Checking in on the… Ivy League

Posted by rtmsf on January 30th, 2009

David Zeitlin is the RTC correspondent for the Ivy League.

For those who are unfamiliar with the Ivy League, its regular season is unlike any other. For starters, it is the only league without a conference tournament, thus making it the only league whose regular-season winner gets an automatic invite to the NCAA Tournament. The debate has long raged over the merits of having a conference tourney and while I don’t really want to get into that timeless argument, I will say that I appreciate the uniqueness of the Ivy League and firmly believe that the best way to crown a champ is over 14 games, not over three in the final week. That said, teams that stumble early are often dead by midseason. The Ivy League schedule is structured in a way (for academic and travel reasons) so teams play back-to-back games every Friday and Saturday. As you might expect, many seasons have been lost in single weekends alone. The dreaded weekend trip to Penn and Princeton, for example, has been a virtual death sentence for many NCAA Tournament hopefuls.

But the winds of change have swept through the Ivy League. Penn and Princeton, which combined to win every league title from 1989 to 2007, have recently been passed by Cornell as league bully. And as the Ivy season begins its Friday-Saturday routine tonight, the Big Red look to be clear-cut favorites to win the league’s “14-game tournament.”

They will, however, be tested. Here is a look at all eight Ivy teams, their projected order of finish and a case for why they will or won’t be dancing in March:

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Checking in on the… Ivy League

Posted by rtmsf on December 5th, 2008

Dave Zeitlin is the RTC correspondent for the Ivy League.

Well, a good portion of the non-conference slate is over, and the Ivy League still doesn’t have a big signature win. But Cornell came pretty darn close to pulling off a huge early-season upset Wednesday when it led Syracuse at halftime and took the Orange right down to the wire at the Carrier Dome. Naturally, Syracuse players said it was a lazy effort on their parts while Cornell coach Steve Donahue praised his team’s effort. Fine, we get it. The only way an Ivy League team can even stay with a Big East team is by playing smart and outhustling the other team (backdoor cuts don’t hurt either). But the truth is, the defending Ivy champs have a very good team that may have a chance to make some national noise down the road. (Keep in mind, the Big Red played against ‘Cuse without their two best guards, Louis Dale and Adam Gore.

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Checking in on the… Ivy League

Posted by rtmsf on November 21st, 2008


Dave Zeitlin is the RTC correspondent for the Ivy League.

Some early-season notes from the only league without scholarships or a conference tournament:

Cornell might be the class of the Ivy League, but Penn, a perennial power (save for last year), has been getting most of the early attention, thanks to a not-so-terrible loss to No. 1 North Carolina to open the season followed by a nationally televised game against Philadelphia rival Drexel during ESPN’s college hoops marathon.

Full disclosure: I’m a Penn graduate and a big college hoops fan, so I made it over to Drexel for the game dubbed as the “Battle of 33rd Street.” Amazingly, the 10 a.m. start time wasn’t even the weirdest part of the game. Or that Drexel had banners in the arena listing its flag football champions. Or that at one point Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell hollered “That’s terrible” at the refs about 23 times in succession (actually, anyone that’s seen Fast Eddie at a Penn game will tell you that’s not weird at all; the Penn grad takes his sports – and his yelling – seriously).

No, the weirdest part was probably that the game marked the first time Penn played at Drexel in a series that dates all the way back to the 1920-21 season (which you might say makes sense considering Penn’s home, the Palestra, is considered college basketball’s most historic gym). Drexel coach Bruiser Flint said the home court edge made a big difference and he was probably right as the Dragons held on for a 66-64 win in a game that featured too many fouls, too few made free throws and probably one too many “tell the professor I really am sick” jokes.

There were some positives for Penn – such as former-spare-parts-turned-valuable-seniors Brennan Votel and Kevin Egee combining for 35 points. And the Quakers fought back from a big hole and had a chance to tie it in the final seconds. But it should be obvious from those who watched the game that this young Penn team, which starts three sophomores and a freshman, needs to make significant improvements if it hopes to unseat Cornell as Ivy champs.

One more quick note on Penn: Of all the things in college basketball that are easy to predict, a freshman point guard from the Ivy League struggling in his first college game against the No. 1 team in the country probably falls somewhere between Dickie V gyrating and Digger Phelps gratuitously holding a highlighter to his tie. And sure enough, Penn freshman point guard Zack Rosen had a rough debut, getting shut out by the Tar Heels in 28 minutes. But Quaker fans should take heart that the heralded recruit who passed up schools such as Rutgers, Iowa State, Seton Hall, Virginia Tech and Gonzaga to come to Penn will only get better. Much better.

Cornell posted a nice win over Loyola Md. in the consolation of the NIT Tip-off (The NIT has consolations?) but the AP didn’t seem to notice as not one Cornell player, basket, spurt, play, band member, coach or fan was even mentioned. But I guess that’s what happens when the opposing coach goes to sit in the stands for part of the game.

The Big Red lost their first NIT game to St. John’s, but some early speed bumps should be expected as the team is currently without sharpshooter Adam Gore (ACL) and point guard Louis Dale (hamstring), the reigning Ivy Player of the Year. Dale may be back soon, but Gore is out until at least January, which might make the road to a repeat a little trickier.

–I heard something weird happened during Princeton’s first game, so I checked the student newspaper’s account of the game. And yes, the rumors are true! Princeton has a “flashy” point guard. At first, his flashiness “puzzled” the fans who were used to the “Princeton basketball of old – constant motion, backdoor screens and layups, defeating opponents by wearing them down and catching them off the guard.” But soon, they grew to appreciate the new “modern and conventional” style of basketball. Could this be the end of backdoor cuts as we know it? Don’t they realize that’s how they beat UCLA in one of the all-time great tourney upsets?  What’s next to go – set shots?? I’m not sure if a world without Princeton backdoor cuts is a world I want to live in. (By the way, the Tigers lost their first two games, but already appear to be far better than the 07-08 team that was one of the worst offensive teams in the country.)

–I thought the departure of Barack Obama’s brother-in-law Craig Robinson would hurt Brown on the recruiting front, and it very well might. But the Bears gave rookie head coach Jessie Agel a good win when they knocked off Patriot League power Holy Cross, less than a week after narrowly losing to a Rhode Island team that almost took out Duke. Meanwhile, Michelle Obama’s brother had a rough debut at Oregon State, losing to Howard, 47-45. Interestingly enough, Howard is coached by longtime Penn assistant Gil Jackson, so this game had a lot of league connections (probably why the two teams combined for less than 100 points). Perhaps even more interesting, the AP reports “a couple dozen” fans “swarmed” the court after the game. Hope they had good security there.

–From Seton Hill to Michigan, Tommy Amaker has always been known as a good recruiter, if not the smartest game coach. But Amaker’s first recruiting class at Harvard has drawn allegations of unethical behavior, some of which came to light when the Crimson’s prized recruit, Frank Ben-Eze, ended up enrolling at Davidson after committing to Harvard because of scrutiny over diminished academic standards. Still, Amaker’s first class looks mighty good. With three newcomers starting (Oliver McNally, Max Kenyi, Keith Wright), the Crimson opened the season with an 80-69 win over New Hampshire on Wednesday . If these guys can pass poly sci, Harvard may be set up for a run at the program’s first Ivy title.

–Andy Katz may think Yale can win the Ivy League, but the Bulldogs followed a fairly impressive 8-point loss to Stanford with a not-so-impressive 31-point loss to Vermont. (Yes, non-conference losses can be impressive if you’re in the Ivy League.) Yale should still be in the top half of the league, but first it needs to find a way to replace the shooting touch of the graduated Eric Flato.

Dartmouth joins Penn, Princeton and Yale with an 0-2 record, losing to Army and Providence to start the year. But the Big Green’s best player Alex Barnett already has 46 points in those two games.

–Finally, rounding out the Ancient Eight, Columbia is 1-1 after beating New York City rival Fordham and losing to the Big East’s Seton Hall. My favorite player, K.J. Matsui, the first native Japanese player to play Division I basketball, is off to a slow start to his senior year, shooting just 2-of-16 from the field.

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Conference Primers: #22 – Ivy

Posted by rtmsf on October 22nd, 2007

Season Preview Banner 3

Predicted Order of Finish:

  1. Penn (20-10) (11-3)
  2. Yale (17-11) (10-4)
  3. Cornell (17-10) (9-5)
  4. Columbia (14-14) (7-7)
  5. Brown (15-13) (7-7)
  6. Harvard (10-19) (5-9)
  7. Princeton (9-18) (4-10)
  8. Dartmouth (6-19) (3-11)

WYN2K. For possibly the first time in two decades, the Ivy League basketball championship is wide open. The twin towers of power – Penn and Princeton – have held the Ivy title on one of their campuses each of the last twenty seasons. This year, however, Princeton will be recovering from the Joe Scott disaster (18-24 in three seasons culminating in an atrocious 2-12 debacle last year), while Penn will have to deal with the loss of the core group that won three straight Ivy championships. Penn has enough returning to make another run at the title, but don’t expect another 13-1 blitzkrieg through the league, as several other contenders will make their own push toward an NCAA bid.

Predicted Champion. Penn (#14 seed NCAA). Ok, ok, so we’re too chicken to pick anybody else here. We know that on paper there are other Ivy schools with more returning talent (ahem, Yale), but consider the weight of history that Penn has behind it – 5 of the last 6 titles… 7 of the last 9… 10 of the last 15. Every other champion during that time was Princeton. With the Tigers almost completely out of the picture, how can we not make our pick for Penn? Despite losing two-time Ivy POY Ibrahim Jabber and Mark Zoller, the Quakers still have the most depth of any team in the league to go along with the best home court advantage at the Palestra. This year’s squad will be led by Brian Grandieri and Justin Reilly, the latter of whom showed some decent post skills during the NCAA Tourney loss to Texas A&M last year. Sorry, Ivy faithful, but we just can’t pick against Penn until someone outside of Princeton knocks them off their perch.

Others Considered. Should Penn crash and burn this year, Princeton assuredly will not be the beneficiary, which means that a team not used to winning this title will be doing so for the first time in a generation. We like Yale as next in line. The Bulldogs return four starters plus their top two reserves, including prohibitive POY favorite Eric Flato, a do-it-all guard who nailed 71 treys last season. The only reason to lend a skeptic’s glance toward Yale is their maddening tendency to lose “shoulda” games, such as when they dropped a home game vs. Columbia immediately prior to a big showdown at Penn last year, effectively ending their conference title hopes. Cornell is another team that appears ready to make the leap on paper, but simply hasn’t been able to get past the monolith in Philly. Coach Steve Donahue is a tidy 0-14 in his career vs. the Quakers, which doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in winning a conference race that depends solely on regular season performance. Still, the Big Red, who was the last non-P&P team to make the NCAA Tourney back in 1988, has a nice set of guards returning (Ryan Wittman and Louis Dale) along with the 2006 ROY Adam Gore (redshirted last year) and USC transfer Collin Robinson.

Games to Watch. Since the Ivy League decides its champion via round-robin and not a conference tournament, there are a few key home-and-homes to watch this season.

  • Cornell @ Yale (02.02.08) & Yale @ Cornell (02.22.08)
  • Yale @ Penn (02.16.08) & Penn @ Yale (02.29.08)
  • Penn @ Cornell (02.09.08) & Cornell @ Penn (03.07.08)

RPI Booster Games. Last year the Ivy League went 2-17 against BCS schools, but surprisingly, middle-of-the-packers Cornell (defeated Northwestern 64-61) and Brown (defeated Providence 51-41) were the two winners. Penn, on the other hand, was 0-5 – go figure. There are 23 games on the slate this year, and here are a few highlights.

  • Yale @ Stanford (11.20.07)
  • Virginia @ Penn (11.23.07)
  • Brown @ Northwestern (11.24.07)
  • Michigan @ Harvard (12.01.07)
  • Cornell @ Syracuse (12.20.07)
  • Penn @ Miami (FL) (01.02.08)

Odds of Multiple NCAA Bids. Zippo.

Neat-o Stat. With the hiring of Tommy Amaker at Harvard and Sydney Johnson at Princeton, six of the eight head coaches in the Ivy League are now black. Unthinkable a generation ago, this means that the Ivy has a higher percentage of black head honchos (75%) than all but the two historically black D1 conferences, the SWAC and MEAC. We’re not sure if that will necessarily translate to more wins at those two schools, but it can’t be a bad thing in terms of inspring qualified minority hiring practices at other schools (ed. note – we guess that assumes Amaker is qualified. Apologies).

64/65-Team Era. The Ivy League has gone 3-23 (.115) over the era, with all three wins concentrated in the mid- to late-90s. The Ivy tends to receive a favorable seed from the NCAA committee, averaging a #12.8 over this period, which equates to an expected value of around seven wins. This shows that the league has really underperformed compared with its seed over the years. Of the three wins, two belong to Princeton (1996 – #13 Princeton 43, #4 UCLA 41; 1998 – #5 Princeton 69, #12 UNLV 57) and one to Penn (1994 – #11 Penn 90, #6 Nebraska 80). With that said, the league’s NCAA representative (well, Penn, really) has in recent years consistently played its first round opponent tough before ultimately succumbing to superior talent.

  • 2003 – #11 Penn down four to #6 Oklahoma St. with 2:25 remaining
  • 2006 – #15 Penn down one to #2 Texas with 6 mins left
  • 2007 – #14 Penn tied with #3 Texas A&M with 11 minutes to go

Nothing says thrilling like Gus Johnson, so we’ll leave you his call of 1996 Princeton-UCLA.

Final Thought. We actually look at this year’s Ivy a little bit like we look at the Big South. You have one program (Penn and Winthrop, respectively) that has clearly been the class of the league for the better part of a decade going through some serious changes, and you have a smattering of challengers ready to stake their claims on the league crown. The problem in both cases is more psychological than physical – can the likes of Yale and Cornell overcome the mental hurdles that Penn has constructed for them over the years by winning a key game in late February on the road when it really counts? It should make for an interesting winter in our nation’s smartest league, that’s for sure.

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