Checking in on… the Ivy League

Posted by Michael James (@mrjames2006) on February 21st, 2014

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

Looking Back

  • Ivy Race Reset – While 31 automatic bids to the NCAA Tournament will be doled out following the sometimes wild and often thrilling conference tournaments, the remaining one gets decided during the two-month grind known as The 14-Game Tournament. The upside of the Ivy’s unique structure is that (usually) the best team represents the league. The downside is that many teams are effectively eliminated by the middle of February. While Cornell is the only Ivy squad that has been mathematically eliminated from the title chase, four more teams sitting on four or more league losses (Columbia, Penn, Princeton and Dartmouth) would essentially need too much help to fathom. That leaves the co-leaders Harvard and Yale, both at 7-1, and third-place Brown (5-3) as the remaining contenders for the Ivy auto bid. The Crimson remains the odds-on favorite with a +0.22 points per possession margin in league play, well ahead of both Yale (+0.08) and Brown (+0.07). If the Ivy season were 140 games long, that efficiency differential might slowly allow Harvard to separate itself from the pack, but with just six games remaining in The 14-Game Tournament, not nearly enough time remains to assume that the Bulldogs will regress to the mean.

    Tommy Amaker and Harvard are still the favorites to earn the Ivy League auto bid. (AP)

    Tommy Amaker and Harvard are still the favorites to earn the Ivy League auto bid. (AP)

  • Historic Postseason Eligibility – During the 2011-2012 season, the Ivy League sent four teams to the postseason and nearly had a fifth until Columbia lost six out of its last seven games. It was viewed as another watershed moment for a league which had just two years earlier sent its first representative to the Sweet 16 in the 64-team era. While the league continues to play competitively at the top, as shown by Harvard’s win over New Mexico in the NCAA Tournament last season, the depth of the Ivies has been the most surprising development. Princeton and Columbia sit just one win away from clinching postseason eligibility, while Yale and Brown need just two victories to join the party as well. Assuming those four clear that modest hurdle, they will join the Crimson to give the league five postseason-eligible teams for the first time in the modern era.
  • Home Sweet Home – For a league that historically hasn’t shown much in the way of home court advantage, the first half of conference play has tilted stunningly in favor of the hosts. Home teams have won 22 of the 31 Ivy games thus far, which is the third-highest rate of any league, and that .710 winning percentage would be a Pomeroy-era record. If that home court advantage continues to hold down the stretch, expect the contenders to take a tumble, as all three of Harvard, Yale and Brown play four of their final six on the road.

Reader’s Take


Power Rankings

  1. Harvard (20-4, 7-1) – The Kenyatta Smith gamble paid off, and the lesson was supposed to have been learned. But apparently it hasn’t been. Over the past five games, Harvard has spent roughly the same percentage of possessions with Kyle Casey and Steve Moundou-Missi on the floor together as it has with Laurent Rivard at the power forward spot and just one big to patrol the paint. The return to the four-guard lineup has taken the Crimson from one of the best rebounding teams in the nation during the non-conference slate to one of the league’s worst in Ivy play. Harvard has been outrebounded on a percentage basis in each of its past four Ivy games, during which two of its four best rebounders (Zena Edosomwan and Jonah Travis) have played less than a full game’s worth of minutes combined. While going small can work against some Ivy opponents, the Crimson’s top two contenders each have a physical paint presence which can create mismatches against a four-guard set.

    Yale is still very much in the mix and Justin Sears is at the head of the pack. (Yale Athletics)

    Yale is still very much in the mix and Justin Sears is at the head of the pack. (Yale Athletics)

  2. Yale (13-9, 7-1) – The usual question this time of year is how James Jones will guide his team back into the league’s upper division for the umpteenth consecutive season. After a stunning six-game winning streak, however, the only question worth asking is whether the Bulldogs can actually be stopped? Sure, Yale still can’t shoot, and it turns the ball over way too much. No Ivy team can keep the Bulldogs off the free throw line, though, and enough opposing threes have finally been off the mark to allow Yale’s bruising interior to post a defensive efficiency number six points per 100 possessions lower than the league average. The Bulldogs might have one too many offensive cold spells to claim the Ivy title, but they’ve definitely proven that when they’re shooting the ball decently well, they are a legitimate threat to win the league crown.
  3. Brown (13-9, 5-3) – It may not be the most aesthetically pleasing brand of basketball, but it’s hard to argue with its effectiveness. The Bears have held opponents to the worst shooting percentage in Ivy play and rank eighth nationally in that metric for the season as a whole. Prior to coach Mike Martin’s arrival in Providence last season, the Bears’ lowest adjusted defensive efficiency rating in the Pomeroy era was 103.5 (maybe unsurprisingly a team that Martin himself played on). The past two editions of Brown basketball have shattered that mark, as the squad posted a 99.3 last year and has followed that up with a 97.1 this season – a figure which is even more impressive considering the off-season rules changes that boosted offensive efficiency. That consistently stalwart defense has allowed Brown to post a 10-1 mark in games when it has an offensive efficiency rating over 100. It’s the other half of its games that is holding the Bears back, as it has gone just 3-8 when failing to hit the century mark in offensive efficiency.
  4. Columbia (15-10, 4-4) – For the fourth consecutive season, a surprising non-conference showing has faded in the league play, leaving the Lions effectively eliminated by the midway point. Arguably the schedule was more to blame this time, as Columbia had to play five of its first six on the road, meaning that its 3-3 mark through those games could hardly be considered shocking. The Lions put on a show in their veritable elimination game, taking reigning champion Harvard to two overtimes before losing 88-84. Columbia should be favored in five of its final six contests, meaning that a 20-win season isn’t out of the question for a Lions squad that almost certainly will play on in the postseason in March for the first time in the Academic Index era.
  5. Princeton (14-7, 2-5) – The Tigers are the only team other than Harvard with a league win by more than 20 points, and the only Ivy squad to have beaten Brown in Providence in five tries. The other five games have all been losses by six points or less or in overtime, making it highly possible that the Tigers could be the first team in Ivy history to finish in the Pomeroy Top 100 without a winning league record. Princeton’s schedule is incredibly backloaded with five of its final seven at home, and the Tigers should be no more than a one-possession underdog in any game the rest of the way. While the poor Ivy start likely knocked Princeton from contention for an NIT bid, if the Tigers choose to accept a CIT or CBI invitation, they will have a great chance to make a deep tournament run.
  6. Penn (6-15, 3-4) – It’s been a season of extremes for the Quakers. Penn has won each of its three Ivy home games, including two against Top 150 opponents, but has lost all four of its league road contests by an average of nearly 15 points per game. The Quakers are the league’s best offense and defense with respect to two-point shots, while they are worst in Ivy play at making and defending the three. Penn’s turnover rates follow the same pattern, as the Quakers have wasted the league’s highest percentage of possessions, while posting the lowest turnover rate of any Ivy team on the defensive end of the floor. The result is a squad that can play 72 impressive possessions against Princeton on national television one weekend, before returning to NBC Sports Network three Saturdays later to get embarrassed by 30 at Harvard. Don’t expect anything different the rest of the way.
  7. Dartmouth (9-13, 2-6) – A stunning home sweep of Penn and Princeton initially masked what has now become readily apparent – Dartmouth is a completely different team without Gabas Maldunas. The Big Green’s two-point field goal percentage defense has dipped to the second-worst in the league after being above average nationally during the non-conference slate. On the other end of the floor, opponents are more bold about scaring Dartmouth off the three-point line, forcing its three-point attempt rates down, in order to force the Big Green into settling for bad twos, resulting in an Ivy-worst 41 percent shooting from two during league play. Dartmouth still gets one more crack at Cornell at home, but after handing the Big Red its first Division I victory of the season in Ithaca, it’s not a guarantee that the Big Green will get back in the winner’s circle again this season.
  8. Cornell (2-20, 1-7) – The Big Red’s defense is finally beginning to post some average performances, and sure enough, they were enough to scare Yale on the road and to nab the first Division I win of the year against Dartmouth at home. The problem is that the other six Ivy games still saw opponents score over 1.12 points per possession, and Cornell lost all but one of those by double digits. While the injury to Shonn Miller has clearly contributed to the defensive woes, it’s important to remember that the Big Red’s defensive rating was a woeful 109 (303rd nationally) for the season and 110 (last) in Ivy play with Miller. That would obviously be an improvement for Cornell but would really only take the Big Red from its current status as one of the worst teams in Division I to a spot just inside the Top 300.

Top Game

  • Harvard 88, Columbia 84 (2 OT) – Either Harvard’s Laurent Rivard drew one of the biggest charges in Ivy history (at least since Penn’s Tyler Bernardini played hero in Cambridge in 2012) or Columbia got hosed in the most dramatic way possible. There really isn’t much middle ground on this issue. After Columbia rallied furiously from a 12-point deficit with less than seven minutes to play to force overtime, the Lions had the ball for the final possession of the first extra frame tied at 73. Columbia let its star power forward Alex Rosenberg, who finished with 34 points on the night, go to work one-on-one against Rivard. With the clock under five seconds, Rosenberg shifted left and let go a leaner, making a lot of contact with Rivard’s chest on the way to releasing the ball. The shot fell, but Rosenberg was called for a charge, stunning the home crowd at Levien. Rivard then stuck the dagger in during the second overtime, draining a three-pointer with 59 seconds left to stake the Crimson to a five-point lead – one it would never relinquish.

Looking Ahead

  • Saturday, February 22 – Harvard at Princeton, 8:00 PM, ESPN3/ESPNU (tape delay) – Frank McLaughlin has been at Fordham now for 29 years – most of them spent as Athletic Director. Yet in those three decades, his name still hasn’t been erased from the Harvard record books as the last coach to lead the Crimson to a road sweep of the Penn and Princeton weekend. In 1985, during his final year at the helm of Harvard, McLaughlin guided a team including current Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to 60-50 win over the Tigers at Jadwin before slipping past the Quakers 77-75 at The Palestra. His assistant Peter Roby later became the last Harvard coach to win a game at Jadwin, knocking off the Tigers 63-57. Nine months later, the Berlin Wall fell. And now, 25 years later, the Crimson heads back to Princeton looking for a win that would not only be monumental in its history, but also monumental in helping Harvard in the tight Ivy race.
  • Sunday, February 23 – Yale at Columbia, 1:30 PM, NBC Sports Network – At one point, less than a month ago, Yale was over 100 spots behind Columbia in the Pomeroy Ratings and a game behind it in the league race. Three Ivy weekends can change everything, apparently. The Bulldogs reeled off six-straight wins, jumping three games up on the Lions and narrowing that Pomeroy gap to just 14 spots. If Columbia has any title hopes left, it must sweep the weekend, which would guarantee that it would be even with Brown and just two games back of Yale with four to play. If Harvard then failed to pull off its first sweep of the Penn-Princeton trip in 29 years, the Lions would also be no more than two back of the Crimson with a rematch in Boston yet to come. For the Bulldogs, a victory here could leave it alone in first with just four games to play, assuming Harvard can’t match with a sweep of its own.
  • Friday, February 28 – Yale at Princeton, 7:00 PM, (TBD) – The Bulldogs might have beaten the Tigers three times during the Ian Hummer era, but they never bullied Princeton like they did last Saturday night. The only thing that kept Yale’s offensive and defensive rebounding rates remotely reasonable was the seven deadball rebounds the Tigers had – in terms of rebounds in play, the Bulldogs were dominant. Add to that a block rate of 18 percent and the fact that Yale took nearly 80 percent of its shots from two, and it was clear that Princeton couldn’t handle Yale’s physicality. That being said, if a last-second overtime scramble had gone the other way, the Tigers would have still walked out of John J. Lee Amphitheater with a 65-64 overtime win. Princeton’s slim hopes of a winning Ivy season should still be alive when Yale pays its return visit, while the Bulldogs will hope to remain in control of the league’s title chase.
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