RTC Season Preview: Ivy League

Posted by Michael James on November 6th, 2014

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

Top Storylines

  • The Forty Year CycleOn October 31, the AP made official what many had presumed might happen all summer, as Harvard was revealed as a Top 25 team in the preseason basketball writers’ poll. The Crimson became the first Ivy team since Penn in 1974-75 to crack the AP preseason poll, although for the Quakers that was the last of five consecutive appearances in the preseason rankings. In fact, Penn spent time in the AP poll during eight of the 10 seasons in the 1970s, reaching as high as #2 in 1972 and finishing at #3 in 1971 and 1972 after runs to the NCAA regional finals in each season. Harvard reached as high as #22 in the AP poll in 2012 before receiving votes but never cracking the list last season.

    Once again, Tommy Amaker's crew leads a talented Ivy League contingent. (Harvard Athletics)

    Once again, Tommy Amaker’s crew leads a talented Ivy League contingent. (Harvard Athletics)

  • Mourning on the Heights It started with the departures of guard Meiko Lyles and forward Zach En’Wezoh, both of whom were removed from the roster unexpectedly last month. Lyles would be a loss that would hurt Columbia’s depth, but wouldn’t derail the Lions’ steady march to the top of the league ladder. But then, Columbia announced even more stunning news, as All-Ivy forward Alex Rosenberg fractured his foot in practice. That injury is expected to sideline Rosenberg until potentially the start of league play, leaving the 6’7″ forward with a tough decision as to whether to rush back for the 2014-15 campaign or to skip the entire season and apply for a fifth-year waiver. If Rosenberg misses the entire 2014-15 campaign, Columbia will likely struggle to hang on to a spot in the upper division of what will be an incredibly deep and talented Ivy League this season.
  • Preseason PraiseIt’s not just Harvard earning the praise of the pundits heading into the 2014-15 campaign. In Dan Hanner and Luke Winn’s #1-#351 Division I rankings, six Ivy teams were ranked #169 or higher, including five in the Top 150. Hanner also rated the Ivy League as the strongest mid-major conference in college basketball (12th best overall). Ken Pomeroy’s preseason ratings were a little more conservative, but still had five Ivies in the top 200 and four rated at #135 or better. Pomeroy rated the league as the 14th best league in the country with an average Pythagorean winning percentage just shy of .500, which would be a record for the Ivies in the Pomeroy era.

Predicted Order of Finish

  1. Harvard (12-2)
  2. Princeton (9-5)
  3. Yale (9-5)
  4. Brown (7-7)
  5. Columbia (7-7)
  6. Dartmouth (6-8)
  7. Cornell (4-10)
  8. Penn (2-12)

All-Conference First Team/Breakout/Newcomer Prediction

First Team

  • Maodo Lo, G, Columbia – After seizing a starting role midway through his freshman year, Lo has shown steady improvement over the past season and a half, becoming the Lions’ best high usage backcourt threat by the end of last season. With Rosenberg out with a foot injury, Lo will have every opportunity to be the primary scorer for this Columbia team. A deadly three-point shooter who excels at getting to the rim, the 6’3″ junior should be one of the most difficult assignments for Ivy perimeter defenders this season.

    RTC's projected All-Ivy team, which includes defending POY Wesley Saunders (left) is a formidable five. The other four standouts -- Columbia's

    RTC’s projected All-Ivy team, which includes defending POY Wesley Saunders (left) is a formidable five. The other four standouts — Columbia’s Maodo Lo, Harvard’s Siyani Chambers, Cornell’s Shonn Miller and Yale’s Justin Sears — aren’t too shabby either.

  • Siyani Chambers, G, Harvard – After making the first team as a freshman, landing on the Second Team All-Ivy list as a sophomore might have felt like a step back, but it’s merely an indication of how competitive this league has become. Chambers was betrayed a bit by the two-point jumper last season, hitting just 26 percent from that range, and had less responsibility as the team’s sole facilitator having been flanked by two guards (Brandyn Curry and Wesley Saunders) capable of posting assist rates over 20 percent. With Curry now graduated, the point guard spot belongs exclusively to Chambers once again, leaving him poised to have a monster junior season.
  • Wesley Saunders, G/F, Harvard – Not since Jeremy Lin has Harvard had a player get as much NBA buzz as Saunders has received during this offseason. The 6’5″ senior is a dynamic play-maker off the dribble, posting an assist rate of 23 to 25 percent over the past two seasons, while getting to the line more than almost anyone else in the Ivy. He’s also possibly the best perimeter defender in the league. Scouts want to see Saunders’ range extend beyond the three-point line and a tighter handle on his dribble, and while those nits might be enough to keep Saunders on the outside looking in as an NBA Draft pick, they definitely won’t keep the Harvard swingman from being a strong candidate to repeat as Ivy League Player of the Year.
  • Shonn Miller, F, Cornell – The Big Red will not be the second-worst defense in the nation in 2014-15, that much is for sure. During his last full season, Miller finished 33rd nationally in defensive rebounding rate, 74th in block rate and 60th in steal percentage. In other words, Miller was a defensive stops machine. After struggling offensively as a freshman, Miller showed significant growth in understanding how to finish at the rim and draw fouls. Whether Miller makes the All-Ivy First Team will likely depend on how much weight is put on his defensive presence, which should be enough to bring Cornell a significant portion of the way back to the national average.
  • Justin Sears, F, Yale – Sears ranked in the top 500 nationally in 10 different statistical categories, including the top 100 in usage rate, block rate, fouls drawn per 40 minutes and free throw rate. His 21-point, 11-rebound performance in a seven-point win at Harvard was only bested by his 28 points and 13 rebounds in the return game against the Crimson. Sears is a double-double machine who has two more seasons to make his case as one of the best two-way Ivy bigs of the modern era.

Breakout Player

Leland King is poised for a breakout season. (Brown Athletics)

Leland King is poised for a breakout season. (Brown Athletics)

  • Leland King, F, BrownIf only he had a little more time, maybe he could have run down Princeton’s Spencer Weisz for Ivy Rookie of the Year. King closed the 2013-14 campaign with a flourish, posting an offensive rating over 100 on a 20-plus percent usage rate in each of Brown’s final seven games. His monster 27-point, seven-rebound, four-block performance against Harvard helped the Bears take the Crimson all the way to overtime before falling. The 6’7″ sophomore is also the team’s highest usage player on offense, something that Brown will need now that four-year starter Sean McGonagill has graduated and has taken his ability to bail the Bears out of stagnant offensive possessions with him.

Impact Newcomer

  • Mike Auger, F, Penn – The question of best incoming rookie could have two different answers depending on whether one means “in year one” or “for his career.” Auger would be an interesting bet for both, but he makes a lot more sense for the former given that Penn will have to give the ball to someone on the offensive end. Beyond guard Tony Hicks and center Darien Nelson-Henry, the Quakers don’t have a lot of proven production returning, giving the talented Auger the green light to put up ROY-like numbers.

Predicted Champion:

  • Harvard (NCAA Seed: #10) — Once again, the Crimson’s schedule is tough in all the wrong ways, which should relegate Harvard to a double-digit seed for the fourth consecutive season. The Crimson’s non-conference strength of schedule ratings over the past four seasons according to Pomeroy have been #59, #124, #42 and #135, but you’d never know it given all the flak Harvard takes for its scheduling. The problem with the optics derives from the fact that the Crimson plays a ton of challenging games against teams ranked in the #100-#200 range – games which power conference schools refuse to play due to the fact that they carry a decent level of risk and zero reward. The NCAA selection committee’s criteria make it difficult to weight those games properly, leaving Harvard with a minefield of a schedule for which it gets little credit.

Top Contenders:

  • Princeton (CIT/CBI) — T.J. Bray finished last season as the most efficient offensive player in the country among all players using at least 24 percent of team possessions. It’s no wonder that his top similarity scores include Billy Baron’s senior season at Canisius and Nate Wolters’ final year at South Dakota State. That production would be impossible to replace with just one player, but Princeton has always been pretty good at compensating for graduation losses a team effort. Having Denton Koon fully healthy along with reigning Ivy Rookie of the Year Spencer Weisz and center Hans Brase gives the Tigers a great core around which to build.

    Harvard's biggest challenger might very well be Mitch Henderson's Princeton squad. (Getty)

    Harvard’s biggest challenger might very well be Mitch Henderson’s Princeton squad. (Getty)

  • Yale (CIT/CBI) — Losing Brandon Sherrod for a year to the Whiffenpoofs, an incredibly prestigious Yale a capella group, leaves the Bulldogs’ frontcourt a little thinner than they’d like, but they should be deep enough to cover his absence if they move Armani Cotton over to play the four at times. Justin Sears and Javier Duren give Yale an All-Ivy inside-out combination. The biggest question for the Bulldogs is whether they can muster enough backcourt output outside of Duren to improve on an offense that finished 226th in efficiency last season.
  • Brown (CIT/CBI) — Coach Mike Martin faces pretty much the same issues that Yale does. His frontcourt should be one of the best defensive units in the Ivies and has enough talent to contribute on the other end as well. With the loss of McGonagill, however, massive questions remain as to whether Martin can get the necessary level of production out of his backcourt. The search for a high-usage guard could lead to sophomores Steven Spieth or Tavon Blackmon, but both had concerning turnover issues as freshmen. Brown has always seemed to get some contributions from rookies, but it would be difficult to find a freshman that could come close to replicating the production that McGonagill provided.


Spotlight on… Ivy Postseason Success

March used to mean a couple things for the Ivy League:

  1. An exciting Penn-Princeton game to settle the Ivy title and NCAA bid.
  2. One postseason berth that usually ended with a competitive loss to a Power Six school.

That narrative was shaken with Cornell’s Sweet Sixteen run in 2010, as Princeton and Harvard made the postseason as well, with the former winning two games in the CBI. The 2012-13 season added to that sense of change, as the Crimson took down New Mexico in the Round of 64. Then, 2013-14 happened, and it was clear that the Ivies had arrived. Harvard notched its second-straight NCAA win over Cincinnati, giving the league four NCAA Tournament wins over the past five seasons. Yale marched all the way to the CIT Final, knocking off fellow Ivy Columbia in the CIT’s round of eight. Princeton added to the tally with a first-round victory in the CBI.

Harvard's NCAA Success is Driving the Ivy Postseason Bus (Steve Dykes/USA Today Sports)

Harvard’s NCAA Success is Driving the Ivy Postseason Bus (Steve Dykes/USA Today Sports)

The focus on postseason success fails to even mention other single-elimination tournament success stories, as Harvard has won six-consecutive multi-team event games, including the title of the Battle 4 Atlantis in 2012 and the Great Alaska Shootout crown last season. For a league that rarely advanced beyond the first game in single-elimination formats between Princeton’s stunning run to a #5 seed in 1998 and Cornell’s trip to the Sweet Sixteen, the Ivy League’s remarkable success in national tournaments in recent years is another sign that this league is on the rise.

Final Thoughts

It might not be the victory lap it could have been if many of the unnecessary personnel losses to injury, transfer and sudden departure hadn’t occurred, but the Ivy League should still have one of its strongest showings in the modern era this season. Harvard is expected to be the class of the league once again with the inside track to its fifth-straight Ivy title and fourth-straight NCAA Tournament appearance. It only has a few chances to make a splash in the regular season, though, hosting Massachusetts and visiting Virginia, Arizona State and Boston College. The lack of a multi-team event on the Crimson’s schedule due to the restrictive Ivy policy of two-in-four years will hamper Harvard’s ability to show off its true talent prior to March.

The chase pack is loaded with teams that all might have been Ivy favorites in the less competitive leagues of the late-aughts. Yale has finished in the top 200 in each of the past four seasons and seems poised to make a run at cracking the top 100 this year. Princeton hasn’t finished worse than 103rd since the 2008-09 season, despite the constant expectation that the last set of graduation losses can’t easily be overcome. Even if both miss their goals, they should land in the top 150 unless struck by disastrous luck with injuries. Speaking of disastrous luck with injuries, it’s hard to gauge where Columbia will end up without Rosenberg. There’s a lot of offensive production to make up for, and with the defense already being hardly better than the national average, the Lions could slide pretty far without their All-Ivy forward.

Brown and Dartmouth each have steadily risen the Ivy and national rankings ladder over the past few years, and while the Bears got their breakthrough last season, the Big Green were close to doing the same before losing All-Ivy center Gabas Maldunas to an ACL tear. Both have favorable enough non-conference schedules that they should only need a 7-7 mark in league play to post the .500 or better record necessary to be postseason-eligible. Cornell has a lot to be excited about, but that’s almost always true of a team that went 2-26 and finished at 11th-worst in the Pomeroy Ratings. Miller’s return makes the Big Red a much, much better defensive team out of the gate and should be enough to push Cornell back into the 200s nationally.

While Penn has already wrapped up a nice 2015 recruiting class, it will have to endure a brutal 2014-15 campaign. The Quakers return less than 40 percent of their minutes from a team that already finished 266th last season. For Penn to do anything noteworthy, it will need massive contributions from its rookies and huge leaps from its lightly-used returning players.

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