Checking in on… the Ivy League

Posted by Michael James on January 24th, 2014

Looking Back

  • Death of #2BidIvy – Any slim hopes the league had of a second bid died in the span of just three days earlier this month, but the actual burial proceedings occurred on Tuesday of this week. Harvard had to go for its second top 50 win at Connecticut without its star Wesley Saunders on January 8, falling in Storrs by five; but the Crimson followed that up with a massive stinker in the form of a 15-point loss at Florida Atlantic. For those of you wondering at home, FAU is currently 7-12 overall and ranked #200 in the latest KenPom rankings. The Owls have lost to St. Francis (NY), DePaul, Stetson, Detroit, and Elon this season, among others. There is now no realistic scenario where the Ivy League would have a shot at a second NCAA bid, even if Princeton or another team wins the league. It appears that the dream of a two-bid Ivy will most definitely have to wait another year.

    Harvard was down a man in Wesley Sanders and couldn't quite upset UConn. (Getty)

    Wesley Sanders Was Back But Harvard Couldn’t Get Past FAU (Getty)

  • Losing Steam – The start of Ivy play couldn’t have come sooner, as the league’s hot start began to fade over winter break and into early January. After rising as high as 13th in the Pomeroy and RPI ratings, the Ivies have settled to 16th and 19th in those systems, respectively. While the actual rating is still a Pomeroy-era record, the Ivies clearly haven’t played the same level of basketball since the December exam break. Still, the league should easily receive three postseason invites (Harvard, Princeton and Columbia) with the possibility of a couple more if the Ivy wins break the right way.

Reader’s Take


Power Rankings

  1. Harvard (14-3, 1-0) – In the binary world of quality wins or not, the Crimson came up rather unlucky during the non-conference slate, squandering a 12-point halftime lead at Colorado and a five-point lead at the break against Connecticut in Storrs. Harvard never led for a single second, however, at Florida Atlantic. The good news for the Crimson is that a couple of other non-conference foes have turned out to be better than expected. Wisconsin-Green Bay sits comfortably inside the RPI and Pomeroy top 50, while Boston University is hanging tough around the top 100 in both. If both of those teams can stay there until Selection Sunday, Harvard’s profile should benefit nicely regardless of which postseason tournament it is invited to.

    Kyle Smith and Columbia are the early surprises this season. (Columbia Athletics)

    Kyle Smith and Columbia are the early surprises this season. (Columbia Athletics)

  2. Columbia (12-6, 1-0) – Dead last. That’s where the experts had the Lions finishing in the Ivy League Preseason Media Poll. It’s hard to blame the media for thinking that. After all, Columbia graduated three seniors, including two All-Ivy caliber players, from a team that sank to the bottom of the Ivies during the previous season. The Lions have been driven by a defense that has been great at forcing misses and even better at turning those into stops on the boards. Even more important, however, is Columbia’s streamlined offensive philosophy. The Lions have taken just 12 percent of their shots as two-point jumpers (the worst shot in basketball), which is 18 percentage points below the national average. That strategy has helped maximize the efficiency of a team which lacks a bounty of offensive weapons.
  3. Princeton (11-3, 0-1) – The only Ivy team to best Columbia in the two-point jumper category is Princeton, which has somehow managed to take just nine percent of its shots from that range. The active avoidance of those low-quality looks has helped dampen the effects of the loss of 2013 Ivy Player of the Year Ian Hummer and keep the Tigers neck-and-neck with Harvard for the league lead in offensive efficiency. However, as the loss to Penn showed in both teams’ Ivy opener, Princeton is far from having papered over the holes left in their defense in the post-Hummer era. After posting an Adjusted Defensive Rating of 93 (points per 100 possessions) through the first 10 games of the season, the Tigers have allowed each of their last four opponents over 100. Princeton will be able to outscore many Ivy teams, but without a more consistent defense, it will likely have too many slip ups to remain in the league title race.
  4. Yale (7-8, 1-0) – The Bulldogs hadn’t beaten a team inside the top 300 since November and hadn’t topped a top 200 all season. Then, as usual, Ivy play began and all was forgotten. Yale coach James Jones is looking for his 14th consecutive top four Ivy finish, and he took a solid step toward that goal with a home win over travel partner Brown to start the league slate. It was a typical Bulldogs win, as Yale got outshot from the field, but took 20 more free throws than the Bears, while forcing Brown to commit more than one turnover per every four possessions. The Bulldogs will be able to duplicate this recipe to beat middling Ivy teams, but in order to compete with the best squads in the league, Yale can’t rely on such gaudy free throw differentials to cover its inability to make shots consistently.
  5. Penn (3-11, 1-0) – There may just be some hope for Quakers fans. After watching its bench players squander possession after possession on the offensive end of the floor, leading Penn to post an Adjusted Offensive Rating above 100 just once in its first nine games, the Quakers have shown some life over the past four contests, cracking that mark three times in that span. The egalitarian spread of playing time during the non-conference slate has revealed enough bench options that might not be terrible to allow Penn to play a seven-man rotation without the massive decline it experienced earlier this season. The Quakers still are far from the team that the media thought would be Harvard’s top challenger this season, but they’ve developed into a squad that could reasonably expect to slide into a top four finish.
  6. Dartmouth (7-8, 0-1) – The league’s most high-variance team, the Big Green had an amazing four-game run from its narrow road loss to Illinois through its 20-point home win over Longwood, performing like the 75th-best team in the country over that span. Sadly, that’s been bracketed by 10 Division I games with an average performance rating similar to the 270th-best team in the nation. The good Dartmouth leads the Ivy League in rebounding rate differential, while the bad Dartmouth ranks dead last in the Ivies in free throw rate allowed. The good Dartmouth ranks third in the league in effective field goal percentage, while the bad Dartmouth has allowed the league’s weakest slate of opposing offenses to post the third-highest true shooting percentage. And then the team lost its leading scorer and rebounder, Gabas Maldunas, for the season with a knee injury.
  7. Brown (8-7, 0-1) – After notching one of the better wins by any Ivy team this season at American, the Bears have been in a bit of a free fall. Brown has won all five Division I games in which it has posted an effective field goal percentage over 50, but after hitting that mark four times in its first eight contests, it has only done it once since. Turnovers have begun to elevate too, as the Bears have posted three of their four highest turnover rates of the season in their past four games. The result has been an anemic offense that recently hasn’t been able to take advantage of the league’s third-strongest defense. Brown badly needs to turn that around, as another loss to Yale this weekend could end its Ivy title hopes and put a severe dent in its chances to make a postseason tournament of any kind.
  8. Cornell (1-14, 0-1) – It might not have been a Division I victory, but the Big Red’s 20-point romp over Oberlin was a win nonetheless. To some extent the drought against Division I teams is a resounding indictment of the lack of two-way players on the Big Red squad. Cornell has an insanely high co-variance between its offensive and defensive performances, which essentially means that as the Big Red’s offense gets worse, its defense gets better and vice versa. What that would seem to indicate is that the more emphasis that coach Bill Courtney places on the defensive side of the ball, the more effort (and, potentially, specialized personnel) gets pushed to that end, hampering the offense’s production. At the same time, the Cornell players that can fill it up offensively seem to lack the ability to generate stops on the other end. It’s the ultimate Catch-22, and one which has left the Big Red searching for a Division I victory for the first time since last February.
Miles Jackson-Cartwright nailed the game-winning FTs against Princeton. (Penn Athletics)

Miles Jackson-Cartwright nailed the game-winning FTs against Princeton. (Penn Athletics)

Top Game

  • Penn 77, Princeton 74 – Maybe the hit count on will dissipate for a bit following the Quakers’ surprising upset of the rival Tigers at The Palestra in the nationally televised Ivy opener on NBC Sports Network. Penn led by eight with four minutes to play, but a quick 8-0 run knotted things at 71 with 2:14 to go. The Quakers once again pushed the lead to three with 29 seconds to go, but Princeton’s Will Barrett drained a trifecta to bring things all square at 74. Miles Jackson-Cartwright got the ball for the last shot and drove hard to the rim to draw two free throws of which he made both. The Tigers expertly executed a heave to half court and a timeout to set up a backdoor alley-oop attempt with three seconds left, but the ball slipped through Barrett’s fingers and handing Penn the victory.

Looking Ahead

  • January 25 Harvard at Dartmouth, 4:00 PM, NBC Sports Network – If the Big Green could make the games a living nightmare for the Crimson when it was a sub-300 ranked team, what will it be able to do at home now that it has begun its ascent toward the national average? Last year’s nationally televised affair was an instant classic, as Dartmouth held a 10-point lead with 90 seconds to play, only to watch Harvard furiously rally to force overtime and ultimately complete the improbable comeback. It’ll be tough without Maldunas in the lineup, but the Big Green gets its chance for revenge on a national stage in front of its home crowd, hoping to snare an upset win and create some early chaos in the Ivy title chase.
  • January 31 – Princeton at Harvard, 7:00 PM, NBC Sports Network – The Ivy schedule sacrificed any sense of buildup this season, unleashing the two presumed favorites for the league crown upon each other in the first game of the first full weekend of Ivy play. For Princeton, this was supposed to be a “nothing-to-lose” shot to knock the Crimson off early, with the return trip to Jadwin still to come. Now, it has become much more than that. With a win at Dartmouth and a win in this game, Harvard could grab an early two-game lead in the loss column over the Tigers, essentially eliminating one of its top two competitors for the Ivy title (Columbia being the other) right out of the gate. A Princeton win, however, could put the Tigers right back on equal footing with the Crimson and add some early excitement to the Ivy race.
  • January 31 and February 1 – Columbia at Yale; Columbia at Brown, 7:00 PM – For the third-straight season, a surprising non-conference campaign has placed some lofty expectations on the Columbia program. The last two seasons have seen the Lions wildly disappoint in Ivy play, but in neither did Columbia maintain a consistent Top 100 ranking like it did this year. The Lions’ schedule to begin Ivy play isn’t exactly what a team needing confidence would want – four road games in the first two full Ivy weekends – but if Columbia can survive the first six games, it will have a favorable schedule down the stretch from which to launch its bid for a league title. The Lions have a roughly 50/50 chance to sweep the weekend, and with a trip to Penn and Princeton to follow, it’s a sweep that Columbia must have.

Class Tracker

With only 22 percent of minutes being played by seniors, the future of the Ivy League is bright. Some teams are more equipped for the future than others, as we’ll explore in this Class Tracker:

  • Seniors (22 percent of minutes; 105 offensive rating) – Princeton (37%), Penn (37%) and Harvard (35%) are getting the highest percentage of team minutes from seniors, while Cornell (27%) and Brown (19%) are the only others above 12%. Of those five teams, Penn probably has the most concerns, as its senior class offensive rating of 106 is 12 points per 100 possessions better than its next best class, while Cornell has the least to worry about, as the efficiency of its senior class is almost 10 points per 100 possessions below the next worst team. Columbia has played seniors for zero meaningful minutes this year, which might make the Lions a trendy pick heading into next season.
  • Juniors (31 percent of minutes; 103 offensive rating) – This class is dominated by the Crimson, as it’s getting the second-highest percentage of minutes (37%, behind only Yale’s 51%) while getting an offensive rating of 116, which was the highest of any team and class combination. That production should help fight the decline that many expect with so many quality minutes graduating after this season. The Bulldogs have relied most on their junior class, and have matched the league average offensive rating of 103 for the class. The only two teams to get less than 27% of team minutes from juniors are Brown and Penn, and they also happen to be the only two with classes posting efficiency ratings below 100.
  • Sophomores (30 percent of minutes; 98 offensive rating) – Dartmouth leads the way with 55% of its minutes coming from second-year players, while Columbia isn’t far behind at 48%. Penn (37%), Yale (31%) and Harvard (26%) are the only remaining teams deriving 20 percent or more of team minutes from the sophomore class. While Princeton (112 offensive rating) and Harvard (109 offensive rating) lead the way in the efficiency department, it’s worth keeping an eye on the Big Green, which is getting an offensive rating of 103 out of its class in that bulk amount of minutes.
  • Freshmen (17 percent of minutes; 92 offensive rating) – The Ivy League has done a great job with developing rookie talent in recent years, but this season might wind up as a notable exception. Aside from Brown (49%) and Cornell (28%) no teams are getting more than 20% of team minutes from the freshman class, and three teams (Dartmouth, Harvard and Yale) are solidly in the single digits. The Bears and Big Red have gotten roughly replacement level production from their freshmen – a decent accomplishment given the immense needs both teams had. Only Columbia (mainly Luke Petrasek) and Princeton (mainly Spencer Weisz) have cracked the 100 mark in offensive rating from this class.
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