Throughout the season, the Other 26 microsite will run down our weekly superlatives, including team, player, coach and whatever else strikes our fancy in that week’s edition.
O26 Team of the Week
Harvard. One could argue that Harvard’s season was at stake against Yale on Saturday, or at least close to it. The Crimson, 4-1 in Ivy League play, faced the prospect of falling two games back of the undefeated Bulldogs and severely damaging their hopes for a fourth-straight outright conference title. A victory for Tommy Amaker’s group would even up the records with a return game in Cambridge still ahead on March 6; a loss, and Harvard’s NCAA Tournament destiny would no longer rest in its own hands even if it did beat Yale next month. This was about as “must-win” as it gets in early February.
Harvard regained control of the Ivy League on Saturday. (Robert F. Worley / The Harvard Crimson)
Yet the pivotal showdown would have been even direr for Harvard had it not been for some late-game heroics the night before. Trailing Brown by two with only a few seconds left, it took reigning Player of the Year Wesley Saunders corralling his own miss and banking in a shot at the buzzer just to send Friday’s game into overtime. In the extra period, the Crimson controlled things – ultimately winning by two – and Saunders finished with a career-high 33 points. “We’ve had these kind of games against Brown,” Amaker said afterwards, referring to his team’s third overtime victory in as many seasons against the always-pesky Bears.
Call it ‘survival,’ call it what you want, but a win is a win – and Harvard made the most of its second life the following night in New Haven. After an ugly 20 minutes of basketball (Harvard took a 16-11 lead into the locker room), the Crimson held on to their advantage throughout the second half, beating the Bulldogs 52-50 in their own house. Saunders again led the way, scoring 16 points and hitting two clutch free throws in the closing seconds, and in a matter of 24 hours Amaker’s team went from the brink of disaster to re-establishing control of the Ivy League. “We’ve taken these kinds of shots from the other teams the last few years; we’ve been up to the challenge,” he remarked afterward. With Harvard returning home for six of its final eight contests – including the Yale game in a few weeks – the Crimson’s ability to take those shots and respond when it mattered most has put them in good position to retain the conference crown and return to the Big Dance.
Honorable Mentions: St. Bonaventure (2-0: at Davidson, vs. VCU); Boise State (2-0: at Utah State, vs. San Diego State); Ohio (2-0: vs. Akron, vs. Eastern Michigan); Vermont (2-0: vs. Maine, at Stony Brook); IPFW (2-0: vs. South Dakota State, vs. Oral Roberts)
With conference play having begun in most leagues across the country, it‘s time now to pass out some midseason superlatives to deserving players and coaches across the O26 world. A few of these guys will probably do enough to earn national honors by season’s end, but all of them are worth keeping an eye on over the next couple months.
O26 Midseason Coach of the Year
Jeff Jones has done a masterful job at Old Dominion. (Courtesy: Rick Voight)
Jeff Jones– Old Dominion. The Old Dominion basketball program took a sharp turn in 2013 when – after more than a decade of sustained success – the school fired its longtime coach, Blaine Taylor, during a 5-25 campaign in which the coach’s behavior had become increasingly erratic. In came Jones after spending 13 seasons at American, and immediately things turned around as the Monarchs went 18-18 last season and reached the CBI semifinals. But perhaps even the most optimistic Old Dominion fan couldn’t have envisioned how quickly the team would go from the dregs of the CAA to the cream of Conference USA; at 12-1 with wins over LSU, VCU, Georgia State and Richmond, the Monarchs have cracked the Top 25 and should be in the at-large discussion by season’s end. How has Jones orchestrated such a sharp turnaround? Campbell transfer Trey Freeman has helped. The 6’2’’ point guard paces the team with 16.4 points and 3.5 assists per contest, with Jones calling him “one of the hardest workers I’ve ever coached” after the team’s victory over LSU in November. The success has been the result of more than just Freeman, though, as the Monarchs have thoroughly bought into Jones’ system, predicated on patient offense and tough man-to-man defense – the latter of which has held opponents to 0.91 points per possession so far, the best mark in C-USA. Likewise, Jones deserves credit for his ability to seamlessly integrate both Freeman and George Mason transfer Jonathan Arledge into a deep cohort of returnees. The head man said in an interview recently (regarding his first year at the program), “We just needed to make people understand it would take some hard work [and] it would take some time, but we were going to just try to be as patient as we could moving forward.” “Time” and “patience,” sure, but it’s taken not even two full seasons for Jones to completely revamp and re-energize things in Norfolk; and for that, he earns our Midseason Coach of the Year honors.
Honorable Mentions: Ben Jacobson – Northern Iowa; Bob McKillop – Davidson; Porter Moser – Loyola (IL); Keno Davis – Central Michigan; Mark Few – Gonzaga; Eddie Payne – USC Upstate
O26 Midseason Player of the Year
BYU’s versatile point guard is our O26 Mid-Season POY. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)
Kyle Collinsworth– BYU. It feels a little weird deeming Collinsworth O26 Midseason Player of the Year when his teammate, Tyler Haws, is college basketball’s third-leading scorer. But remember how BYU looked last March without Collinsworth after he went down with a torn ACL? The Cougars were crushed by Oregon in what should have been a competitive #7/#10 NCAA Tournament match-up. The point guard’s versatility, defense and toughness – not to mention eye-popping numbers, which we’ll get to in a moment – make Collinsworth the glue that holds BYU together and the player worthy of our midseason honor. “He is a really effective player in so many different areas of the game,” head coach Dave Rose said recently. At 6’6’’, there are few players (perhaps no player) who do what Collinsworth does: Not only is he the facilitator for the nation’s ninth-most efficient offense, but he also serves as BYU’s best rebounder and defender, leading the team in assists, rebounds and steals. At this point, the junior’s impressive across-the-board averages (13.2 PPG, 8.5 RPG, 5.9 APG, 2.2 SPG) are overshadowed only by his record-setting triple-double pace. With three already under his belt, Collinsworth needs just one to tie and two more to break the single-season NCAA mark. That all-around ability has allowed Rose to utilize a four-guard lineup in recent weeks, a move that’s enabled BYU to hit its stride just as WCC play heats up – evidenced by the team’s 99-68 drubbing of San Francisco on Saturday. “Kyle’s a big reason because he can rebound as well as any guard in the country. To have him on the floor, you have a guard that’s a great rebounder,” Rose noted. With Collinsworth healthy and playing at an incredibly high level, the Cougars should return to the Big Dance this March.
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.
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.
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.
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. Read the rest of this entry »
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.
Leading up to the season, this microsite will preview the best of the Other 26 conferences, region by region. In this installment, we examine the leagues that have a traditional footprint in the Northeastern U.S: the America East, Ivy League, Metro Atlantic, Northeast Conference and Patriot League.
Harvard is the Ivy League favorite again in 2014-15. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
Harvard – 2013-14 record: 27-5 (13-1). After failing to reach the NCAA Tournament for 66 straight years, Harvard suddenly finds itself in position to reach a fourth straight Big Dance. But just as times have changed, so have expectations — not only is Tommy Amaker’s club tabbed to win another Ivy League title, many expect it to do more damage in the postseason. Those lofty expectations can be largely attributed to the return of Siyani Chambers and Wesley Saunders, one of the top backcourt duos in the nation. Chambers is a precocious third-year point guard who has proven himself to be a gifted distributor and quality outside shooter (40.2% 3FG on his career), while Saunders is the team’s top scorer, best perimeter defender and reigning conference Player of the Year. And yet, despite those two, Harvard’s biggest strength might actually be in its frontcourt, which features a deep stable of athletic forwards who should wear down Ivy opponents in the paint. Best among them is Steve Moundou-Missi, a 6’7″ Cameroonian who logged a double-double against Michigan State in the Round of 32 last March. Jonah Travis, Evan Cummins, Kenyatta Smith, Zena Edosomwan — the list of expected contributors seems endless, and if the Crimson can avoid injury to its guards, a sustained presence in the Top 25 is a legitimate possibility.
Yale – 2013-14 record: 19-14 (9-5). Yale was the only Ivy League unit to knock off the Crimson last season, so with the majority of its starting five back, the Bulldogs should present the most serious threat to Harvard’s crown. Most crucial among the returnees is Justin Sears, a 6’8″ junior who was something of a statistical machine last season: The forward averaged nearly 17 points and seven rebounds per game, ranked in the top 100 nationally in block rate and drew over seven fouls per 40 minutes. With Javier Duren (13.6 PPG) pacing things in the backcourt and veteran guys like Armani Cotton and Matt Townsend shoring things up down low, Yale fans can expect another top-three Ivy League finish.
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 »
Each week the O26 microsite will run down the biggest upcoming game of the week as well as a handful of others to keep an eye on.
Wichita State (23-0) at Indiana State (14-5) – 8:05 PM ET, Wednesday. This is probably the greatest remaining hurdle on Wichita State’s quest for an undefeated regular season. Now 23-0, the Shockers have just eight games left on their schedule, only three of which come against squads with a .500 or better record, and just one versus a team ranked within the KenPom top-100. That team is Indiana State, and that game is tonight at the Hulman Center.
Jake Odum and the Sycamores should give Wichita State a fight this time around. (Fernando Salazar/ The Wichita Eagle)
Greg Lansing’s group should be dialed in after regaining some much-need momentum over the weekend at Northern Iowa, using a big second half rally to end the Panthers’ 11-game home winning streak and return to the win column. The Sycamores suffered a dreadful 19-point drubbing at Southern Illinois just three days earlier to all but end their at-large hopes, a sobering reality that perhaps bled into Saturday’s contest early. It took an angry locker room message from the head coach before the team finally woke up, ripping off 12 straight points in the first four minutes of the second half, tying the game before the first media timeout and maintaining firm control until the final whistle. It was an impressive comeback, the kind of focused, resilient effort they will need for a full 40 minutes in order to beat Wichita State.
Death of #2BidIvy – Any slim hopes the league had of a second bid died in the span of just three days earlier this month, but the actual burial proceedings occurred on Tuesday of this week. Harvard had to go for its second top 50 win at Connecticut without its star Wesley Saunders on January 8, falling in Storrs by five; but the Crimson followed that up with a massive stinker in the form of a 15-point loss at Florida Atlantic. For those of you wondering at home, FAU is currently 7-12 overall and ranked #200 in the latest KenPom rankings. The Owls have lost to St. Francis (NY), DePaul, Stetson, Detroit, and Elon this season, among others. There is now no realistic scenario where the Ivy League would have a shot at a second NCAA bid, even if Princeton or another team wins the league. It appears that the dream of a two-bid Ivy will most definitely have to wait another year.
Wesley Sanders Was Back But Harvard Couldn’t Get Past FAU (Getty)
Losing Steam – The start of Ivy play couldn’t have come sooner, as the league’s hot start began to fade over winter break and into early January. After rising as high as 13th in the Pomeroy and RPI ratings, the Ivies have settled to 16th and 19th in those systems, respectively. While the actual rating is still a Pomeroy-era record, the Ivies clearly haven’t played the same level of basketball since the December exam break. Still, the league should easily receive three postseason invites (Harvard, Princeton and Columbia) with the possibility of a couple more if the Ivy wins break the right way.
Andrew Murawa is an RTC correspondent. He filed this report from the Round of 32 game between #6 Arizona and #14 Harvard at the Salt Lake City pod this afternoon.
Three Key Takeaways.
It Was Great While It Lasted…
Physical Mismatch. It was clear just a couple of minutes into the game that Harvard was going to need to catch a lot of breaks to keep up in this game. As good as Wesley Saunders has been all year, he had no chance guarding Solomon Hill in the post. Harvard’s Kenyatta Smith was tough on Thursday against the New Mexico bigs, Kaleb Tarczewski and Brandon Ashley were a whole different ball game. Freshman point guard Siyani Chambers looked overmatched and intimidated early by Mark Lyons, while Nick Johnson and Hill largely stuck with the Crimson’s shooters Laurent Rivard and Christian Webster, using their length, athleticism and confidence in the rest of their team’s defense to limit any good looks. In short, barring some seriously strange goings-on, Harvard never really had a chance in this one.
Is Arizona Playing Well?. At times, as the lead hovered somewhere around 20 for the final three-quarters of the game, the Wildcats lost focus and let up some. Kevin Parrom wound up inexplicably fouling out in just 14 minutes of action. Grant Jerrett bruised an elbow early in the first half and never returned. Johnson attempted just three field goals in the 34 minutes of action (to be fair, he made two threes in those attempts). Ashley again showed glimpses of excellence intermingled with frustrating decision-making. But in a game where the talent mismatch was so apparent, it was really hard to gauge just how well this team was playing as a whole. But, give them credit for doing to Harvard exactly what a team with this size and talent should have done to Harvard.
New Mexico Redux. If anybody associated with the New Mexico program watched this game, from Steve Alford on down to the lowliest Lobo fan, they had to be going absolutely crazy. A Harvard team that shot a 61.9 eFG% on Thursday night shot 31.9% tonight. The Lobos definitely didn’t have quite the athletic advantage that Arizona did, but it was pretty close. But, the Lobos failed to close out on shooters, couldn’t stop Chambers’ dribble penetration and never found a guard who could make an impact against inferior defenders. Can’t feel too bad for the Lobos.
Star of the Game. Mark Lyons, Arizona. The much-maligned Wildcat point guard had perhaps the best game of his time in Tucson today, getting past Harvard defenders with ease, knocking down threes whenever the mood struck him and zipping up Chambers defensively. With Aaron Craft potentially looming next week in Los Angeles, things are about to get much more difficult, but Lyons has certainly picked a perfect time to peak.
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.
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.