This was a momentous weekend for Ivy League basketball. First-place Princeton ran its winning streak to 13 games (10 in Ivy competition) in dominant fashion. Penn, meanwhile, snagged the No. 4 slot in the Ivy standings, erasing a Columbia four-game lead over the Red and Blue in the standings in just nine days courtesy of an equally dominant road sweep of Brown and Yale, a watermark back-to-back sequence for a long dormant program.
The possibility of No. 4 Penn hosting No. 1 Princeton
Penn’s recent runs have been relentless: 11-2 to open at Yale, 13-0 to open the second half at Yale, 27-2 to pull away in the first half at Brown, 23-5 to open vs. Cornell, 24-9 in the first half vs. Columbia. Coach Steve Donahue, his assistants and certainly his players deserve many kudos for coming back to blast its past three opponents and defeat its last four. The last time Penn swept an Ivy road weekend with double-digit wins was January 2007, which led to Penn’s most recent Ivy League championship later that season. The hubbub over the upcoming tournament should not overshadow Penn’s impressive run, the kind of excitement the tourney was designed to enhance in the first place. More on Penn later.
From a league-wide perspective, though, that creates an issue as awkward as it was predictable: If Penn does go on to claim the No. 4 seed, it will get to play presumed the No. 1 Tigers at the Palestra in the inaugural Ivy League Tournament on Sat., Mar. 11. It’s grossly unfair that the Tigers, which could potentially run the Ivy regular season table and will likely have the best conference-play resume regardless, might have to play a No. 4-seeded Penn on its home gym with a trip to the NCAA Tournament on the line. Penn was projected to nab the No. 4 seed in the Ivy preseason media poll, but after an 0-6 start to conference play, the Quakers looked like they were out of the running.
Now that they’re clearly very much in the running, though, Ivy hoops fans have a fresh opportunity to scrutinize the current league tournament structure, as well as what they like and don’t like about having a tourney in the first place. Such consideration isn’t moot, since the Ivy League stressed that the location of future tournaments is to be determined.
Should the Palestra automatically host the tournament every season, regardless of the standings? I think the answer is no. The Palestra has got the most desirable atmosphere and capacity for a tourney, to be sure, but it’s the southernmost Ivy gym and guarantees that Penn will always be home as a tourney participant in the current format.
I prefer letting merit dictate the Ivy League’s plans, and if the league must have a tournament at all, strict observance of merit would mean allowing the men’s and women’s No. 1 seeds to host the tourney, whether they’re Penn at the Palestra (8,722 capacity) or Dartmouth at Leede Arena (2,100 capacity). As my friend and occasional IHO contributor Steven Tydings has suggested, the league could reduce the number of tourney participants to three, with the No. 1 seed playing the No. 2-vs.-No. 3 winner. Sometimes a smaller gym adds to the intensity of the moment, which would be more meaningful happening in an Ivy arena than a non-Ancient Eight location. A lot of fans would be turned away, but players and coaches deserve a reward for building a body of work over the course of conference play that is better than any other, and their supporters deserve a local carrot with a stick that isn’t several hundred miles away.
But’s that just one onlooker’s opinion. It’s never going to actually happen because it cuts against the league’s open-festival modus operandi, which has plenty of benefits as well. I think the Ivy League office does care about what the fans want, so it’ll be up to fans to give feedback about what they like and don’t like after the first tourney has actually happened. For now, the increasing likelihood that Penn may earn a No. 4 berth is appetizing food for tourney thought.
Regardless, these are the tradeoffs you get when you spring for a tourney: atmosphere, merit, location, structure, scheduling – all get weighed against each other and tinkered with for years, as Noah Trister of the Associated Press pointed out on Twitter Sunday. One year at a time.
1. Princeton (17-6, 10-0 Ivy)
Princeton continued its romp through Ivy competition with decisive wins at Yale and Brown, the former giving the Tigers their first win at John J. Lee Amphitheater in the Mitch Henderson era and clinching a berth in the Ivy League Tournament. The Tigers’ defense is establishing itself as something special, holding Yale to 52 points and Brown to 51 with active perimeter defense.
On Saturday, Princeton held Brown to 0.86 points per possession en route to a 66-51 victory, shutting the Bears down from two-point range. The previous night, the Tigers clogged Yale’s passing lanes and forced a lot of east-west Bulldogs action that didn’t result in points for the Elis, who fell, 71-52. Sophomore guard Devin Cannady popped off for the Tigers with 29 points, two fewer than he had put up in the previous four games, including 7-for-8 shooting from three-point range. Princeton got the better of Yale’s 2-3 zone, and Cannady’s performance reinforced the fact that the Tigers will invariably have more ways to beat an Ivy opponent than its Ivy opponent has to beat them.
KenPom favors Princeton to win its final four games to climb to 14-0 in league play, which would be an outstanding feat in a league that enjoys a better league-wide talent pool every season. Defense wins championships, and Princeton’s defense could take the Tigers far.
2. Harvard (16-7, 8-2)
Harvard hasn’t been getting much attention with all the hoopla over Princeton’s and Penn’s win streaks. The Crimson are probably just fine with that.
Harvard never trailed versus Cornell in an 87-75 win at Lavietes Pavilion, buoyed by Seth Towns’ 21 points on 6-for-11 shooting and a team 26-for-33 (78.8 percent) performance from the foul line, countering Cornell’s 20-for-20 free-throw output.
Hosting Columbia, Harvard flipped the script from the teams’ previous meeting, in which Columbia hung on after building a large early first-half lead. The Crimson claimed a 34-18 first-half advantage with 6:11 to go in the stanza, but the Lions clawed back from there, taking their only lead of the game at 70-69 with 3:12 remaining.
Sophomore forward Weisner Perez again proved to be an effective sparkplug for the Crimson, snaring an offensive rebound at the 1:52 mark with Harvard ahead 72-70, subsequently free throws and collecting the defensive board that pivotally ended Columbia’s next possession. Harvard’s frontcourt dominated – Towns, Chris Lewis, Zena Edosomwan and Perez combined to shoot 12-for-18 and deliver half of the Crimson’s points, while floor general Siyani Chambers dished eight assists.
Harvard’s offense is statistically the Ivy’s best in league play, and it’s only getting better.
3. Yale (14-9, 6-4)
Yale’s now got a three-game home losing streak at John J. Lee Amphitheater after Harvard snapped its 22-game winning streak there last Saturday night, losing to Princeton and Penn this weekend by nearly identical scores (71-52 and 71-55, respectively).
So this was pretty much the worst weekend Yale could have had. The Elis’ perimeter defense lagged behind Princeton’s and Penn’s guards, and although their ball movement was okay against the Red and Blue, their spacing wasn’t and their outside shooting was dreadful. Yale shot just 6-for-28 (21.4 percent) from deep against Penn, and senior center Sam Downey was the only Bulldog to post an offensive rating above 100. Yale players not named Miye Oni shot 30 percent from two-point range as well, failing to press their size advantage and allowing Penn to have its way in the paint at the other end of the floor.
Against Princeton, Yale committed 14 turnovers versus just eight assists, compared with the Tigers’ 18-to-12 assist-to-turnover ratio. The Elis rank last in the league in conference play in three-point percentage, a category in which Yale has taken a nosedive compared to its nonconference output.
Yale gets Harvard next at Lavietes Pavilion, the perfect place for the Elis to turn their recent slump versus upper-tier Ivy competition around.
4. Penn (11-12, 4-6)
Well, look who’s back in the No. 4 slot, and in record speed too! Penn’s four-game deficit to Columbia in the Ivy standings is gone, and the 64-49 drubbing Penn took at the Palestra versus Princeton on February 7 feels like a really long time ago.
How did this happen? A series of game-changing runs. Penn reeled off a 24-9 run versus Columbia that was only a taste of what was to come. Penn opened its win last weekend over Cornell with a 23-5 run, obliterated Brown with a 27-2 run in the first half at the Pizzitola Sports Center, opened its matchup at Yale with a 11-2 run and added a 13-0 run to the start the second stanza, effectively putting the Bulldogs away.
So what is driving these eye-popping runs? Sound defensive rotations on the perimeter and body positioning in the paint, and a much more balanced offense at the other end of the floor. Every time the Elis passed the ball crisply around the arc, Penn defenders were there to cut off any driving lanes. Penn’s man-to-man defense has been very formidable the past couple of weekends, and coach Steve Donahue’s team is first in the league in two-point percentage allowed in conference play. Freshman center AJ Brodeur has 15 blocks in the past three games alone, and Penn notched eight steals to Yale’s one.
On offense, Penn is creating opportunities through greater ball movement and an effective transition game. Penn collected 41 assists this weekend and made 23 three-pointers, most of which were clean looks earned through solid passing. Five Quakers scored in double figures in each of Penn’s wins this weekend, getting outstanding bursts of offense from freshmen Ryan Betley (28 points in 30 minutes at Brown) and Devon Goodman (25 points this weekend). Donahue acknowledged after the Yale win, per Philly.com’s Jonathan Tannenwald, that it’s become a lot harder for opposing teams to decide whether to double Brodeur in the post because his teammates are so potent now.
Now Penn keeps traveling, going to Cornell Friday and Columbia for its first Saturday night game in three weeks. The matchup with the Lions could very well be the de facto Ivy tourney play-in game.
5. Columbia (10-13, 4-6)
While Penn was sweeping again, Columbia got swept again, enduring two comebacks that weren’t quite completed. Columbia’s 80-79 overtime defeat looked unlikely during the overtime period itself. The Lions led 75-70 with 90 seconds left in overtime and 79-75 with 20 seconds remaining in the extra period. But sophomore guard Quinton Adlesh’s two missed free throws following an Evan Boudreaux three opened the door, and junior guard Taylor Johnson ran coast-to-coast through it, dribbling across the floor to hit the game-winning layup with one second left.
Columbia had trailed 60-48 with 8:54 to go in regulation but came back for the tie with strong interior offense. Ultimately, though, Dartmouth’s 13-for-25 output from long range did Columbia in.
The Lions’ outside shooting wasn’t enough to keep up with Dartmouth’s, and Columbia also shot 5-for-22 versus Harvard. Against Penn Saturday night, Columbia must shoot significantly better from deep, since Penn’s strength (two-point defense) is also Columbia’s weakness (worst two-point percentage in the conference in league play). The Lions are second in conference play in three-point percentage, though, so Columbia can do it.
T6. Dartmouth (6-17, 3-7)
The Big Green continue to shoot better than they did in nonconference play, with five players canning multiple treys versus Columbia despite going cold in a 69-65 loss to Cornell Friday night. Sophomore guard Guilien Smith led the way with 23 points on 8-for-14 shooting versus Columbia, keeping the Big Green very much in the Ivy No. 4 seed picture with a home weekend versus slumping Brown and Yale coming up.
T6. Cornell (7-18, 3-7)
Sophomore guard Matt Morgan shone versus Dartmouth, putting up 28 points on 9-for-15 shooting, the Big Red pulling out the win with shots inside as opposed to heating up from outside, Cornell’s main shot at success in previous years. Cornell’s got a shot at the conference tourney too, but it’ll have to cool Penn off Friday night to do so, a matchup that pits the Big Red’s strength (best two-point percentage in league play) versus Penn’s strength (best two-point percentage allowed in league play).
8. Brown (11-15, 2-8)
Brown was projected to place last in the conference, and here it is. The Bears are on a six-game skid, including four straight defeats at home. Brown just keeps getting gouged in the paint, lacking a strong frontcourt defensive presence. The Bears rank next-to-last in the country in effective field goal percentage on defense, which is simply too bad for their many offensive talents to overcome.