Checking in on… the Ivy League

Posted by Michael James @ivybball on December 5th, 2014

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

Looking Back

  • Soft Around The Middle – The biggest theme of the preseason Ivy media teleconference was the league’s historic depth. In fact, one set of rankings had six Ivy teams among the top 169 squads nationally, which would have bested last year’s record five teams in the top 170. Through the first three weeks of the season, Harvard and Yale have held up their ends of the bargain, checking in at 34th and 83rd in Pomeroy, respectively, while the rest of the league has struggled mightily. Columbia lost preseason Player of the Year candidate Alex Rosenberg and has watched its offensive efficiency go from 119th nationally last season to 203rd this year. While the Lions have managed to stay at 139th in Pomeroy on the strength of great defensive numbers, no other Ivy squad currently ranks among the top 170. In fact, only Princeton is close (190th), while the remaining four league teams are clustered between 256th and 274th.

    Despite their serious faces, James Jones (Yale) and Tommy Amaker (Harvard) have their teams playing very well right now.

    Despite their serious faces, James Jones (Yale) and Tommy Amaker (Harvard) have their teams playing very well right now.

  • Awards Watch – Two Ivy players have made the initial watch lists for two prestigious national awards. Harvard point guard Siyani Chambers made the Bob Cousy Award Watch List for the third time in his three seasons in Cambridge. The 6’0″ junior has struggled to start the campaign, including a nine-turnover performance in a loss to Holy Cross, but has started to turn the corner with 12 points and five assists against Houston and nine assists versus just two turnovers against Massachusetts. Chambers’ backcourt mate Wesley Saunders has been on a tear to start the season, averaging 24 PPG over Harvard’s first four Division I games and ranking in the Top 500 nationally in 14 of the 15 KenPom statistical categories. His efforts have been noticed by the Atlanta Tipoff Club, which listed Saunders as one of the 50 players on its initial Naismith Award Watch List.

Reader’s Take


Power Rankings

  1. Harvard (5-1) – The loss to Holy Cross in its first game against Division I competition dropped the Crimson from the national conversation for a bit, but the underlying metrics for Harvard are very, very positive. Sure, the free throw defense which has seen opponents shoot just 61 percent from the line will regress, and the Crimson likely can’t shoot 43 percent on two-point jumpers over the course of an entire season. Those are minor nits, though, compared to the factors which will likely provide the Crimson a positive boost. Senior forward Jonah Travis has missed every game since the opener versus MIT. Chambers has posted an offensive efficiency rating of 79 points per 100 possessions and a turnover rate of 31 percent, both of which should improve dramatically. Finally, the Crimson’s stifling defense has only turned opponents over on 18 percent of possessions, easily the lowest rate since Tommy Amaker arrived in Cambridge and something that should stabilize, contributing a couple more possessions per game where the opponent goes scoreless and an opportunity might exist in transition.
  2. Yale (7-2) – Last season, Justin Sears had just one game where he turned the ball over six times or more and just three Division I contests where he failed to score in double digits. Yale lost three of those four contests, including a 20-point drubbing at Pomeroy No. 35 Saint Louis. So, when Sears combined both the turnovers (six) and the lack of scoring (seven points) in one game at Pomeroy No. 40 Providence, Yale must have gotten destroyed, right? Not at all. In fact, a Greg Kelley three-pointer capped a furious rally that pulled the Bulldogs within three with under 30 seconds to go. With senior point guard Javier Duren playing like a player of the year candidate and a strong supporting cast of role players who can score when needed and provide solid defense, Yale has already cracked the Pomeroy Top 100 and has triggered whispers of a two-bid Ivy.

    Despite some recent struggles from Justin Sears, Yale is chugging along. (Yale Athletics)

    Despite some recent struggles from Justin Sears, Yale is chugging along. (Yale Athletics)

  3. Columbia (4-2) – Alex Rosenberg has garnered all of the headlines for his foot injury which will force him to miss the entire 2014-15 campaign, but that has seemingly overshadowed the fact that he’s not the only player the Lions have been without this season. Sophomore forward Luke Petrasek and junior guard Grant Mullins – both of whom were starters for much of last season – haven’t seen the floor at all yet, compounding the issues that Columbia has faced in replacing Rosenberg. Throw in the fact that sharpshooting guard Steve Frankoski is 8-for-34 (24%) from three on the young season, and it should be of little surprise that the Lions offense has dipped roughly four points per 100 possessions versus the national average. The Lions have managed to stay afloat, however, by playing stalwart defense and scaring opponents off the three-point line. Some of its defensive metrics are of the “too-good-to-be-true-small-sample” variety, meaning that for the Lions to stay in the Top 150, they will need to get their injured players back and their offense rebooted very soon.
  4. Princeton (3-5) – The start isn’t exactly what the Tigers had hoped for, but they have plenty of reasons to be optimistic moving forward. Princeton allowed opponents to shoot 47 percent from three over the first eight games of the season, including some astonishing marks in some key games: Lafayette (10-for-17), UTEP (7-for-14), San Diego (11-for-17). The latter two games in the Wooden Legacy tournament could have easily been wins, if Princeton had held those opponents to normal rates from three. Once that three-point defense settles and Denton Koon returns from injury, the Tigers should be a force that can cause some havoc in the Ivy race.
  5. Cornell (4-4) – There is a pretty decent team locked inside this Big Red roster, but it’s unclear whether Bill Courtney will ever be able to crack the code to unleash its full potential. That’s not a knock on the fifth-year coach, but rather an acknowledgement that Cornell is a team predicated on tradeoffs. The Big Red’s athleticism clearly can bother every level of mid-major program and create dominant defensive efficiency outputs. Those results, though, haven’t been achieved by the core tenet of Courtney’s defensive philosophy, as Cornell is turning opponents over at the 318th-lowest rate nationally. That leaves too many possessions that end up as shots or trips to the free-throw line, and opponents will start converting a higher rate of those opportunities than they have thus far. Also, the Big Red isn’t incredibly deep in the frontcourt and aggressive block attempts can lead to fouls, meaning that Cornell’s defensive bread and butter (protecting the rim) is made more vulnerable as its inability to force turnovers increases.
  6. Penn (1-5) – It could only be deemed fitting that Penn’s dynamic freshman forward Mike Auger would sustain a foot injury in his third game and would wind up missing significant time. Those are just the unlucky breaks which have plagued the Quakers recently. Some of the other unlucky breaks have been far more subtle, however. Through five games, Penn was allowing opponents to shoot 47 percent on two-point jumpers and 39 percent on threes, the nation’s seventh and 40th highest rates, respectively. Those two figures have to normalize as the season moves forward, which means that Penn’s 300th ranked defense should start to improve a bit. Combine that with an offense that has been great around the rim – both at finishing layups and corralling missed shots – and the Quakers might be a more likely darkhorse to slip into the league’s upper division than a decent bet to end up in the Ivy cellar.
  7. Brown (3-6) – It’s not easy to turn the ball over on 26 percent of your possessions (nearly six times more per game than last season) and have an offense that is terribly efficient at all, but what’s worse for Brown is what those turnovers are doing to the defense. Nearly 11 percent of opponents’ possessions (roughly seven per game) are transition attempts off of steals – three-quarters of which end up as shots at the rim and three-quarters of those end up being made. That’s the primary reason why the Bears’ defense, which ranked 87th nationally last season has fallen all the way to 282nd this year. Brown is allowing opponents to post 41 percent eFG shooting on non-transition attempts after a score (36 percent of total defensive possessions), so it’s clear that the Bears still know how to play defense in the half-court. It just isn’t showing up in the top-level stats because opponents are getting so many easy buckets off of offensive gaffes.
  8. Dartmouth (1-4) – Either senior guard John Golden is a lot more valuable that most initially thought, or the Big Green has hit a bit of a plateau that will leave them short of cracking the Top 200 this season. The answer, as it so often does, likely lies somewhere in between. Dartmouth’s offensive strategy to fire up as many two-point jumpers as possible is an efficiency handicap that it will never shake, but the bigger issue has been the turnover rates of Gabas Maldunas, Tommy Carpenter and Kevin Crescenzi. Some of that might be the result of forcing the action in the absence of Golden, but for Maldunas it might just be rust after missing the second half of last season with a torn ACL. Ultimate judgment will have to wait until Golden returns, but the Big Green doesn’t have the look of a team ready to make a jump into the top echelon of the league.

Top Game

  • Harvard 75, Massachusetts 73 – Steve Moundou-Missi had just picked up his fourth foul less than a minute into the second half and a minute later the Minutemen stretched their lead to 45-36. That’s when Wesley Saunders took over and didn’t stop until the final buzzer sounded. Saunders assisted a Corbin Miller three-point jumper, grabbed a defensive rebound and went right down the other end for a layup, picked up a steal and hit Evan Cummins for a breakaway dunk and finally capped the 9-0 run with another layup of his own. Nearly 16 minutes later, Saunders hit a slashing runner in the lane and picked up the foul to put Harvard up three with 30 seconds left. After Massachusetts cut the lead to one and rebounded a missed Crimson free throw, Saunders made one last defensive stand against Derrick Gordon’s layup attempt to keep Harvard in the lead for good.

Looking Ahead

  • December 5 – Yale at Connecticut, 7:00 PM, SNY/ESPN3 – The Bulldogs already gave Providence everything it could handle, and the Huskies enter the game with a lot of injury concerns in the backcourt. Connecticut buried Yale by shooting 11-for-17 from three last season but had the Huskies posted a more reasonable hit rate from long range, the Bulldogs would have stayed in the game to the end.
  • December 8 – Yale at Florida, 7:00 PM, SEC Network – If Yale can’t get it done in Storrs, it will have another chance to record a signature win for the resume in Gainesville. The Gators have struggled to start the season, but still rank 10th nationally in defensive efficiency, meaning points will be at a premium.
  • December 13 – Princeton at California, 8:30 PM, Pac-12 Network – California is the 47th-best three-point shooting team in the nation, which shouldn’t help the Tigers with their struggles defending that shot. If Princeton can force a cold-shooting night from the Golden Bears, however, it has enough offense to give California everything it can handle.

Early Season All-Ivy First Team

  • Wesley Saunders, G, Harvard – The only criticism of the 6’5″ senior guard thus far is that he’s had too much influence over the Crimson’s offense, as Harvard is looking for more balance in its attack. Saunders has arguably been the best player on both ends of the floor in every game he’s played this season.
  • Javier Duren, G, Yale – Duren ranks second in the Ivy League in offensive efficiency for players using over 24 percent of their team’s possessions. If the 6’4″ senior’s improved shooting is real and not just a product of a small sample size, he should easily find himself on the First Team All-Ivy at the end of the season.
  • Maodo Lo, G, Columbia – The efficiency numbers have plummeted for Lo this season, but that’s to be expected given that he is the primary and at times only weapon the Lions have on the offensive end. Defensively, he’s still quite the pest, posting a steal rate that ranks 26th-best nationally, while committing just 2.2 fouls per 40 minutes.
  • Justin Sears, F, Yale – The 6’8″ double-double machine has continued his dominant interior play in 2014-15. Sears has blocked three or more shots in six of Yale’s eight Division I games, while scoring in double figures in seven of the eight contests. His turnover rate has been a bit elevated and his shooting percentage is a bit off, but as those figures improve Sears should once again lift himself into the player of the year conversation.
  • Shonn Miller, F, Cornell – Miller won’t make the First Team based on his offensive numbers alone, as the third-year forward has seen his shooting percentages and free throw rates decline after missing last season with a shoulder injury. He’s still a stops machine defensively, though, ranking 89th nationally in defensive rebounding rate and 190th in block rate.
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