Oddly, the main theme of last month’s Ivy preseason teleconference seemed to be the value of tough nonconference scheduling. Nearly every Ivy coach talked at length about how scheduling a challenging nonconference slate made teams better. We all know that strength of schedule becomes a major factor for teams in power conferences as Selection Sunday approaches, but that doesn’t apply to the 14-game tournament that is the Ivy League. Still, we’ll likely to learn a lot about our beloved Ancient Eight when they hit the road to take on some of the nation’s most powerful programs. At the very least, nonconference play can be exciting when we least expect it. Who expected Cornell to jump out to a 14-point lead at No. 8 Syracuse last November? Who expected No. 2 Michigan State to trail Columbia by seven in the second half at the Breslin Center and the game to swing for good on back-to-back phony shot clock countdowns?
That’s the beauty of nonconference matchups – they can catch the heavy favorite off-guard, provide a early season-defining moment for the underdog and give us a snapshot of where these teams truly are. So what are the nonconference highlights in a season in which every Ivy coach (except Jerome Allen) would have you believe that the nonconference itself is an unprecedented highlight of the season?
10. Brown at Illinois – Las Vegas Invitational – Nov. 24 – 8:00 p.m.
If you’re Brown, what happens in Vegas won’t stay in Vegas – it’ll either provide major momentum for a sophomore-heavy Bears squad or some early-season growing pains instead. Regardless, it’s the first big name on Brown’s docket, even if Illinois finished just eighth in the Big Ten a year ago. Sure, Brown plays at Big East II Conference tournament champion Providence on Dec. 8 on Fox Sports 1, but I’m eager to see how Brown looks coming out of the gate, and Illinois in Las Vegas provides the most intriguing very-early season matchup. (Although don’t take your eye off of Brown at Holy Cross on Nov. 19, a rematch with the team that knocked the Bears out of the CIT in March.)
9. Princeton at California – Dec. 13 – 8:30 p.m. (Pac-12 Network)
California is a program in transition with Cuonzo Martin taking over for Pac-12 coaching legend Mike Montgomery, making this matchup all the more enticing. By this time, Princeton will already have played three games in the golden state in the Wooden Legacy tournament, which starts on Thanksgiving Day, so maybe the Tigers will have this cross-country thing down by the time the Golden Bears come up? Regardless, there’s extra intrigue in the fact that this is California assistant Yanni Hufnagel’s first season at Cal after four years at Harvard.
8. Cornell at No. 24 Syracuse – Dec. 31 – 6:00 p.m. (ESPNU)
Somehow, as mentioned above, Cornell gave Syracuse all it could handle at the Carrier Dome in the first half of last year’s matchup before the Orange outscored the Big Red by 28 in the second stanza to pull away. Of course, 23 of Cornell’s 60 points were scored by Nolan Cressler, who transferred to Vanderbilt in the offseason, but with Shonn Miller, things could get interesting again for a half or so.
7. Houston at No. 25 Harvard – Nov. 25 – 7:00 p.m.
Kelvin Sampson vs. Tommy Amaker – doesn’t get any more scrupulous, right? The only home game for an Ivy on this list will be an interesting reunion of sorts for these adorable guys, as they coached against each other in the Big Ten during the 2006-07 season when Sampson was at Indiana and Amaker was at Michigan (they split the series). The Cougars finished just sixth in the AAC and should struggle at Lavietes while dealing with significant roster turnover, but how Harvard deals with Houston should be very telling early on.
6. Yale at No. 7 Florida – Dec. 8 – 7:00 p.m. (SEC Network)
Sure, these schools have met before going back to Jan. 2013, when a 26-3 run spanning both halves helped the No. 13 Gators pull away in New Haven. We all remember that Florida was a No. 1 seed in last year’s Big Dance and won 36 games in 2013-14, but this year the Gators are back for more and still boasting juniors Dorian Finney-Smith and Michael Frazier II, even if they do lose four senior starters. The O’Connell Center is a hostile environment, and how Yale’s veteran leaders handle the inevitable Gator onslaught will be revealing – and fun to watch.
5. Columbia at No. 17 Connecticut – Dec. 22 – 7:30 p.m. (SportsNet New York)
Alex Rosenberg-less Columbia will have to take on the national champs in their own backyard. Doesn’t sound like it’ll end well, but this should still be a good experience for the Lions, who will need to take their lumps and figure out who they really are without Rosenberg
4. No. 25 Harvard at Arizona State – Dec. 28 – 2:00 p.m.
Harvard leaves the post-Christmas chill of Boston for the Tempe desert, home to an Arizona State program that won 21 games a year ago as well a NCAA tournament berth. The Sun Devils went 17-0 at home last season, even pulling of a double-overtime upset of archrival Arizona on Valentine’s Day. Last season, Harvard stumbled at Colorado at a similar point in its nonconference slate, so this game is sure to be challenging as well.
3. Columbia at No. 1 Kentucky – Dec. 10 – 7:00 p.m. (ESPN2)
Columbia gets the No. 1 team in the land at historic Rupp Arena on national television. What more could the Lions possibly ask for? As mentioned before, Columbia played with great pose and tenacity at No. 2 Michigan State last season, so this game isn’t too big for the Lions either, right? We’ll see.
2. Yale at No. 17 Connecticut – Dec. 5 – 7:00 p.m. (SportsNet New York)
Yale will face the same test against the national champions that Columbia does – only 17 days earlier, and just three days before the Bulldogs must take on Florida. Wow, brutal. But perfect. Yale is a veteran team that can benefit from such a challenging stretch instead of being wiped out by it. Smart scheduling by James Jones here.
1. No. 25 Harvard at No. 9 Virginia – Dec. 21 – 12:00 p.m. (ESPNU)
Forget the nonconference angle, this will just be an excellent game to watch, period. The Wahoos dominated the ACC last year, finishing first in the country in points allowed (just 55.7). Besides a very tough road test at No. 15 VCU on Dec. 6, Harvard represents the first true challenge for UVA, which returns loads of talent. What’s weird is that UVA now shares the same problem as Harvard – lack of reliable outside shooting. Sharpshooter Joe Harris graduated and leaves behind a void on the perimeter. This is an evenly matched game that could end up being a highlight of the entire national nonconference slate.