Breaking down the Ivy preseason media teleconference

The Ivy basketball preseason media poll was released yesterday, and the results weren’t surprising, with Harvard garnering all 17 first-place votes.

Rank School Points
 1 Harvard (17) 136
 2 Yale 108
 3 Columbia 94
 4 Princeton 88
 5 Brown 75
 6 Dartmouth 47
 7 Penn 39
 8 Cornell 25

 

Then Ivy League’s eight head coaches gave a lot of insight into their respective programs during yesterday’s Ivy preseason media teleconference. They knocked on a lot of wood too. Here’s a comprehensive look at what each coach had to say and what their comments actually mean going forward.

TOMMY AMAKER – HARVARD

“We are, like everyone else this time of the year, filled with optimism and excitement.”

Well, maybe just a tad more optimism and excitement than any other Ivy.

“We do think we have a strong nucleus returning, led by Wesley Saunders, Siyani Chambers and Steve Mondou-Missi, three pillars for us as returning players.”

The greatest Big Three in Boston since Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, this nucleus really is the full package. On a team lacking depth, this threesome really means everything to the Crimson.

“I don’t think recruiting is ever easy. I’m sure if you ask UConn or Duke or some of the top programs in the country that have been amazingly successful, I don’t think they would ever equate recruiting with easy.”

Then stop making it look so easy.

“We’re thrilled and proud of (winning a game in the last two NCAA Tournaments). But it’s a new day. We’re trying to live in the moment, not get sidetracked with what has been said or what has been done.”

Well, that will be increasingly difficult this season. You win a game in the last two NCAA tournaments and remain the class of a conference poised to have its deepest set of teams ever, and you will get major hype. Living in the moment means putting up with the peak of that hype right now.

Moving on…

JAMES JONES – YALE

So that wasn’t much from Amaker, but that’s because he wasn’t a very forthcoming interview yesterday. Or most of the time, really. So it was perfect that following Amaker was James Jones, the greatest interview among Ivy League coaches. After all, this is the guy who found a way to reference The Matrix after his Bulldogs upset Harvard at Lavietes last year. In his opening comments yesterday, he didn’t disappoint:

“So far, we feel good about our team. We’re a little banged up, guys with some knick knacks. We haven’t had everybody at practice yet, and that’s a little different from last year most of the time, especially early in the year we had everybody healthy.  So we haven’t really seen everybody at full steam yet, we’ll get there. We’ve had eight practices so far, one today and we’re trying to make ourselves get better.”

So he admits his team is not 100 percent healthy and that there’s a chance that his team won’t be as healthy this year as it was a season ago. Knock on wood, coach Jones!

“If I knew (the secret to winning at Harvard), we would have beaten them the second time.”

I guess that makes sense. Jones has lost nine of his last 11 against Amaker after winning the first three in the series, but Jones’s next quote is what speaks volumes for what he’s done at Yale over the last 15 years.

“The media is so different now, the Twitter, there’s nothing that you can do that everybody doesn’t know. You bring a recruit on campus and everybody knows about it. You offer a kid an opportunity to try to attend your university and you hear about it two seconds later. The way we used to recruit, I used to do home visits. There were times in September when I would do 25 home visits in 30 days. I’d do three a day sometimes on the weekend, and you’d try to convince kids to actually come to campus. I think recruiting has gotten pushed up so quickly now that kids are making decisions before they even come on campus for an official visit, and that’s really changed the landscape of recruiting for me tremendously.”

Throughout Penn’s domination through 2007, Cornell’s Ivy championship three-peat and Harvard’s current prominence, Yale has remained a steady force, finishing in the top half of the league in every season this millennium. He’s been able to adjust his recruiting style to the 21st century in a conference that values academics over athletics. He’s not in Boston like Tommy Amaker, in Manhattan like Kyle Smith, or even in Philadelphia like Jerome Allen. Urban settings aren’t dealmakers, but they can help. He doesn’t enjoy Princeton’s rich basketball tradition at Yale either. But he continues to turn in respectable season after respectable season, making the Bulldog’s second-place finish in the Ivy preseason media poll a sensible one.

“We certainly feel (Armani Cotton, Justin Sears and Javier Duren) are as good as any three guys in the league.”          

Take that, Boston Three party!

“We had a great run in the league to start with, we were 7-1 in the first eight games of Ivy League play. Then we got a key injury to our point guard Javier Duren that changed how we played and we didn’t handle it quite well, having him out and not playing his best the last four games of the year. Then we had a chance to go into the CIT, which was great because he was healthy and we were fully healthy until the last game of the year until Justin Sears cut his wrist and couldn’t play in the championship game. I think that playing at that level – I think all the teams we beat were 20-win teams in the CIT – it showed our guys how good we could actually be. We’ve actually watched tape this year of how we were playing at the end of the year last year to have that as a goal to try to outperform the way we played at the end of the year.”

Yale did taper off after Duren’s ankle injury, revealing how crucial he is to the Bulldogs at both ends of the floor. Good call by Jones to focus on Yale’s resurgence towards the tail end of last season.

“I talked about (the strength of the league) three years ago when the group of freshmen that are now going to be seniors came into the league, that it was a tremendous group of guys. You look at a team like Cornell and Shonn Miller. People don’t realize how good Shonn Miller is. First-team all-league play and didn’t even play last year, and he’s going to be back for Cornell.”

Jones was only asked one question by the media, not including Ivy League Associate Executive Director Scottie Rodgers. How could you let the always notable, ever quotable James Jones slip away?

MITCH HENDERSON – PRINCETON

“I think we’ve got 11 in freshmen and sophomores, we’ve got some veterans who are a little bit of a mixed bag as far as balance. We’ve got guys who played a lot of minutes and some guys who haven’t played any.”

That’s Princeton for you, always the conference wild card.

“Denton (Koon)’s healthy. We’re knocking on wood right now. We’re happy that he’s healthy. We really missed him last year a lot right when we started league play he ran into some pretty serious knee trouble and we had to shut him down about two games into league play. That hurt us because he’s versatile, presents matchup problems at both ends of the floor for other teams, he gives us versatility defensively. Glad he’s back and the ball seems to be going in the basket, so I’m hopeful that continues.”

Wood-knocking aside, Koon’s production dipped a year ago by 2.8 points per game, with his field goal percentage also falling 13 percent to just 40.2. But with a clean bill of health, he does everything Henderson advertises here and more.

“But I think right off the bat we have a freshman Alex Brennan, 6-10, for us he’s sort of a forward/center, very skilled. Aaron Young, a kid from Virginia, is coming along nicely and shows a lot of maturity, has a good feel for the game. Mike LeBlanc from New Hampshire is a real good shooter all the way around, very solid Koon-type. Then Jackson Forbes from Texas and Amir Bell. I can’t tell you right now who’s going to play, it’s just too early to tell, but they’re all going to help us in some way or another.”

Brennan is actually listed at 6-11 and will provide depth to a frontcourt that needs it. With any luck, he’ll even be able to best sophomore forward Pete Miller’s 29 percent free-throw shooting. If LeBlanc really is like Koon, he’ll be a significant contributor as a freshman.

“(Spencer Weisz) is doing well. He has the body of … he wasn’t blessed with the best physical gifts.”     

“But what he’s compensated with is what you might call basketball IQ. The guy just gets his hands on passes. He makes all the little plays … He had a couple of double-doubles as a freshman. We have guys for four years who don’t get double-doubles. He’s changed his body. That would be the main thing I would say. He understands that the season gets a little longer than high school, and that’s what you would want to see from freshman to sophomore year.”

Weisz was Ivy Rookie of the Year last season in spite of his apparently undesirable physical gifts. He became one of only three Tigers in the last three seasons to start his collegiate debut. He posted double-digit rebounds in three games as well, which isn’t bad for a 6-4, 180-pound freshman.

“We have a lot of different guys on the team that can handle the ball. Spencer Weisz is in a long line of forwards and guards here that can put the ball on the floor. He doesn’t look like a real point guard but he can really handle the ball. I think it’ll be a combination of Spencer, Ben Hazel, Denton Koon. We obviously had the ball in T.J. Bray’s hands a lot last year but Khyan Rayner, Amir Bell, Aaron Young…I’ve just mentioned about eight guys, so does that mean I don’t know?

Yes. Yes it does.

JEROME ALLEN – PENN

(On losing seven of Penn’s top 10 scorers from last season) “I think what we’ve tried to do with this group is try to accent everybody’s attributes, whether it be trying to be the best screener in the league or the best offensive rebounder, the best penetrator, the best shooter … We just try to tell the group to embrace that as opposed to saying, ‘Tony (Hicks), you have to score 25,’ and, ‘Darien (Nelson-Henry), you have to score 20.’ Everybody makes a true commitment to service one another. I think things will figure themselves out after that.”

But will they? Who are the sharpshooters? The offensive rebounders? Considering the Quakers finished next to last in the league in three-point percentage and third to last in offensive rebounding, something about either their approach or their personnel needs to change. Where do Tony Hicks and Darien Nelson-Henry figure into leading this change? Well…

“The one thing I don’t do is put stock in someone’s position on a timeline. I never say, just because someone’s a junior or a senior or a year older, they’ll definitely be thrust into some type of leadership role. Ideally, we wish that all of our guys would be respective leaders in their own right, so I’m not putting the onus on Tony and Darien per se as having the longest tenure in terms of amount of playing time, but I do challenge each and every guy to take another step forward in terms of their position within the group and the commitment to embrace one another. To all the guys’ credit, in particular Tony and Darien and Patrick Lucas-Perry and Camryn Crocker, they’ve held themselves accountable and taken that step forward.”

This is not promising. Allen is saying that Hicks and Nelson-Henry have yet to establish themselves as the leaders of this team and aren’t even necessarily being expected to do so. Now it’s too early to jump the gun and ominously read into comments like these, but Hicks and Nelson-Henry do have to develop as offensive weapons, defensive components and, yes, leaders. Dau Jok could only do so much as a great man on a hurting roster. Same goes for PLP and Crocker. If Hicks and Nelson-Henry don’t step up their respective games, this program will continue to lose respect. Which brings us to…

“I pay no attention to the periphery. I can only control what I can control. The beauty about that is basketball at Penn is pretty big deal. There are a lot of people that care. There are a lot of people that are passionate about it, and a lot of people are opinionated. When you look at those things from another perspective, you say, I get it.”

As Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Mike Jensen astutely pointed out earlier this month, Allen likes to refer to fans, pundits and other spectators as “the periphery.” Jensen wrote:

“Allen’s use of periphery is a good choice, since periphery doesn’t mean way outside; it still touches the edges. He knows there are a lot of stakeholders in Penn basketball. He knows what the stakes are.” 

Now back to Allen:

“I don’t allow anyone to tell me where we’re going to finish. That’s according to how others kind of evaluate the current rosters. You guys picked us seventh. I didn’t. I think we prepare us every day to be what we want, and that’s to be champions of this league. Just for example, last year we were picked second and we all know how that ended up.”

Indeed, a second straight season with fewer than 10 wins, a 28-game stretch rendered cumbersome by erratic point play and devastating inconsistency from a veteran roster. And about that point play…

“I’m going to knock on wood and say if everyone’s healthy, Tony Hicks will probably start the season with the ball in his hands to get us going. But we have a number of guys who can handle the ball and service the group. I think Antonio Woods is a pretty dynamic guard and Darnell Foreman has shown that he’s capable of running the squad as well. I think any one of those three will have the ball throughout the season. We’re going to start it with the ball being in Tony’s hands.”

This answer is encouraging, at least initially. The last thing Penn fans want to see is another season of lukewarm offense and lack of ball distribution from Jamal Lewis at the point. Miles Jackson-Cartwright never developed into a true point guard the way he and coaches wanted him to, and it’s good sign that Allen trusts freshmen Woods and Foreman to fill that role in the future. For now, the reins go to the much more polished Hicks. If Allen can find the right fit at the point, Penn will turn heads.

PAUL CORMIER – DARTMOUTH

“We’re excited in Hanover.”

Oxymoron.

“I think it’s the first time I can feel like we’re not a real young team. We’re a team that has gone through the ups and downs of trying to build a program and get us going. I want to go with this group and try to win to prepare to win every game, game in and game out, not prepare to stay close down the stretch and find a way to win. This is a different temperament, we’re going after every game.”

I know what Cormier means here, but he should have worded this so it didn’t sound like he was praying to just stay in games last season, even if maybe he was. But no harm, no foul.

 (Whether Gabas Maldunas’s return following a torn ACL last January will make a difference as the Big Green strive for a winning record this year) “No question. We actually had a doctor’s appointment yesterday and were hoping to get the okay with Gabas, and we did as far as contact. He’ll be starting to do contact on a half-court basis. We’ll keep it three on three, four on four to begin with but his joint is very strong. It’s his left ACL, the one that he tore. His joint is all solid. He lacks some strength in his core that he’s working diligently on. But it’ll be eight months, nine months on Nov. 15. The joint in most cases is pretty well healed, about as good as it’s going to get.”

Wow, give Cormier credit for total transparency here. Now we know exactly where Maldunas is at in his recovery process, followed by some thoughtful analysis of his star forward/center…

“Believe me, this kid is dedicated as heck. He’s done a terrific job, all to his credit … He’s going to be healthy for Ivy League, we’re very confident there provided there aren’t any setbacks. How we use him from now until the middle of December depends on how quickly we see things in practice. So we’re about a month away. That still gives him time to get into quite a bit of shape. He’s been shooting, ballhandling, all that kind of stuff religiously.”  

Later, Cormier confirmed that there’s more to Dartmouth than just Maldunas…

“Alex Mitola was very good last year, and again he’s very good. Defensively, he’s worked hard trying to stay in front of the people … I’m not going to predict who’s going to start yet, but I would hope that we won’t have to rely on a starter from the freshman class. We’re finally in a position where those people can get their feet wet at the appropriate time and don’t have to be thrown into the fire because I think we have others in front that are ready and know the system and what the expectations are.”

It’s certainly true that Dartmouth has a more experienced, healthy roster than it has in some time, which is probably why Cormier is psyched to not be a “real young team” anymore.

BILL COURTNEY – CORNELL

“It’s funny because I was just on ESPN.com this morning looking at the Ivy League media predictions for this year and saw that we were picked eighth. Sorting through a lot of magazines and publications, we’re picked near the bottom of the league, if not last. When you finish last in the league and lose your leading scorer, I guess that’s par for the course.”

Exactly. You’re last until you’re not, so Cornell is still the Ivy cellar-dweller.

“We have two seniors coming back that didn’t play last year who were all-league. We have a great mix of young guys to go with those guys, we’ve been healthy, knock on wood.”

YES BY ALL MEANS KNOCK ON WOOD, ALL THE COOL IVY COACHES ARE DOING IT

“Shonn Miller’s back at 100 percent, he’s playing terrific basketball … Obviously I’m biased, but I’ve gone on record saying that he’s a heck of a basketball player and going to make a big difference.”

Yeah, because heaven forbid he get injured again to trigger another 26-loss season.

“Robert Hatter is back this year but he did suffer a knee injury last week in practice.”

NOOOOOOO!

“We thought it could be major but it turns out it’s not bad so he should be back in practice next week. He’s had a terrific offseason where he’s really improved. He’s back at 100 percent also.”

Phew! Good for Cornell, since Hatter was a refreshing spark plug as a two-time Ivy Rookie of the Week for an offense that looked absolutely flummoxed all season long.

“Deion Giddens who tore his ACL in January, is actually back practicing and is also at 100 percent. We have people on the other side of coming back from injuries instead of going out with injuries.”

College basketball is a cyclical thing, and Courtney wants you to believe that Cornell is on the upswing.

“Somebody said to me in the summertime, that’s why God put eyes in the front of your head, so you can look forward. We’re not looking back. We had a rough end of the season two years ago with injuries that decimated us, losing four or five starters. Then we lost our top three guys before the year last year… we knew that was key and then we lost our leading scorer in the offseason.”

He’s got a point. Cornell is not likely to have such rotten luck with injuries again. We’ll delve more into Cornell’s backlog of injuries in our player-by-player roster profile and season preview, but for now, just feel the good vibes Courtney is sending out:

“As we move forward as a program, we feel like our best days are ahead of us. We feel like we are going to be really good this year. We feel like the guys we got coming in next year are really going to help us. We feel like we’ve got things on the right track.”   

All the feels, Cornell. All the feels. At least until you suffer through a fifth straight losing season.

KYLE SMITH – COLUMBIA

“We obviously have a lot returning off one of our best years. 21 wins is the most for Columbia (in a season) in 46 years.”

Let’s just pause here to fully appreciate how sad this is. Okay, moving on…

“I think we had five freshmen last year that are now sophomores that I think have really made our depth better and are vying for more playing time. You’d think you would just go with the same lineup you had last year but I don’t think that’ll be the case. Plus we added a couple of new faces that we hope will make an impact as well.”

(On Columbia’s Alex Rosenberg getting called for a charge on what would have been a game-winning basket against Harvard in Februrary) “Getting a break on a call like that, I think that stuff evens itself out in the long run.”

Ooh, karma.

“We always thought of Alex (Rosenberg) as being a really good all-around player, a guy who could dribble, drive and shoot. And he became a significant scoring threat for us … I think as some of our younger guys mature I don’t know if he’ll be scoring as much. I don’t think he’ll have a problem with that. I just think it’ll be a sign that we’re better. People will be keying in on him people like Maodo Lo who had a sophomore campaign and I think will be one of the best guards in the league, and also Grant Mullins who is healthy coming back and Cory Osetkowski and Luke Petrasek. We’ll have more guys around that can make baskets and take pressure off. I think it’s more a function of our team growing, maturing.”

There’s no question that Columbia is loaded this year, bringing back 15 letterwinners from last season’s third-place Ivy finishers. Whether the Lions can make good on their talent in even bigger ways remains to be seen.

MIKE MARTIN – BROWN

“We return seven guys who played significant minutes on last year’s team. Obviously we lose a fantastic performer in Sean McGonagill, who will go down as one of the all-time greats here at Brown.”

A big loss indeed.

“Rafa (Maia)’s healthy. He played injured all year last year, since Thanksgiving on. He gutted it out for us. He had a labreal tear in his right shoulder. Once we got into Ivy League season, he didn’t practice a whole lot. We didn’t even know if he’d be able to play on certain Saturday nights, and it got to the point where we had to shut him down … He’s our leader, probably our toughest player. He’s an outstanding team defender. I think our defense took a little bit of a hit when he went out of the lineup.”

The good news is that Brown’s defense found its groove as Ivy play progressed, allowing 70 points just twice in its last 14 games. This defense, led by two-time Ivy Defensive Player of the Year Cedric Kuakumensah, will be intense.

3 thoughts on “Breaking down the Ivy preseason media teleconference

  1. Thanks for the great post, Mike.

    I have to agree with the order of the teams in the media poll.

    As a member of the Penn Periphery, I wish I could be as optimistic as you putting the ball in Hicks’ hands early this season. Hicks has definite strengths, but running the team is not one of them. His first two years, especially his sophomore season, showed that he was not the most disciplined floor leader. From the basketball perspective, he had too many turnovers and cheap fouls. From the emotional aspect, he had too many hard fouls, verbal jousting, technicals, and physical altercations (Wagner, Dartmouth and Columbia).

    I wish Jerome would let Hicks be the shooting guard and give the PG spot to one of the two freshman right from the start. I would hope that one of these two players could withstand the pressure of Delaware State, Rider and Lafayette while they figure things out.

    I am hoping for a great season from DNH, but am concerned about a number of health related issues. He was having a solid early season last year, but never seemed the same after his concussion. Is anyone following the team know if he is having any lingering effects from that injury. I have read that the coach has talked positively about DNH’s improved conditioning and positive response to recent hip surgery. Unfortunately, I feel that the coach either puts out bland positive comments or stays silent about difficult subjects so I would be more comfortable if information came from a more objective source.

    This team has so many issues, maybe it would be more important for the team and its fans if they became a respectable team to watch. With such a stacked league, it would really be a great accomplishment if they ended up in 5th place. However, a lot of things would have to break right for that to happen.

    In the end, I would probably be excited if they developed a solid PG, cut down on the fouls, held onto the ball, kept players of the DL, did not have any discipline problems and became more open with the Periphery. If they could do all of those things, then I could understand the new AD keeping Coach Allen aboard for another season. If not, then a complete overhaul may be needed.

    I’m eager to read the thoughts of the AQ …….

    • Thanks for reading, rb. It’ll be interesting to see how much Hicks runs the point early in the season and how much he traditionally runs the team from the point in Penn’s motion offense. He functions best as a slasher, but he can be that as something of a combo guard to start the season. I share your discipline concerns, so I guess the periphery will just have to wait and see.

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