Checking In On… the Ivy League

Posted by Michael James on December 20th, 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

  • Two-Bid Ivy – Traditionally, a second bid to the NCAA Tournament has been uniquely elusive for the Ivy League, since the lack of a conference tournament makes it hard for an at-large caliber team to miss out on the regular season title and automatic bid without doing too much damage to its profile. That paradigm began to shift in 2010-11, though, when Harvard lost an Ivy playoff to Princeton, but still had a top 40 RPI with two quality non-conference wins over bubble teams (vs. Colorado and at Boston College). The same perfect storm is brewing this season as well. Currently the Crimson boasts a top 25 RPI (supported by a top 30 Pomeroy ranking), while the Tigers snuck into the top 40 with their recent win at Penn State. The two teams are a combined 5-2 against current top 100 RPI opponents. A couple of those quality wins are expected to evaporate as the year moves forward, but both squads still have upcoming opportunities against quality non-conference foes including Harvard’s visit to Connecticut and Princeton’s trip to Las Vegas to play Pacific. It’s unlikely that both the Crimson and the Tigers will make it to Ivy play with legitimate at-large profiles, but it’s not impossible, which is pretty good for being nearly two-thirds of the way through non-conference play.
  • Future Focus – The Ivy League is heading for its strongest showing as a conference in the modern era, and at the current pace, it won’t even be close. Even more remarkable is the fact that just 21 percent of Ivy minutes will be lost to graduation after this season, while 48 percent of the league’s minutes are being logged by the sophomore and freshman classes. The seniors have been the most efficient class by a fair margin (117 average offensive rating vs. 108 for juniors), but a lot of that gap is explained by Penn’s seniors having an average offensive rating of 106, while its juniors hover in the 70s. With no team getting more than 35 percent of its minutes from seniors and four expecting to lose fewer than 20 percent to graduation, it’s likely that this strong season isn’t a peak for the league, but rather a stepping stone to achieving even greater heights.

Power Rankings


It would be a mistake to overlook what senior forward Kyle Casey has meant defensively for Harvard. (Getty)

  1. Harvard (9-1) – For a team receiving as much preseason hype as the Crimson did, Harvard has gone relative under the radar en route to its 9-1 start. Somehow the Crimson has managed to rise to No. 27 in Pomeroy (the second-highest mark for an Ivy in the past 11 seasons behind 2011-12 Harvard, which made it all the way to No. 25) despite getting just one injury-free game from senior guard Brandyn Curry, nothing from center Kenyatta Smith, who has missed the entire season thus far with a stress fracture in his foot and very little production from Top 100 recruit Zena Edosomwan. While swingman Wesley Saunders will get most of the deserved praise for Harvard’s performance, it would be a mistake to overlook what senior forward Kyle Casey has meant defensively. In the 56 percent of possessions for which he is on the floor, the Crimson allows just 0.87 points per possession. In the remaining possessions with him off the floor, Harvard is yielding a pedestrian 1.04 points per trip.
  2. Princeton (8-1) – Asking how the Tigers would replace do-everything forward Ian Hummer wasn’t exactly the right way to frame that question. Princeton had no intention of replacing the Ivy League Player of the Year. Rather, in true Moneyball fashion, the Tigers would rebuild Hummer using the parts they did have, accounting for his various skills through the production of a variety of players. Hummer’s nationally 79th-ranked Assist Rate last season? Meet T.J. Bray’s 3rd-ranked Assist Rate this season. Hummer’s usage rate of 11 percentage points above the on-court average? Meet Hans Brase and Denton Koon’s combined usage rate which nets out to 11 percentage points above the on-court average. So, no, the Tigers don’t have an Ian Hummer this season. They have a bunch of Ian Hummers, and that’s why Princeton might wind up being even better without him.
  3. Columbia (6-5) – The simple argument is that the Lions are unproven because their best win was on a neutral floor against No. 218 Idaho and they’re 0-5 against the Top 200. At the very least, though, it’s an interesting 0-5. The Lions led or were within a possession late in four of the five losses, including games at Bucknell and at Michigan State. Even if the wins have been over lower-ranked opponents, the margins have been impressive, including a 14-point win vs. American, a 17-point win vs. Army and a 39-point win versus UMass Lowell. Columbia has been doing it with defense, especially its rebounding, which currently ranks sixth nationally and has been a metric which has seen the Lions finish in the Top 20 in each of the past four seasons.
  4. Brown (6-3) – The home loss to Albany was a disappointing send-off into finals, but the Bears still have an excellent shot at posting the gaudy non-conference record necessary to have a shot at making their first postseason appearance since 2008. Brown could really bolster its chances with a win over Northwestern this weekend, but merely holding serve at home heading into Ivy play combined with a .500-or-better league run would likely be enough. Senior guard Sean McGonagill is putting together an Ivy Player of the Year type season, but the Bears will likely need to find some more bench production (currently 324th in reserve minutes) to survive the brutal Ivy back-to-backs.
  5. Yale (5-5) – The three-point line is likely the difference between a Top 100 Bulldogs team and a barely Top 200 one. Yale opponents are shooting 42 percent from three and deriving 31 percent of their points from behind the arc (57th nationally). With the Bulldogs shooting 10 percent worse from long range, it’s been surprising that Yale has been able to stay at .500 against a schedule that ranks above average nationally. To the extent that there is some regression to the mean in order, Yale might be poised to make a strong run in Ivy play. Sophomore forward Justin Sears has established himself as one of the best players in the league and is coming of a 31-point performance on 13-of-16 shooting against Providence.

    Sophomore forward Justin Sears has established himself as one of the best players in the league. (Yale Athletics)

    Sophomore forward Justin Sears has established himself as one of the best players in the league. (Yale Athletics)

  6. Dartmouth (5-4) – Just five seasons ago, being ranked No. 194 in Pomeroy’s rankings would have easily made a team the clear number one challenger in the league race. These days, it’s barely good enough to keep a team in sixth. The Big Green has climbed this far not due to its wins, per se, but how it has looked in those victories. Dartmouth’s four Division I wins have all come by at least 14 points, but all over teams outside the Top 300. For those waiting for the Big Green to win a respectable contest, it might be awhile, as Longwood and a non-Division I school come to Hanover next, but a January visit from Vermont and a trip to St. John’s will provide Dartmouth with some more measuring stick games. Outside of junior center Gabas Maldunas’ defensive rebounding rate, which ranks tops nationally, the Big Green has done little of value at that end of the floor, which has somewhat squandered Dartmouth’s first Offensive Rating above 100 in the Pomeroy era.
  7. Penn (2-6) – It is almost unfathomable for a team with a core of four very good starters (sophomores Tony Hicks and Darien Nelson-Henry and seniors Miles Cartwright and Fran Dougherty) to be this bad overall. Aside from those four, the Quakers have played nine different players for between 10 percent and 42 percent of team minutes. Only two have posted an offensive rating above 83. The historical Ivy replacement player has been pegged to an offensive rating of just below 90, so for the Quakers not to be able to find reliable bench production even at that level is somewhat shocking and has left them languishing as the league’s worst offense by over four points per 100 possessions. Penn hasn’t won single-digit games in back-to-back seasons since 1942, but if it can’t figure out its bench issues, it could be destined for its second-straight season with nine victories.
  8. Cornell (0-10) – A fantasy basketball owner might struggle to understand what’s ailing the Big Red. Cornell has two extremely high usage guards in freshman Robert Hatter (47th highest usage rate nationally) and sophomore Nolan Cressler (90th highest usage rate nationally) who are each hovering just below average offensive efficiency. The Big Red also has some big men who use limited possessions, but with strong efficiency. While the struggles of guard Devin Cherry have slowed the production a bit, at just over a point per possession, Cornell still ranks outside the bottom 100 teams nationally. The defense, on the other hand, has been a universal disaster. Teams are shooting 43 percent from three, 55 percent from two and turning the ball over to Bill Courtney’s high-pressure defense on just 13 percent of their possessions. The result is a defense that ranks dead last nationally, another dubious distinction for the nation’s last winless team.

Top Game

Princeton 81, Penn State 79 (OT) – The D.J. Newbill jumper with 6:34 left seemed like the death knell. The Nittany Lions now held a 60-42 lead, and as Pomeroy’s box score would later reveal, Princeton’s win probability had dipped to just 0.4%. A brief spurt of a three pointer, a layup and another three trimmed the lead to 10 with just over five minutes to play, but Penn State managed to keep the margin at nine by the two-minute mark. Then Tigers forward Will Barrett hit his third three of the final seven minutes. And followed it with his fourth. All of a sudden, it was 64-61 with a minute to play. When the dust cleared, it was Princeton freshman Spencer Weisz at the free throw line for two shots to tie the game after he stole Ross Travis’s desperate attempt to save a rebound under his own basket. Weisz coolly sank both to send the game into overtime. From there, Princeton grabbed an early five-point lead that it would never relinquish, despite some shaky free throw shooting in the game’s waning moments.

Mitch Henderson and Princeton have a big tilt coming up against Pacific. (AP)

Mitch Henderson and Princeton have a big tilt coming up against Pacific. (AP)

Looking Ahead

  • December 20Pacific vs. Princeton, 10:30 PM – Every game is a quasi-elimination game in the quest for a two-bid Ivy. The game against Pacific represents the last of Princeton’s four Top 100 non-conference win opportunities. At 2-1 in its first three, the Tigers are still very much alive in the at-large discussion, but moving that record to 3-1 is almost a necessity. Pacific is a deep, veteran squad with a very good offensive attack, but has held just two of nine opponents to an offensive rating under 100 on the other end. Princeton’s defensive advantage rests in its ability to control the boards, and its success on that front should be the difference between a win or loss in this neutral site contest in Las Vegas.
  • December 22 – Brown at Northwestern, 2:00 PM, Big Ten Digital Network – After coming oh-so-close at Providence earlier this season, the Bears are still searching for a signature win to help bolster their postseason hopes. The Wildcats have dipped a bit since spending a ton of time close to the bubble during the John Shurna era, but they’re 6-1 against teams not in Pomeroy’s Top 100. Brown has a chance to control the boards against the Wildcats, which will be important on both ends, as Northwestern is difficult to score against from the field and doesn’t shoot incredibly well on the other end. The Wildcats play solid three-point defense, making it strength-on-strength against Brown’s proficient long-range marksmanship.
  • December 28 – Columbia vs. St. John’s, 2:30 PM, Fox Sports 1 – The Lions will be looking to make it two-straight years with a win over a Big East foe, as they face the Red Storm at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. While the Ivies have fared quite well against major conference opposition this season, this matchup is even more favorable than most. The Red Storm can make opponents’ lives miserable with stout defense, but St. John’s struggles shooting the three. That means the Red Storm will likely have to challenge Columbia’s interior defense, which has held opponents to just 44 percent shooting from inside the arc. St. John’s will likely be a 10-point favorite, but if the Lions can control the glass and neutralize the Red Storm’s prowess in the paint, Columbia could wind up making the game much closer than that.

First Month All-Ivy Favorites

  • T.J. Bray, G, Princeton – Leads the Ivy League among all players to use at least 20 percent of team possessions with an offensive rating of 134.
  • Sean McGonagill, G, Brown – Playing the fifth most minutes of any player in the nation, McGonagill has eased the pressure on a very young backcourt with his best season since he arrived in Providence.
  • Wesley Saunders, G/F, Harvard – Not only has the 6’5″ junior posted a 112 offensive rating on 26 percent of team possessions, but he’s been the team’s best perimeter defender as well.
  • Kyle Casey, F, Harvard – Can’t keep himself on the floor long enough to get the counting stats up, but his efficiency on the offensive end and his dominance on the defensive end are undeniable in the tempo free world.
  • Justin Sears, F, Yale – Putting up ridiculous numbers, including drawing 7.2 fouls per 40 minutes, while carrying a team that is slowly figuring out how good it can be.

Rookie of the Year

  • Robert Hatter, G, Cornell – Has had his ups and downs as most freshmen do, but when he’s on, he can score and distribute the basketball like few freshmen can.
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