Checking in on… the Ivy League

Posted by Michael James on November 22nd, 2013

Michael James is the RTC correspondent for the Ivy League. You can also find his musings on Twitter at @mrjames2006 and @ivybball.

Reader’s Take


Looking Back

  • Upset Alert MainstaysPrinceton said goodbye to one of its best two-way players of all time. Columbia graduated two three-year starters. Brown not only lost three senior contributors from last season, but also had to deal with the abrupt loss of swingman Tucker Halpern, who had battled injuries throughout his career and couldn’t get healthy enough to remain on the Bears’ roster. The common belief was that those three teams would spend 2013-14 rebuilding, but Butler, Michigan State and Providence would strongly disagree. Princeton trailed the Bulldogs by 11 with less than six minutes to play before missing a potential game-tying two just before the buzzer. Brown rallied from 16 points down in the second half against the Friars to lead with under five minutes to play before a Sean McGonagill missed three with six seconds to play finally ended the Bears’ hopes. Columbia easily took the biggest stage, though, leading at the half and trailing by one with just four minutes to play. Two critical shot clock violations in the final few minutes gave the Spartans the space they needed to put the game away.

    In a league that is getting younger and younger, Harvard's Kyle Casey is chugging along. (AP)

    In a league that is getting younger and younger, Harvard’s Kyle Casey is chugging along. (Harvard Athletics)

  • Youth Served — A year after losing six seniors who posted offensive ratings over 100 with a usage rate of 20 percent or more, the Ivy League has reloaded and gotten even younger while doing so. There are no seniors and three members of the sophomore and freshman classes among the five highest usage players in the league, and just two seniors are using more than 21 percent of their team’s possessions (Harvard’s Kyle Casey and Dartmouth’s Tyler Melville). The sophomore and junior classes are driving the production, as 18 of the 22 players posting an above average usage rate (over 20 percent) are from one of those two cohorts. Given that the Ivy League has settled into the No. 15 spot in Pomeroy’s conference ratings and won’t lose as many productive seniors as it has in previous years, the 2014-15 season could provide the first real shot for the league to make a push toward the Top 10.

Power Rankings

  1. Harvard (4-0) — While the Crimson has yet to face a Top 100 opponent, it’s not like Harvard is entirely untested to this point. The 10-point neutral site win over Holy Cross and the 18-point home victory over Bryant look a lot better when you consider that the only other losses those two squads have incurred have come against Top 25 opposition. The Crimson has managed injuries to center Kenyatta Smith and guard Brandyn Curry without skipping a beat, getting some surprising, big nights from forwards Steve Moundou-Missi and Jonah Travis. The cupcakes are almost all behind the Crimson at this point, and the next six games heading into the winter exam break finally will provide the stiff test that everyone wants to see this Harvard team face.
  2. Yale (2-2) — There may be no better snapshot of what this Bulldogs team is all about than its 47-14 run against Central Connecticut State in the season opener in Bridgeport. It wasn’t the magnitude of the run, but the fact that Yale scored on all but three possessions (all turnovers) over the final 13 minutes of the game to cobble together a massive comeback from 17 points down. Yale bullied its way to the free throw line and corralled every wayward shot on the offensive glass to stun a Blue Devils team that looked comfortably in control. Yale’s only losses thus far have come at Connecticut and Rutgers with the latter being decided by just a point on the final possession.
  3. Princeton (2-1) — The graduation of second all-time leading scorer Ian Hummer has been well documented, but shortly before the season began, the Tigers found out they would be without star guard T.J. Bray in the early going as the senior recouped from a wrist injury. The hard landing appeared that it would get even harder. Then, following a smooth win in the home opener against Florida A&M, Princeton nearly clipped Butler at Hinkle Fieldhouse. Junior forward Denton Koon has shouldered a massive load offensively, which has freed up shooters Will Barrett, Spencer Weisz and Ben Hazel to combine to knock down 21-of-43 three-point attempts.

    Brown coach Mike Martin has had to mix and match this season, but to decent success so far. (Brown athletics)

    Brown coach Mike Martin has had to mix and match this season, but to decent success so far. (Brown athletics)

  4. Brown (3-1) — Rarely does a team face such a daunting task of filling minutes with freshmen and ultimately find success, but the Bears are definitely giving it a shot in the early going. Coach Mike Martin has played five different rookies for at least 20 percent of team minutes, including getting starters’ minutes out of point guard Tavon Blackmon and Steven Spieth. Combine that with a couple of All-Ivy caliber forwards in Rafael Maia and Cedric Kuakumensah and senior guard Sean McGonagill’s ruthlessly efficient start and it’s no wonder that the Bears are one missed McGonagill three away from starting the season 4-0.
  5. Columbia (2-2) — For a team picked dead last in the Preseason Ivy Media Poll, having a game against a Top 100 opponent be anything but an embarrassing blowout is often a massive accomplishment. The Lions, however, had a very good chance of winning two in a row, including one over Michigan State, which was the heir apparent to the No. 1 spot at the time. Columbia ultimately succumbed to the Spartans and Manhattan – the latter in an especially excruciating way including a fouled three-point shooter and an on-purpose free throw miss that led to a put back and a foul to blow a three-point lead with four seconds to play and lose by one. While the record still says 2-2, it would be hard to watch either loss and continue to think that the Lions deserve to be at the bottom of the Ivy pecking order.
  6. Penn (1-2) — If lines were set today, the Quakers would be favored in approximate five of their remaining 25 games. Some of that is Penn’s schedule, which has left it with an insane number of toss up games, but most of it is the fact that the Quakers have been very disappointing thus far. Penn has had the rare opportunity for an Ivy team to host two major conference teams (Temple and Penn State) and squandered both, falling just short against the Owls before getting dominated by the Nittany Lions. As expected Penn’s top four of guards Tony Hicks and Miles Cartwright and forwards Fran Dougherty and Darien Nelson-Henry have been superb, but the Quakers haven’t gotten anything even approaching replacement-level production from the rest of the squad.
  7. Dartmouth (2-1) — It will be hard to figure out the Big Green during this calendar year given the embarrassingly weak schedule Dartmouth has decided to play. Seven of its next eight games are against teams rated No. 244 in Pomeroy or worse, including a second contest against a non-Division-I school this season. The Big Green got pummeled in its only game against decent opposition, trailing Bryant by as many as 21 with under five to play before rallying to cut the deficit to 10 in the final minute. Dartmouth’s 16-5 run late in the second half to put Massachusetts-Lowell away and earn its first Division I win of the season was more than enough to keep the Big Green out of the bottom spot in the rankings.
  8. Cornell (0-5) — The quality of a team can be judged less by its ability to play with good competition than it can by its ability to avoid allowing good opponents to post sustained runs. The Big Red has proven that it has some good basketball in it. It led Syracuse by six at the half. It played a decent Loyola Maryland team even for 40 minutes. It led Binghamton by 13 at the half. The problem is the ugly stretches, which have been too frequent and far too lopsided. Looking at Pomeroy’s “quarter” breakdowns (dividing the game into four 10-minute segments), the Orange posted a 30-10 third quarter. The Bearcats outscored Cornell 41-15 during the final 10 minutes. Louisville went back to back with 34-8 and 19-6. Colgate ran the Big Red out of the gym with a 25-12 opening to the second half. It’s all amounted to Cornell dropping to dead last in defensive efficiency – a shocking decline for a team that was 138th nationally in that category just two seasons ago.

Top Game

Manhattan 71, Columbia 70 – After their recent struggles in close games, maybe the only people not surprised by the outcome were the Columbia fans. Lions guard Grant Mullins seized the momentum for Columbia late in the second half, hitting two threes in a span of a minute to hand Columbia a 68-67 lead with 51 seconds left. The Lions got a stop and two more Mullins free throws to go up three with 19 ticks remaining. Then, things went crazy. Lions guard Maodo Lo fouled Manhattan guard Michael Alvarado in the act of shooting a three rather than on the floor, giving Alvarado three foul shots to tie the game with four seconds left. Alvarado missed the first and made the second, setting up the need for a deliberate miss and a put back to tie. The Jaspers guard executed the first part perfectly and after one failed attempt at a tip in, the ball drifted to Manhattan star George Beamon, who not only converted a layup but also got fouled in the process. Beamon sank the free throw to give the Jaspers a one-point lead, and after Columbia’s tip in attempt off an amazingly effective inbounds play fell short, Manhattan left Levien Gymnasium with a shocking victory.

Looking Ahead

  • November 22: Penn at Iowa, 7:00 PM, Big Ten Network — The Quakers are likely to open as 20-plus point underdogs against a Hawkeyes team that has been basically doubling up its opponents since the final 10 minutes of its game against Nebraska-Omaha. Penn’s biggest liability thus far has been defensive rebounding, and Iowa is one of the nation’s best on the offensive glass. Holding the Hawkeyes to one and done possessions on the offensive end is the key to any hopes the Quakers have of matching the strong Ivy performances at major conference schools thus far.
  • November 24: Harvard at Colorado, 4:30 PM, ESPNU – The first of three games against power conference teams for the Crimson likely will provide Harvard with its first opportunity to crack the Top 25. The Buffaloes have won four straight at home since losing their opener in Dallas to Baylor. The real question mark for the Crimson is whether it will get Curry back in the lineup to provide the depth which goes from a luxury to a necessity when playing at altitude.
  • November 26: George Mason at Princeton, 8:00 PM, Ivy League Digital Net – Atlantic 10 newcomer George Mason currently sits at 4-0 pending a trip to Iona this weekend. The visit from the Patriots kicks off a stretch in which the Tigers face seven of eight teams currently ranked between No. 74 and No. 168 in Pomeroy. Princeton should get Bray back sometime during that span, making it a perfect opportunity to evaluate what the Tigers will bring to the table for Ivy play.
  • November 28: Denver vs. Harvard, 12:00 AM, CBS Sports Net — No single game on the Crimson’s schedule has more of an effect on potential NCAA seeding than this one. A victory would not only potentially provide another Top 100 win itself, but it would unlock a winner’s bracket with potential games against Wisconsin-Green Bay and Indiana St. – both of which are projected to be Top 100 chances as well. A loss and the path could very well be Pepperdine and Tulsa, which would be very likely to be downside-only contests.
The burden of being the primary scorer has taken a bit of a toll on Nolan Cressler’s efficiency metrics, but the sophomore guard is still a scoring machine.

The burden of being the primary scorer has taken a bit of a toll on Nolan Cressler’s efficiency metrics, but the sophomore guard is still a scoring machine.

Early Season All-Ivy First Team

  • Wesley Saunders, G, Harvard – On the offensive end, Saunders has picked up right where he left off, getting to the free throw line at will and finishing efficiently around the basket. His defense has been most impressive, however, holding then-national leading scorer Dyami Starks to just 11 points in a win over Bryant.
  • Sean McGonagill, G, Brown – McGonagill has backed off the usage rate to great effect this season. The 6’1 guard played every minute of the loss to Providence and scored 21 points with an offensive rating of 127. Last year, he posted a better offensive rating in just four games all season. This year, he’s already eclipsed that mark twice. If McGonagill can afford to pick his spots, he could remain a highly efficient player for the remainder of his senior season.
  • Nolan Cressler, G, Cornell – The burden of being the primary scorer has taken a bit of a toll on Cressler’s efficiency metrics, but the sophomore guard is still a scoring machine, reaching double-digits in five-straight games for the first time in his career. With volume scoring freshman Robert Hatter by his side, finding room offensively should get easier, but that’s not where his Big Red squad is struggling right now.
  • Denton Koon, F, Princeton – Koon is currently using more than one of every three Princeton possessions when on the floor (the 17th highest rate nationally) and has managed to stay decently efficient in doing so. Once Bray returns, the load should lighten a bit, but it’s a great sign for the Tigers that Koon can function with such a heavy workload.
  • Justin Sears, F, Yale – If Sears could just hit his free throws at a better clip, he would be virtually unstoppable. Once again, the 6’8 sophomore is a terror on the offensive glass, even grabbing eight offensive rebounds against Connecticut. In just four games, he’s gone from a dark horse candidate for Ivy Player of the Year to an outright contender for the honor.
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