Let’s make a few things clear about Harvard and its probably-gone at-large hopes. For one, if the team is worrying about an at-large selection come March, it probably means it lost two or three games in Ivy League play – which would be problematic on its own. For another, Tommy Amaker’s group is no stranger to faltering unexpectedly in the non-conference: in 2012, the Crimson lost to Atlantic 10 bottom-feeder Fordham; in 2013, it fell at home to Vermont; and last season, it suffered a 15-point defeat to sub-.500 Florida Atlantic. Each year, Harvard’s at-large aspirations took a severe hit before conference games even began, and each year the team responded by winning the outright Ivy League title. Sunday’s turnover-filled loss to Holy Cross is only different in that it happened just three days into the season, before anyone could even blink. With everything still left to play for – a league title, a Tourney birth, seeding implications – the much-hyped Crimson may have received the wake-up call it needed and was eventually going to get anyway. Now it must figure things out on the court before the schedule ramps up in coming weeks.
Harvard needs to bounce back after falling to Holy Cross on Sunday. (Robert F Worley/The Harvard Crimson)
Siyani Chambers is probably the best point guard in the Ivy League yet the Crusaders’ pressure defense completely got the best of him on Sunday, turning him over a career-high nine times and holding the junior to just one point. As poorly as Chambers played, though, his track record suggests that he’ll be just fine going forward; the bigger problem might be his backcourt running mates, or lack thereof. Both he and Ivy League Player of the Year Wesley Saunders (24 points and 12 rebounds on Sunday) are going to play a lot and produce a lot, but nearly every other guard is an unproven commodity. Program mainstays Laurent Rivard and Brandyn Curry graduated in the offseason, stripping the team of its best perimeter shooter (Rivard shot 43% 3FG as a senior and holds the school’s all-time three-point record) and a solid all-around guard who could spell Chambers at the point (Curry was the team’s floor general before Chambers arrived in 2012). Corbin Miller (45% 3FG in 2011-12) – who missed the past two years due to an LDS mission – should fill some of the void left by Rivard, but true freshman Andre Chatfield looks like the only other guard receiving rotational minutes early on. As a result, not only is Harvard very thin in the backcourt from an injury-risk standpoint – losing Chambers, Saunders or Miller would be devastating – it also seems less-equipped to handle opponents that necessitate a guard-heavy lineup like Holy Cross. Too much pressure was placed on the pair in that game. Amaker has a ton of options when it comes to mixing and matching frontcourt guys, but far fewer when it comes to the backcourt, so the continued development and emergence of players like Miller and Chatfield will be crucial as the season progresses.
Michael James is the RTC correspondent for the Ivy League. You can also find his musings on Twitter at @ivybball.
The Forty Year Cycle – On 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)
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 Praise – It’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.
Rush the Court will be providing wall-to-wall coverage of each of the NCAA Tournament from each of the 13 sites this year. Follow our NCAA Tourney specific Twitter accounts at @RTCeastregion, @RTCMWregion, @RTCsouthregion and @RTCwestregion. Kenny Ocker is an RTC columnist and correspondent. He is covering the Spokane pods of the East and West regionals this week. He filed this story after 12-seed Harvard upset 5-seed Cincinnati, 61-57, on Thursday afternoon.
Harvard’s Siyani Chambers, right, leaps into the arms of teammate Brandyn Curry after the team upset Cincinnati on Thursday. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Three Key Takeaways.
Cincinnati is nothing without Sean Kilpatrick. Despite being the focus of the Harvard’s defense all game, the Bearcats’ guard led his team with 18 points on 6-of-13 shooting. The Crimson controlled his opportunities with the ball, holding him to four field goal attempts in the entire second half. But only one other player scored in double figures, forward Justin Jackson, who went 5-of-14 from the field. The Bearcats ended up shooting 21-of-56 as a team and had 11 turnovers, and were nearly unwatchable offensively for much of the game. So, the usual for Mick Cronin’s offense.
Harvard’s frontcourt can bang with anybody. Cincinnati is one of the roughest and toughest teams in the country, relying on its bruising interior play to set Kilpatrick free on the perimeter. But Crimson starters Steve Mondou-Missi, Kyle Casey and Wesley Saunders combined for 26 points on 9-of-18 shooting, and Mondou-Missi and Casey both had rim-rattling slams. Defensively, they held Jackson and Titus Rubles to 8-of-23 shooting. The rebounding margin came out even at the end of the game, too.
You might want to watch Laurent Rivard. The senior sniper for the Crimson had three three-pointers in three shots in the first half, picked up a couple more points in the second half and found himself in a couple clutch situations, saving the ball off of a Cincinnati player under his own basket, then picked up a heads-up steal after a missed free throw. It was fitting that he caught the lofted inbounds pass as time expired, then sprinted straight to his team’s bench to celebrate.
The first ticket to the NCAA Tournament was punched in New Haven on Friday night, and as each of the 31 automatic qualifiers plays their way into the Dance over the next week, we’ll take some time to give you an analytic snapshot of each team that you can refer back to when you’re picking your brackets next weekend.
Tommy Amaker’s Team Is Back In The Big Dance, And The Crimson Aren’t Planning On Leaving The Party Early
Ivy Champion (25-4, 12-1)
RPI/Pomeroy/Sagarin = #52/#32/#37
Adjusted Scoring Margin = +11.4
Likely NCAA Seed: #10-#12
Three Bruce Pearls of Wisdom.
Well, well, well – look who we have here. The Harvard Crimson, by virtue of their victory Friday night over Yale, clinched the Ivy League title and earned the 2014 NCAA Tournament’s first official bid. Harvard and NCAA Tournament in the same sentence may have been quite a story a few years ago, but after three straight Tournament appearances, the NBA’s brief bout of Linsanity in 2012, and last year’s opening round takedown of New Mexico, the Crimson have become a familiar March entity. This year’s team may be Tommy Amaker’s best since he arrived in Cambridge, but navigating its way to another Ivy title was not the walk in the park many expected, as Yale proved a worthy challenger right up until the end. Read the rest of this entry »
Posted by Michael James (@ivybball) on November 6th, 2013
Michael James is the RTC correspondent for the Ivy League. You can also find his musings on Twitter at @mrjames2006 and @ivybball.
Best Ivy Team Ever? Every league preview from this summer and fall seemed to start with the assumption that Harvard would not only cruise to the Ivy title, but that it could very well end up as the best team the league has ever seen. Putting aside the great Penn teams of the 1970s – one of which reached the Final Four and two others which finished third in the final AP poll – it’s extremely tenuous to predict that the Crimson will even end up as the best Ivy team of the 64-team era. The 1998 edition of the Princeton Tigers set that bar, finishing the regular season with just one loss and nabbing a #5 seed before falling to Michigan State in the round of 32. While that’s the best known example, five other Ivy teams spent some time in the national polls, including Princeton’s 1991 squad, which lost by two to Villanova as a #8 seed in the first round. Two Penn teams from the mid-90s cracked the Top 25 and one scored an NCAA win as a #11 seed, while Harvard and Cornell recently rode appearances in the Top 25 to #12 seeds with the latter advancing all the way to the Sweet Sixteen. Given that most pundits have the 2013-14 Crimson as a fringe Top 25 team, it would seem that the hype about Harvard possibly being the best Ivy ever is mostly indicative of how soon most have forgotten the very good Ivy teams of the recent past.
There will be plenty of teams gunning for Harvard this season. (AP)
Going Digital – Just two years ago, the Ivy League office took a ton of flak as it struggled to farm out its premier basketball properties to television or even specialty streaming channels like ESPN3. Only six Ivy League contests were picked up that season, despite a dramatic race which ended where Princeton defeated the rival Quakers to send Harvard to its first NCAA Tournament in over 65 years. Last season, that number crept to nine broadcasts with the new league television deal with NBC Sports Network, but still the only way to watch Brown defeat Princeton to send Harvard back to the Big Dance was via a grainy web feed. Shortly after the season ended, however, the league announced a massive new infrastructure project to merge all of the web feeds into one Ivy Digital channel and provide professional, multi-camera, high-definition broadcasts of all events for the league’s revenue sports. Now, simply by paying one flat fee (roughly $100 for all sports), fans can watch any Ivy home contest and all league games without having to buy each individual school’s package and could access every game in one place. Add in features like quad view, which can allow viewers to watch four games at once, and the Ivy basketball fan has everything he or she needs to keep live tabs on the league race as it unfolds on Friday and Saturday nights in February and March.
Stability in an Unstable World– While the Ivy League and its core eight institutions weathered the conference realignment storm without even a joking rumor about possible new arrivals or departures, pardon the players and coaches if they stumble over the new affiliations of some of their non-conference foes this season. The four conferences that the Ivies have played the most over the past two seasons (America East, Patriot, NEC and the Atlantic 10) all underwent varying levels of changes, and that’s before considering the six games the league will play against the American Athletic Conference, which didn’t even exist last season. The result of all the chaos is a composite schedule with a diverse set of non-conference opponents, as Ivy teams will play members of 23 different leagues this season.
Andrew Murawa is an RTC correspondent. He filed this report after the Round of 64 NCAA Tournament game between #3 New Mexico and #14 Harvard in Salt Lake City.
Three Key Takeaways.
The Great Equalizer. For a program with no NCAA Tournament wins in their history, you need a special performance to get your first. And if you ain’t got great size and athleticism, there’s one thing you can do make up for your weaknesses: knock down threes. And Harvard did that in abundance tonight, getting five threes from Laurent Rivard and three from Christian Webster, mostly all on drive-and-kick opportunities. But eight threes isn’t enough to pull off an upset of this size and the Crimson did plenty of other things to get themselves over the top. Perhaps it was in part due to the fact that some early threes opened things up inside for them, but as it turns out, Harvard wound up shooting 14-of-24 from inside the three-point arc, getting scoring from Wesley Saunders, Kenyatta Smith and Siyani Chambers inside. The three-point shooting will get the pub, but the Crimson played a complete game.
Harvard players run off the bench and celebrate after beating New Mexico during a second round game in the NCAA college basketball tournament in Salt Lake City Thursday. (AP)
Inconsistent Scoring From Guards. I’ve harped on it all season long, but these New Mexico guards are awful hard to trust. When things are going good for them, the trio of Kendall Williams, Tony Snell and Hugh Greenwood are about as fine of a trio as you’ll find in college basketball. But when things aren’t going well, they can get hard to notice. Take Williams for example. You probably remember Williams going for 46, or maybe you remember him sending in a 360 dunk to seal the Lobos Mountain West tournament title game against UNLV. Or even an inexplicable MW Player of the Year award. Tonight he was nearly invisible en route to just eight points, along with no assists. And Snell? He was much better than Williams, but after the Mountain West tournament he was the toast of the town. Tonight just 4-of-12 shooting and 1-of-6 from deep for nine points. All told, the three New Mexico guards combined for 17 points on 21 field goal attempts with just four assists.
Mountain West Gone South. We’ve heard all about how the Mountain West is one of the best conference’s in the country, second in the RPI, deep and talented and with several teams capable of making runs in March. Well, to put it nicely, today was not a good day for the conference. The teams with arguably the best chances of making deep runs – New Mexico and UNLV – bowed out. Coupled with Boise State’s loss last night, the conference’s only bit of good news was Colorado State’s win over Missouri today. San Diego State plays tomorrow, but for a conference with an abysmal record in NCAA Tournament play, this has been a terribly depressing couple of days for the conference.
Star of the Game. Kenyatta Smith, Harvard. On a team built around a quick point guard and a bunch of three-point shooters, you need someone to do the dirty work, especially against a team with as much size inside as New Mexico features. And tonight, Smith did that dirty work with pride, standing up to Alex Kirk and Cameron Bairstow time and time again as the Lobos repeatedly tried to take advantage of the undersized Crimson inside. Kirk and Bairstow got their points, although not often in the 19 minutes Smith played, and Smith made them work for it. And, despite picking up his fourth foul early in the second half, Smith stuck around long enough to make some key plays down the stretch.
I. Renko is an RTC columnist and the author of the weekly column, The Other 26. Follow him on Twitter @IRenkoHoops.
Oh, well. What’s a royal ball? After all, I suppose it would be frightfully dull, and-and-and boring, and-and completely… Completely wonderful. – Cinderella
It’s time for college basketball’s annual ball, which means it’s time for America to fall in love with Cinderella all over again. There are 36 teams from the 26 non-power-conferences who have been invited to this year’s Big Dance, and while the slipper no longer fits for some of the more prominent of these schools, for the bulk of them, this is a rare opportunity to make a name for themselves on the grandest of stages.
This is the first of a two-part series taking a look at the NCAA Tournament prospects for all 36 teams hailing from The Other 26. We focus today on the TO26 teams in the South and West regions, grouping them into five rough categories, and, within each category, ordering them by their likelihood of advancing.
These are the teams that have a credible chance of dancing all the way to the Sweet Sixteen and beyond.
Can Kelly Olynyk Lead the Zags to Their First Final Four?
Gonzaga (#1, West) — It’s been five years since a TO26 team reached the top seed line. In 2008, Memphis rode its #1 seed all the way to the brink of a national championship, and Zags fans are hoping for the same — and perhaps more — this year. Gonzaga has no glaring weaknesses. They are led by an athletic, skilled frontcourt, the centerpiece of which is NPOY candidate Kelly Olynyk. They get steady guard play from Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell, and David Stockton. If they’re to run into any trouble, it will likely be against a team that (1) sports a strong, athletic interior defense that can contain Olynyk, Elias Harris, and Sam Dower and pound the glass, and (2) can hit the three-point shot consistently, as Illinois did in beating them (Gonzaga’s defense allows a lot of three-point attempts). There are a fair number of teams that meet the first criteria in the West bracket, but not many with a lot offensive firepower from the three-point line or otherwise. In short, this is as good a shot as Gonzaga has ever had to make the Final Four. The eyes of the nation will be watching to see if they can make good on their promise.
Virginia Commonwealth (#5, South) – VCU is a popular sleeper pick for the Final Four, and there’s some merit to that notion, but here is the most important thing you need to know about them: They are 25-2 on the year (and 14-0 in A-10 play) against teams with a turnover rate over 18 percent. And they are 1-6 (and 0-5 in A-10 play) against teams with a turnover rate under 18 percent. The Rams’ first-round opponent, Akron, falls squarely in the former camp (20.8 percent), a problem for the Zips that will be exacerbated by the absence of their legally-troubled starting point guard, Alex Abreu. After that, things get a bit trickier for the Rams. Their two potential Third Round opponents, Michigan and South Dakota State, rank in the top 10 in the country in turnover rate. Those stats are perhaps somewhat inflated by the fact that both teams play in conferences that don’t feature a lot of pressure defenses, but if you’re looking for a point guard to lead you against such a defense, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better option than Trey Burke or Nate Wolters. It’s true that Michigan has struggled lately in general, and that if you look ahead to a potential match-up with Kansas in the Sweet Sixteen, Havoc’s odds of success improve, but I’d caution against over-exuberance at the Rams’ chances given a potentially dicey Third Round contest.
Michael James is the RTC correspondent for the Ivy League. You can also find his musings on Twitter at @mrjames2006 and @ivybball.
A Look Back
It should be no surprise that the team that sprinted out to a 9-1 start took home the title in the 14-Game Tournament. The only shocking part is how it happened. For the second-consecutive year, Harvard entered the penultimate weekend of the season needing to beat just one team to all but clinch the league’s NCAA bid. Just like the 2011-12 campaign, in which the Crimson fell to Pennsylvania, bringing the two teams even in the loss column, Harvard lost for the 24th consecutive time at Jadwin Gymnasium, allowing Princeton to grab a virtual tie for first place. Then, the Crimson compounded its error, losing the next night to a surging Quakers squad at The Palestra and falling behind the Tigers in the Ivy standings for the first time this season. With just two games remaining, Harvard needed a home sweep of Columbia and Cornell, as well as a Princeton loss in one of its final three road contests to force a one-game playoff at The Palestra.
It wasn’t always pretty, but Tommy Amaker’s crew earned the Ivy League title. (Getty)
The hangover lasted well into the following weekend, as Harvard trailed Columbia by as many as eight early in the second half in front of a lethargic crowd before news arrived from New Haven that the Tigers trailed Yale by double digits. An 11-2 run over the final two minutes allowed the Crimson to slip past the Lions, and the Bulldogs withstood a late charge from Princeton to hand Harvard back a half-game lead and an opportunity to clinch a share of the Ivy title the next night. The Crimson did just that with a 65-56 win over Cornell on NBC Sports Net. A muted celebration followed, but most fans had already turned their attention to Providence, as Brown led Princeton by double-digits early in the second half. Roughly 100 fans remained in the arena with most huddled around computer screens watching the Bears-Tigers score updates. When Brown sank enough free throws to put Princeton away, Harvard had improbably clinched the Ivy title – the first time it had done so without the season-ending Pennsylvania-Princeton game mattering.
The dramatic final weekend capped off what was a surprisingly strong year for the league, after several All-Ivy caliber players unexpectedly dropped off rosters just before the season started. While the league will see its streak of three-straight years with at least three postseason invites come to an end, the Ivies still posted their second strongest showing as a conference in the Pomeroy era. The improvement came from the bottom, as the league avoided having a team rank worse than 275th nationally for the first time in at least a decade.
Player of the Year: Ian Hummer, F, Princeton– At the start of the season, this was Hummer’s award to lose, and all he did was put together the finest year in his stellar career. The 6’7″ senior led the league in Offensive Rating among heavy usage players and finished second in both scoring and assist rate. Hummer averaged over 20 points and 10 rebounds in his two games against Harvard, single-handedly willing the Tigers to victory at Jadwin in a game that kept Princeton in the Ivy race. Hummer’s heroics often hid the struggles of his surrounding pieces. The extent to which he carried this team was never more evident than during Princeton’s final three games. After Yale successfully took him out of the game, allowing Hummer just eight shots and nine points, the Princeton captain scored 21 points against Brown, but on 5-of-15 shooting and with four turnovers. Hummer continued to struggle against the rival Quakers, shooting 1-of-7 from the field in the first half, but responded with a 16-point, second-half outburst to keep the Tigers from losing each of their last three Ivy contests.
Ian Hummer was an easy choice for the Ivy League’s best player. (Princeton athletics)
Hummer’s off nights were still exceedingly rare, as he scored in double-digits in all but three games this season. His deceptive athleticism has consistently buoyed Princeton in games against higher-level opponents, giving the Tigers a player on the floor that can clearly play with the best in college basketball. While this is a Player of the Year award and not a career achievement award, it’s hard not to see this distinction as a fitting celebration of four years of a caliber of basketball that this league rarely gets to see.
Coach of the Year: Tommy Amaker, Harvard – The Ivy League does not give out a formal Coach of the Year award, but it would be incredibly interesting to see who the main office picked in a year with some stellar candidates, including James Jones of Yale and Mike Martin of Brown. Amaker gets the nod here not just for winning the Ivy title, but for navigating a tricky season to continue his recent history of success. After the “Intro To Congress” cheating scandal rocked the campus and left Harvard without his star guard Brandyn Curry and forward Kyle Casey, Amaker faced a brutally tough non-conference slate with a starting five comprised of one returning starter, three lightly used sophomores and a freshman. The Crimson still managed to go 8-6 with road wins at Boston College and California, as well as a one-point loss at Saint Mary’s and a three-point loss at Massachusetts. Amaker also guided Harvard through a roller-coaster Ivy season, keeping his team focused even after it saw its lead slip away – a steady approach that led the Crimson to its third-straight Ivy title.
Rookie of the Year: Siyani Chambers, Harvard – From start to finish, the dynamic Crimson point guard electrified the league, taking over several games with his strong scoring ability and his nifty passing. Chambers finished 64th nationally in both assist rate (32.8 percent) and three-point shooting percentage (44 percent), while ranking fourth in the Ivy League in free throw percentage and fifth in free throws made. His performance was bigger than his mere offensive output, as there were no other true point guards in the rotation, which forced Chambers to log the fifth highest percentage of team minutes of any player in the nation.
Shonn Miller’s defensive prowess was on display on a nightly basis. (Getty)
Defensive Player of the Year: Shonn Miller, Cornell – The Ivy League has rarely had so many pure interior shot blockers and rebounders as it has at present, making the race for this award incredibly tight. Harvard’s Kenyatta Smith didn’t see enough floor time to qualify, and Brown’s Cedric Kuakumensah was a clear contender as well. Anyone that followed Cornell’s final four games without Miller patrolling the interior can attest to how important he was to that Big Red squad. Miller finished in the Top 100 nationally in defensive rebounding rate, block rate and steal rate – the only Ivy player to rank that highly in all three.
RTC All-Ivy First Team
Wesley Saunders, G, Harvard – From the moment he led the team in scoring during Harvard’s preseason trip to Italy, everyone expected big things from the 6’5″ sophomore, and he delivered. Saunders had the second-highest offensive rating of any Ivy player using 24 percent or more of his team’s possessions and ranked 52nd nationally in free throw rate. Like Chambers, Saunders played grueling minutes – roughly 92 percent of his team’s total – and still took on the challenge of defending the opponent’s best perimeter scorer every night.
Sean McGonagill, G, Brown – After a dismal 2011-12 campaign, in which McGonagill was forced to carry a terrible offense for vast stretches at a time, the junior guard finally got enough help to push the Bears all the way into the league’s upper division. The offense still ran through McGonagill, as he finished sixth in the league in assist rate and sixth in percentage of team shots taken, but the added talent around him allowed him to pick his spots and become a more efficient player. McGonagill’s most memorable performance was his final one this season, as he racked up 24 points, eight rebounds and five assists against Princeton in an 80-67 upset win.
Shonn Miller, F, Cornell
Ian Hummer, F, Princeton
Siyani Chambers, G, Harvard
Game of the Year – Harvard 82, Dartmouth 77 (OT) – With less than two minutes remaining, a Harvard team that had looked so strong during the non-conference slate and had been nearly invincible at Lavietes Pavilion trailed Dartmouth by a seemingly insurmountable 10-point margin. Harvard guard Christian Webster buried a three-pointer to make the deficit seven with 90 seconds to play, but the Big Green made enough free throws to hold a six-point cushion with 45 ticks left. That’s when Webster drained another three and then knocked down another following a pair of Dartmouth free throws. Big Green guard John Golden came up empty on his trip to the stripe, and Chambers’ driving layup allowed Harvard to force overtime. The Crimson scored the first six points of the extra session and never looked back, completing a comeback win that, in hindsight, was critical to its NCAA hopes.
Final Power Rankings
Harvard(19-9, 11-3 Ivy) – Ultimately, Harvard’s Ivy title hinged on one crucial coaching decision that Amaker made in the middle of the league season. The Crimson’s solidly Top 100 defense from the non-conference slate had been torn apart through the first six games of league play to the point that Harvard ranked dead last in the Ivies on that end of the floor. Enter Kenyatta Smith. The 6’8″, 250-pound sophomore had gone from a starter at the beginning of the year to a very lightly used reserve during December and January. With Harvard getting shredded inside, Amaker rolled the dice and went to the bench, and Smith delivered with an average of 17 points, eight boards and eight blocks during a home sweep of Pennsylvania and Princeton. The Crimson allowed just two of its final eight league opponents to eclipse a point per possession offensively after allowing five of its first six to do so.
Kenyatta Smith was a huge reason for Harvard’s eventual league championship. (The Crimson)
Princeton (17-11, 10-4) – The Tigers became only the second team in the Pomeroy era to win the conference efficiency margin battle without winning at least a share of the Ivy title (Pennsylvania, 2004). While that’s hardly consolation for a team that won all but one first place vote in the league’s preseason media poll, it does accurately convey how dominant Princeton was at times during Ivy play. Ultimately though, it was Princeton’s 3-2 mark in close games, compared to Harvard’s 6-1 showing, that proved to be the difference in the title chase.
Yale(14-17, 8-6) – The Ivy League won’t get a third postseason invite this year, but the Bulldogs are certainly deserving. While Yale went 4-11 versus Division I competition in non-conference play, that mark came against the nation’s 30th most difficult schedule and included just four games against teams outside the Top 200. After a 1-3 start in league play, the Bulldogs closed with a 7-3 record, tied with Harvard and a game better than Princeton over those final 10 games. With a weaker non-conference schedule, the Bulldogs might have been looking at another appearance in the CIT.
Brown(13-15, 7-7) – Speaking of teams that are postseason worthy, the Bears likely came within a blown six-point lead with two minutes remaining against Pennsylvania of making the CIT. Matt Sullivan sparked a tepid offense over the final five games of the season, allowing Brown to come within that collapse against the Quakers of going 5-0 down the stretch and hitting the .500 mark. Sullivan will graduate following this season, but the remainder of Brown’s key pieces will return, meaning the momentum should carry over to 2013-14.
Pennsylvania(9-22, 6-8) – Finishing anywhere but first fails to please the Quaker faithful, but the job Jerome Allen did to guide this team to a 6-8 Ivy record is remarkable. Pennsylvania lost its best player just 10 games into the season and watched as other pieces of the rotation struggled through injuries. While points were lacking for vast swaths of time, the Quakers’ consistently solid defense kept it in games, allowing it to grab some victories even with a struggling offense.
Dartmouth (9-19, 5-9) – At 2-3 with a near miss against Harvard, the Big Green looked like it was primed to leave the Ivy cellar for the first time since 2009. It ultimately accomplished the feat, but not before dropping five straight games – four by double digits – and sinking back to the bottom of the league with two weekends to go. Dartmouth’s offense saved the day, though, scoring over a point per possession in each of its final four games and running off a 3-1 record over that stretch to finish tied for sixth in the league with Cornell.
Columbia(12-16, 4-10) – The 8-6 non-conference record with a win over Villanova seemed to justify the Lions’ selection as the third-place team in the Ivy preseason media poll. Then, the wheels fell off the wagon. Columbia stumbled out to a 1-4 league mark before an upset win over Harvard kept the Lions’ slim postseason hopes alive. The victory was merely a mirage, though, as Columbia went 2-6 over the remaining eight games to become the most disappointing Ivy team since 2005 Princeton. With guard Brian Barbour and center Mark Cisco graduating, it’s going to take a lot of effort for the Lions to avoid the basement of the Ivy standings next year as well.
Cornell(13-18, 5-9) – Three Ivy weekends ago, the Big Red was a weekend home sweep of Pennsylvania and Princeton away from being a legitimate contender. Cornell lost both games to dash their hopes, but then things got really strange. Starting guard Johnathan Gray had already missed two games with an unspecified injury and was soon joined by guard Devin Cherry and All-Ivy forward Shonn Miller. Heading into the final weekend of the year, sophomore Galal Cancer decided to leave the Cornell program entirely. The result was an ugly six-game losing streak to close out the season, causing the Big Red to miss out on an upper division finish that had seemed like a lock just three weekends prior.
NCAA Representative – Harvard (Seed Prediction: #14): The daunting non-conference road schedule that had Harvard facing seven Top 100 Pomeroy teams will likely pay dividends in the seeding process. Sure, the Crimson only went 2-5 in those games, but it lost two of those five at the buzzer, potentially giving the committee something to think about from the “eye test” perspective. Enough conference tournament upsets have happened to push Harvard off the 15 line, while enough quality mid-majors have won their league’s bids to keep the Crimson from sneaking onto the 13 line. Any three-seed the Crimson would face will likely have very few weaknesses, but the best opponent for Harvard would be one that fouls a fair deal defensively and isn’t overly imposing inside. For the Crimson to pull off the upset, it will need to have its three-point shooters get hot and limit the second-chances defensively.
Other Expected Postseason Representatives: Princeton (CBI or CIT) - The Tigers’ non-conference struggles have pretty much erased any hopes of an NIT bid. Princeton will definitely receive an invite to the CBI or CIT. The CBI has been quite kind to the Tigers, as they’ve racked up three wins in their last two appearances in the 16-team tournament.
The first five NCAA Tournament bids were earned over the weekend, so as each of the 31 automatic qualifiers plays their way into the Dance over the next week, we’ll take some time to give you an analytical snapshot of each team that you can refer back to when you’re picking your brackets next weekend.
The Belmont Bruins Are Dancing Again
OVC Champion (26-6, 16-2)
RPI/Pomeroy/Sagarin = #18/#47/#50
Adjusted Scoring Margin = +13.1
Likely NCAA Seed: #10-#12
Three Bruce Pearls of Wisdom.
In what is becoming a spring ritual as routine as Groundhog Day, the Belmont Bruins are back in the NCAA Tournament field. It’s the third straight year and sixth time in the last eight seasons that the Bruins have earned their league’s auto-bid to get there, with the fresh take on this go-around being the conference they represent – no longer Atlantic Sun members, Belmont will be repping the Ohio Valley. For all the March buzz the program seems to generate, they will still be seeking their first NCAA Tournament win come next week. Don’t be shocked if they are once again a trendy pick to swing a first-round upset, but is this the group that finally gets it done for Rick Byrd?
Another year, another uber-efficient offensive outfit in Nashville. The senior backcourt of Ian Clark (18.1 PPG, 46% 3FG) and Kerron Johnson (13.7 PPG, 4.8 APG) will be among the most talented and experienced in the field of 68, but nearly every Bruin that steps on the floor produces at an efficient clip. Belmont is best in the country in two-piont FG%, but still gets nearly a third of their points from behind the arc. It all comes together for an effective field goal percentage of 56.8% – good for second best in the nation.
Picking Belmont to win a game in past years has hardly been a foolish idea, but this year’s team should have the best shot yet to pick up that elusive first NCAA win. The seed should be the highest in program history, five upperclassmen fill out the starting lineup, and the Bruins had to emerge from an underrated OVC to get here. Their Achilles heel remains an undersized rotation that struggles to rebound on both ends, so it wouldn’t hurt to draw a less physical team unlikely to kill the Bruins on the glass. Drawing Wisconsin and Georgetown the last two years – tough, disciplined units, both – was a bit of bad luck, but there should be plenty of power conference foes on the #5-#7 lines that would not relish a first round match-up with Belmont.
Michael Vernetti is the RTC correspondent for the West Coast Conference.
Walk-on Wonders – There are many undiscovered threads in any college basketball season, but one of the most significant hidden stories in this year’s WCC race is the role that walk-ons have played in the battle between Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga for conference supremacy. By now everyone (or at least everyone who has viewed an ESPN telecast) knows the story of Gonzaga’s hard-nosed redshirt senior forward, Mike Hart. A walk-on through friendship with some of Gonzaga’s scholarship players, Hart eventually worked his way into a starting position and, for a brief time, a scholarship of his own (he gave it up this year to facilitate a bumper crop of recruits). He doesn’t score much in his 16 or so minutes per game – he’s made 14 of 23 shots this year – but he affects the game through dogged work on defense and the boards.
Jordan Giusti has proved that hard work and dedication goes pay off (Saint Mary’s athletics)
Hart has an analogue in Saint Mary’s redshirt junior forward Beau Levesque. Lightly recruited after a stellar career at East Bay powerhouse De La Salle High School, Levesque was a walk-on with an agenda – to become an integral part of Randy Bennett’s program. He made a splash in the Gaels’ Sweet Sixteen run in 2010, playing in all three NCAA tournament games, then sweated out his sophomore year with surgeries on both hips. As a redshirt sophomore last year he showed more promise in nearly 10 minutes per game, but he has blossomed this season into an outright star and potential all-WCC performer, averaging 11.0 PPG and 4.5 RPG in a little more than 20 minutes per game. He has had outbursts of 24 points on 6-of-7 three-point shooting against Santa Clara and 20 points on 7-of-10 shooting against San Diego.
For pure rags-to-riches drama, however, it doesn’t get any better than the story of Saint Mary’s other premier walk-on, redshirt freshman guard Jordan Giusti. Giusti was another East Bay standout (San Ramon Valley High School, alma mater of the Gaels’ Omar Samhan) who fell under everyone’s scouting radar except Bennett’s, and the Saint Mary’s coach thought enough of Giusti to ask him to redshirt his freshman year – unusual for a walk-on. He made a big splash in the Gaels’ December 31 home game against Harvard, showing down Harvard’s excellent freshman guard Siyani Chambers, and eventually forcing a turnover against Chambers that played a key part in the Gaels’ 70-69 victory. He has since become an indispensable part of the Gaels’ attack, giving Bennett a defensive stopper and allowing the coach to rest the other Gael guards, including do-everything whiz Matthew Dellavedova. With Giusti contributing in every game, Bennett has a more rested and versatile guard tandem than in any time in the past several years as the conference race goes down to the wire.
Michael James is the RTC correspondent for the Ivy League. You can also find his musings on Twitter at @mrjames2006 and @ivybball.
Conference Rivalries – The Ivy League closed strong in its battles against neighboring leagues, closing out the Patriot League with Cornell’s win at American and the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference with Brown’s home victory against Niagara. Throw in the Mid-American Conference, which the Ivies defeated four games to one, and the league managed to win the season series against Pomeroy’s 14th, 15th and 17th-ranked conferences. The Ancient Eight didn’t fare as well against some leagues ranked far behind it, though. Ivies combined to go 3-8 against Pomeroy’s No. 24 Northeast Conference and 7-10 against the No. 23 America East Conference.
Top Non-Conference Players By Position – With just three Division I games remaining for the Ivy League this season, it’s time to take a look back and honor the players who have impressed the most during the first half of the 2012-2013 campaign.
Ian Hummer and Siyani Chambers Go To Battle For Their Respective Teams.
Guard – Siyani Chambers, Harvard – The Crimson had 40 full minutes to replace at the point guard position, and Chambers alone has replaced 94 percent of those with All-Ivy caliber output. His true shooting percentage is 63rd nationally with an assist rate that places 103rd. He’s adept at driving to the hoop, but has hit half of his 54 attempts from three. The only knock on the freshman is his propensity to get sped up by swarming defenses, leading to turnovers and poor shots.
Guard – Brian Barbour, Columbia – When there’s nothing surprising about a great player’s stat line, that’s a good thing, and through the first 14 games of the year, Barbour has been exactly the player everyone expected. The senior point guard has only turned the ball over on 14 percent of his possessions, while boasting the 71st best assist rate in the country. Barbour still can’t shoot the ball well, but he’s made up for it by continuing to get to the line a lot and converting at an 89 percent clip when there.
Swingman – Wesley Saunders, Harvard – He has developed just enough of a jump shot to keep opposing defenses honest, which has allowed him to gash opponents off the dribble and bully his way to the free throw line. Saunders’ offensive rating ranks 62nd nationally among players with at least 24 percent usage rates, but the 6’5″ sophomore is also the Crimson’s best perimeter stopper. He is a true two-way player that is one of the favorites for Ivy Player of the Year.
Forward – Ian Hummer, Princeton – Speaking of favorites for Ivy Player of the Year, Hummer has to be the first player mentioned in the debate. He does everything for the Tigers, as noted by his usage rate which is 11th highest in the country. He has the team’s highest two-point shooting percentage, assist rate, defensive rebounding rate, fouls drawn rate and block rate. He is Princeton, and whether the Tigers win or lose the Ivy title will be solely based on how Hummer performs down the stretch.
Forward – Fran Dougherty, Pennsylvania – Prior to coming down with mononucleosis, Dougherty was in the discussion with Saunders and Hummer for Ivy Player of the Year. He was the star on a seemingly rudderless Quakers team. Poor free throw shooting had always held him back, but he boosted his percentage to 71 percent this season, finally allowing him to penalize opponents for sending him to the line. It’s unclear how much more time Dougherty will miss, but this Pennsylvania team has looked absolutely lost without him.
I. Renko is an RTC columnist. He will kick off each weekend during the season with his analysis of the 26 other non-power conferences. Follow him on Twitter @IRenkoHoops.
The action was light during this past holiday week, but the Mountain West’s finest took advantage of the lull to thrust themselves into the spotlight with two exciting contests, a pair of one-point games against top 10 teams decided by last-second blocks. In the final of the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii, San Diego State fell just short against third-ranked Arizona, losing 68-67 when Xavier Thames’ potential winning shot was blocked by Arizona’s Nick Johnson as time expired. Two days later, New Mexico visited eighth-ranked Cincinnati and emerged with a hard-fought 55-54 victory that was sealed by a last-second block from sophomore Alex Kirk. What was most impressive about these hard-fought contests is how both teams showed that even if you take away some of their key weapons, they are deep and versatile enough to compete.
Alex Kirk Led a Tough New Mexico Performance Against Cincinnati (Getty Images)
The Lobos distinguished themselves not just with a victory, but the way they earned it. They are accustomed to racking up points at the free throw line, but reached the charity stripe at only a 20 percent rate, far below their season average and good enough for just six points. But they gritted out the win by patiently moving the ball against Cincy’s high-pressure halfcourt defense to find open shooters and cutters. Junior point guard Kendall Williams turned in a performance befitting of a team leader, stepping up to hit several big three-pointers and finishing the game with a team-high 16 points. But it was Kirk who set the tone with his lunch bucket performance, fearlessly hurling himself into battle against Cincinnati’s imposing frontline and surviving with 15 points on 6-of-8 shooting, seven rebounds, and three blocks, including a game-clinching rejection of a Sean Kilpatrick three-point shot.
The Aztecs, too, can be proud of the fight they showed in Honolulu despite coming up short. Leading scorer Jamaal Franklin was held to just nine points, his lowest output of the season. But Franklin found other ways to contribute, pulling down eight rebounds and dishing out six assists. And San Diego State found other players to carry the scoring load. Chase Tapley, who had already poured in 46 points in the first two games of the tournament, dropped 19 against Arizona to push his season scoring average to 15.8 PPG. And the Aztecs showed how strong their defense is, holding the Wildcats to 37.3 percent shooting.
This Saturday, UNLV will have a chance to intensify this week’s spotlight on the Mountain West when they travel to North Carolina. In a year when the conference seems as deep as any in the country, the only lingering doubt heading into this past week was whether they had the heavyweights to compete with the nation’s best teams. But as the final week of non-conference play comes to a close, the conference’s top teams are leaving little doubt that they can.