.
The Ivies need to make a big splash with this class, as many league teams have struggled to find a lot of quality recruits from this year’s high school senior cohort. While a team can overcome one weak class, stacking two poor ones back-to-back can prove deadly down the road.
Spotlight on… Coaches on the Hot Seat
When it comes to job security, few leagues have historically provided longer leashes to their coaches than the Ivies. Over the past handful of years, that patience has given way to a quicker trigger finger, as just one Ivy team has the same coach as it did at the end of the 2006-07 season (James Jones, Yale). Several schools either fired coaches over that span (Brown, Dartmouth, Harvard and Penn) or presented an immediate threat that pushed the coach to jump to a lesser opportunity (Columbia and Princeton).
While in the past it might have been ludicrous to suggest a coach like Bill Courtney at Cornell would be on the hot seat after just three seasons in Ithaca and having posted double-digit wins in every season, it’s not as crazy in the current Ivy landscape. After finishing above .500 in league play in each of Steve Donahue’s final six seasons, Cornell hasn’t gone better than 7-7 since with 2013-14 shaping up to be a complete disaster. Courtney might get a pass if star forward Shonn Miller misses the season as expected, but even if he survives, the pressure will mount considerably heading into 2014-15.
When it comes to pressure, no Ivy fan base puts more of a spotlight on its coach than Penn. Coming off a streak of seven league titles in nine seasons, the Quakers haven’t claimed even a share of an Ivy crown since 2007. While current coach and former Penn guard Jerome Allen has brought the program back from the depths of an 0-10 start in the 2009-10 season, the moral victories might need to start turning into real ones soon for Allen to enjoy as long a tenure as his coach, Fran Dunphy, did in West Philadelphia. No one expects the Quakers to take home a title this season, but anything less than a strong run as a credible contender will likely ratchet up the intensity of the concerns from the Penn faithful.
Over each of the past four seasons, Harvard, Penn, Princeton and Yale have finished in the top five every year and have finished 1-2-3-4 twice during that span. Despite winning some battles on the recruiting front and making a bit of noise in recent seasons, the bottom four in the Ivy is shaping up to be Brown, Columbia, Cornell and Dartmouth in some order, once again. With the Crimson and Quakers finishing 1-2 in the recruiting rankings from 2009 to 2013, it is of little surprise that those two teams seem locked into the top four for the near future. With the Bulldogs having consistently played at a top four level since the turn of the century and the Tigers stacking two-straight solid recruiting classes on the heels of losing their star Ian Hummer, it will be difficult to unseat those teams in the Ivy’s upper division as well.
That is the new Ivy League in a nutshell. Twice in the last three seasons, a Top 200 team has failed to crack the top four and no teams outside the Top 200 have been able to post an above-.500 record during that span. For one or more of Brown, Columbia, Cornell and Dartmouth to climb the Ivy ladder, they will need to focus on what it takes to build their programs to that Top 200 level. The Lions and Big Red have each posted a recent season inside the Top 200, while the Bears rose all the way to No. 224 last year. Of the four, Cornell and Brown have had the most luck on the recruiting trail, but both teams’ injury woes have kept them from turning that success into results on the court. Dartmouth continues to progress and add talent to its roster, but given that last year’s No. 275 finish was a record in the Pomeroy era for the Big Green, the team still has a very long way to go to be competitive. Finally, Columbia has had the most success in making the Top 200, but went just 8-20 in Ivy play over the last two seasons despite Pomeroy ratings of 187 and 192. In the very near term, none of those four teams seem poised to knock any of Harvard, Penn, Princeton or Yale from their perch in the Ivy upper division.