Yale’s upset over Harvard eliminated the possibility of an unblemished run for the talented Crimson, but it wasn’t enough to bump Harvard from the top spot in the Power Poll. Meanwhile, Princeton’s final minute meltdown against Columbia has relegated the Tigers to their lowest position in the history of the Power Poll. Wild times as we approach the midway point of the conference season…
1. Harvard (5-1) (56 points, 7 first place votes)
Well, I hope you’re happy Ivy fans. We have a title race. With Princeton and Columbia continuing to struggle, the Crimson was poised to run away with a fourth straight conference championship, if only it could dispatch I-95 neighbors Brown and Yale in its penultimate home weekend. But on back-to-back nights, Harvard’s shooting touch was as icy as the Charles. On Friday, it clanged from near and far, shooting 35.7% eFG and 60% FT, but it was lucky enough to survive a 52-45 rockfight with the Bears, who shot an astigmatic 29.1% eFG, including a ghastly two for 16 from deep. Saturday was hardly better for the Crimson, as it went 44.9% eFG and 56% FT, leaving 11 points at the charity stripe in a stunning seven-point loss to the Bulldogs that snapped a 20-game winning streak at Lavietes. The stumble allowed Yale to pull even with Harvard in the standings, and, even though the Bulldogs have a long road ahead that includes two games against Princeton, it gives the Crimson little room for error.
The remedy is not as simple as shooting better. Harvard is a mortal 5-3 in its last eight games, and issues are bubbling to the surface, especially in the paint. This last weekend, the Crimson got crushed on the offensive glass by two of the better rebounding teams in the Ivy League, giving up second-chances 39.0% and 43.5% of the time. Neither of Harvard’s two reliable big men, Steve Moundou-Missi and Kyle Casey, were able to log more than 26 minutes in a game, largely because of foul trouble. Rather than spread those 30 or so front court bench minutes between Evan Cummins, Jonah Travis, and Zena Edosomwan, head coach Tommy Amaker was more comfortable going small with Brandyn Curry as an extra ball handler and perimeter defender. It’s been a consistent strategy since Curry came back from his foot injury (two games starting in place of an injured Wes Saunders notwithstanding), and it’s had mixed results. On the one hand, Curry has averaged 9.9 points, 3 boards, and 2 assists in his last 7 games off the bench. On the other hand, the Crimson is 5-3 after starting the season 13-1. Harvard is still in control of its own destiny (and two showdowns with Cornell certainly make its course smoother), but it must find a way to plug the holes in its front line or else the conference chase might get really interesting, really soon (as in Friday night, on the way out of Levien). -C. River Banks
2. Yale (5-1) (49 points)
What a glorious couple days it’s been for Yale basketball. I’ve had Yale fans coming out of the woodwork to tweet me about how excited they are about this team and texts from friends I haven’t heard from in years. People are excited about these Bulldogs and they should be. This was the game that Coach Jones hadn’t been able to win in over a decade– a victory that takes your team from a competitive squad (which the Bulldogs always are) to an actual title contender. And the way they did it– breaking Harvard’s 20-game home court winning streak and playing with such energy and lockdown defense– it couldn’t have been more enjoyable to watch.
Now, we get to see if this team is capable of replicating that performance. John J. Lee will be packed with students that love a winner for the P’s this weekend. Handle business at home and the Elis have a shot. Realistically, they’ll need to win four out of their next six before an angry Harvard comes into New Haven looking to exact some revenge.
Sears, Duren, Cotton and Co. raised the bar last weekend. Now it’s time to play consistently with the defensive intensity we saw in Boston. –Bruno March
3. Brown (4-2) (39 points)
Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of Saturday night’s results was Brown. The Bears now quietly sit just a game back of the leaders, having already proved that they can play with the Crimson on the road. Holding Harvard to 32% FG is a feat that I think Mike Martin would take everyday of the week. This incarnation of the Bears has established its identity as a hard-nosed defensive unit that is well-balanced on offense and can score in serious spurts. The shots fell on Saturday, but they just didn’t on Friday (2-16 3PT).
Given the impressive production of the five Brown freshmen, it’s impossible to deny that the future looks bright in Providence. That said, I’m going to take this space to make a brief public service announcement: Leland King, you are a talented basketball player with incredible natural gifts. Right now, one of those gifts is not shooting the basketball from beyond the three-point arc (9-45 3PT on the season). You must stop. You have five others on your team shooting over 35% from three. It is going to cost your team a win soon. Focus on rebounding and scoring inside, both of which you are very good at. Signed, Brown fans everywhere.
Anyway, it could be really interesting if this race stays tight and Harvard has to head to the Pizzitola Center on the last day of the season (after spending the night before at Yale) needing a result to clinch the title. But that’s a long way off. First, the Bears have to deal with the P’s, and that means avoiding a controversial loss at the buzzer to Penn, which has happened all too often in recent years at the Pizz. –Bruno March
4. Columbia (3-3) (34 points)
While Columbia hasn’t exactly satisfied the lofty expectations set forth by some loony Lion loyalists, the win over Princeton on Friday night proved one thing; nobody draws up a better out-of-bounds play than Kyle Smith. After a magical bounce on a rare Isaac Cohen three with 1:27 left and an Alex Rosenberg steal, the Lions found themselves down 52-50 with 31 ticks left. Coming off a maze of screens, Meiko Lyles curled toward the inbounder and found his window of opportunity. His only points of the game put the Lions up 53-52, the game’s final score. The sudden news that Grant Mullins would be sitting out gave the Jekyll & Hyde Penn squad a chance to capitalize on a short-handed opponent. After Penn got the lead to 40-30 by halftime, the scoring-challenged Columbia team knew they had a tough challenge ahead. Their first-half output equaled that of their second-half, but up against a monster 23 and 12 performance from Fran Dougherty, it wasn’t enough.
The stat still stands; Columbia is 8-1 when one of the three scorers, Rosenberg, Lo or Mullins, goes for 20+. But there’s also no substitute for defense, and the Lions allowed Penn to shoot 54% FG with Doc shooting 10-14 from the field. The Lions now sit at 3-3 in conference, with just one win not attributed to playing Cornell. The five-game road stretch that we thought might define the Lions’ season was unkind to Columbia as they finished 2-3. The Lions take on Harvard on Friday night in Levien, the first of four straight home games. A weekend sweep for Columbia could make things interesting once again. -Wolfgang Evans
5. Penn (3-2) (29 points)
In his excellent treatise on Fool’s Gold, IHO’s Columbia beat writer and Roundball Poet Wolfgang G. Evans, Ph.D points out the perils of believing too much in your team. At this point in the season, Quaker fans should heed his advice. After a disastrous northern New England road trip, losing to both Dartmouth and Harvard, the Red and Blue returned to The Cathedral last weekend and promptly swept the Moderately Large Red of Cornell (this name change has now been sanctioned by the NCAA to better reflect their season) and the Lions of Columbia. Friday night’s game against Cornell was played under “defense-optional rules,” allowing both teams to score in the 80s. The following night, Penn beat the Lions, who are now in the midst of one of their patented mid-season swoons™, with a more conventional game plan: give it to Doc. The senior promptly responded with his best Zack Rosen impression, a magnificent 23 point, 12 rebound masterpiece. What’s interesting is that in both contests, as well as the prior two games, DNH, the hero against Princeton, contributed almost nothing. Although a force inside when he is “on,” he has, of late, inexplicably become the “Big Question Mark.” Still, as gratified as I am with the Ws, I must admit I didn’t see the Columbia win coming. After beating the Tigers Friday, I thought, like Professor Evans, that the Lions had finally turned the corner on their Ivy season. Hence the sloppy, lackadaisical, foul-prone Quakers would be no match for Kyle Smith’s gritty 3 ball-style of play.
Alas, no. Penn pulled out a solid win playing laudable “team” basketball and now unexpectedly find themselves in the thick of the Ivy race. However, another daunting road trip to New England against title contenders Yale and Brown awaits this weekend. Penn has been a terrible road team (one, lone road win, back on Nov. 12). In addition, the Bulldogs and Bears play excellent defense and rebound well, fundamental skills that still somehow manage to elude the Boys from Philly. DNH will have to return to his formidable “Big Hyphen” self for his team to even have a chance at victory. This, therefore, has become the make-or-break trip for The Quakers. In truth I am not optimistic, but like so many times this season, I hope they make a fool out of me. -The AQ
6. Princeton (1-4) (23 points)
Princeton came into this season anxious to resolve the lingering issues raised by its shocking collapse on the road a year ago at Yale and Brown with its Ivy League destiny firmly in its hands. This week, the Tigers face the same difficult road journey seeking not much more than relevance following a disappointing 1-4 start.
The Tigers’ blistering 11-2 non-conference record raised expectations unrealistically. Amazing three point production from as many as nine players has not continued in the League contests. The difficulty of finding someone to fill the shoes of consensus Ivy POY Ian Hummer is now apparent. Projected by Ken Pomeroy to go 11-3 at the beginning of the Ivy campaign, the Tigers now look a lot more like a 7-7 team. After second place finishes in his first two seasons, Mitch Henderson may find himself fifth this March.
In three of its losses, Princeton has given up at least 77 points. In the fourth, at home against Columbia, the Tigers yielded only 53, but left its offense in the locker room at halftime, scoring only 19 points after the intermission. Brown and Yale await and neither team is at all sympathetic to the Tigers’ woes.
Henderson has suffered from backcourt problems, as he has been unable to find a reliable running mate for TJ Bray, the Tigers’ candidate for All-Ivy honors. Jimmy Sherburne missed last weekend with a bad ankle and junior swingman, Denton Koon, has been hampered by a series of injuries. His availability for the remainder of the season is questionable.
On the brighter side, freshmen Spencer Weisz and Steven Cook have emerged as sparkplugs lately. Their continuing maturity is essential if the Tigers are to regain the momentum they enjoyed in November and December. Hans Brase, the sophomore center, is playing very well, suggesting that the future may be bright. But for Tiger fans interested in this year, after this weekend, the majority of their Ivy contests are at home, traditionally one of the least comfortable venues for visiting squads. While the spoiler role is not one the Tigers embrace willingly, the contenders may find the path to the Ivy crown runs right down the New Jersey Turnpike to Jadwin. Princeton hopes to set up a road block. -Toothless Tiger
7. Dartmouth (2-4) (15 points)
In sweeping Penn and Princeton two weeks ago, four of the five starters – forwards Connor Boehm and John Golden, and guards Alex Mitola and Tyler Melville – delivered performances that suggested that each was capable of carrying the team for short periods of time. But last weekend’s sweep at the hands of Yale and Brown – of which the former was a much bigger blowout than the 67-54 score suggests – revealed the ugly side of the Big Green. With Gabas Maldunas on the shelf, Dartmouth lacks a reliable scorer. The Big Green starters combined for just 16 points on 4-for-29 (14 percent!) shooting against Yale, and while the Bulldogs deserve credit for playing some great defense (they blocked nine shots), that is simply unacceptable in an Ivy League home game.
Maldunas’ replacement in the frontcourt, sophomore Matt Rennie, looks overwhelmed (he’s shooting 2-for-11 since Maldunas went down) and Boehm, Dartmouth’s only other low-post threat, has struggled now that he commands the attention in the post. That’s forced Dartmouth to rely on drives and threes for offense, and that’s not the worst thing in the world, considering that Mitola, Melville and freshman Eli Harrison all have nice range. Golden, too, can be legitimately terrifying with the ball in his hands, a threat to pull up for a jumper, attack the rim, or kick it out to a teammate. But when the outside shots aren’t falling – and they weren’t last weekend – this is a flawed team. There’s no skill Dartmouth hangs it hat on, no one player who strikes fear into the opponent. Until that changes, Dartmouth is destined for its fifth consecutive lower-half finish. –Jonathan Gault
8. Cornell (0-6) (7 points)
Two more games, two more losses. That’s how it’s been going for the Red in a season Cornellians are just itching to forget. The one thing Bill Courtney’s squad can hang its hat on this season is that the guys refuse to quit. It’s true; give them credit for that. I don’t know many 1-17 teams that will fight down 12 on the road with 4:04 left to make it a five point game with two seconds to play, but then again, I don’t know many 1-17 (now 1-19) teams. The fight is not enough to garner anything more than an 8th place vote in the Power Poll, but it is enough to keep at least this Cornellian plugged into the season. Let’s see if it’s enough to get in the win column. -Jake Mastbaum