One impressive Ivy winning streak continued this weekend, while another very consequentially ended.
Princeton upped its consecutive win total to 15, effectively clinching the No. 1 seed in the inaugural Ivy League Tournament, to be played March 11 and March 12 at the Palestra. The last four Tiger victories have been by double digits, and Princeton’s defense is shutting down opponent after opponent.
Penn, though, couldn’t escape the Empire State unscathed, suffering a crucial 70-67 defeat at Columbia that snapped both the Red and Blue’s five-game winning streak and the Lions’ five-game losing skid, keeping Columbia very much in the race for the inaugural Ivy League Tournament’s No. 4 seed.
But that race isn’t what most Ivy supporters thought it was as recently as this past weekend. On Sunday morning, in response to a question from Mike James (@ivybball), the Ivy League confirmed that second tiebreaker for the No. 4 seed doesn’t just take into account the No. 4 candidates’ records versus tournament qualifiers from No. 1 through No. 3, which is how most Ivy observers interpreted the tiebreaker (which can be read at the #IvyMadness site here). Instead, the tiebreaker would be the highest Ivy that one No. 4 candidate beat that other didn’t, even if that tiebreak goes as low as Brown or Cornell.
So neither Penn nor Columbia actually controls its own destiny, because if both win out, the tiebreaker becomes Cornell-Brown at the Pizzitola Sports Center Saturday night. In this scenario assuming Cornell and Brown have the same result Friday, Penn will have swept Cornell and Columbia would have swept Brown. So if Cornell finishes higher than Brown, Penn gets in the tourney, and if Brown finishes higher than Cornell, Columbia gets in.
The third tiebreaker is an aggregation of rankings agreed to before the season by league coaches, which favors Penn.
But if Penn loses to Harvard Saturday night, Columbia just has to win one of its remaining two games to nab the No. 4 seed. That’s because Columbia holds the aforementioned tiebreaker that supersedes the rankings aggregation decider: which team beat the higher-seeded remaining Ivy League opponent. The Lions defeated No. 2 Harvard earlier this season, a higher-seeded Ivy than any Penn would have beaten in this scenario.
Columbia would have been virtually locked out of the race had the Lions lost to Penn Saturday night. They didn’t, and so we’ve got a regular season weekend finale to remember.
It’s really disappointing that neither Penn nor Columbia controls its own destiny in the race for the No. 4 seed. College athletics should be about rewarding achievement, not adhering to random tiebreakers driven entirely by other schools to decide a team’s conference tournament fate.
Indeed, rewarding merit should always be the end goal when designing postseason structure, so rankings aggregation should be the next tiebreaker after head-to-head results in future seasons. It doesn’t make any sense that Columbia should get a league tournament berth instead of Penn when the teams split their head-to-head matchups and Penn ranks well ahead of Columbia in ratings indices already identified in advance by the coaches for tiebreaker consideration (Sagarin, KenPom, BPI and NCAA RPI). Those indices should matter a lot more than whether Cornell beats Brown Saturday night, but they don’t.
It’s also ridiculous that the Ivy League did not convey the full implications of the second tiebreaker until one weekend remained in league play, and even then only did so at Mike James’ prompting. Those who cover and analyze Ivy hoops, me included, should have nailed down the exact meaning of that tiebreaker earlier, but the league should have clarified that tiebreaker as well, once it became clear that even the most knowledgeable Ivy analysts and insiders had misread it. Here’s the text causing all the confusion:
“If a tie still exists, the tie will be broken by comparing each team’s record against the highest seed outside of the tie and continuing through the lowest seed, if necessary.”
Ivy onlookers, myself included, have long interpreted “seed” as meaning only those teams actually seeded in the tournament. Apparently, that’s not the case. The Ivy League did not know what any tiebreakers would be beyond head-to-head when the tournament format was announced last March, and in retrospect, the tiebreakers should have been explained in full at that point. Perhaps location and tiebreakers will be two facets of the tournament that are adjusted next season.
1. Princeton (19-6, 12-0)
Yeah, Princeton’s really good. The Tigers pulled decisively away in both halves at Cornell and Columbia, its stifling defense and superior outside shooting proving the significant difference.
In its Saturday night win at Newman Arena, Princeton responded to a 44-44 tie at the 14:20 mark of the second half with an 18-6 run over the next 7:44, with sophomore guard Devin Cannady scoring seven points in that stretch. The Tigers were already a hot team, but now they’re scorching thanks to Cannady’s own recent offensive explosion. He’s made at least six three-pointers in three of the past four games, including 12 this weekend (6-for-10 at Cornell and 6-for-11 at Columbia).
It was Cannady’s deep shooting that broke Columbia’s 2-3 zone in the second half Friday night, helping turn a 27-22 halftime lead into what at one point became a 25-point advantage for the Tigers. Cannady’s four threes in the first 5:22 of the second half did the Lions in, as the Tigers benefited from characteristically slowing the pace of the game to a crawl. That’s not how Columbia wants to play anymore now that former Lions coach Kyle Smith helms USF, and Princeton’s defense stymied the Light Blue at every turn.
Senior guard Spencer Weisz went just 1-for-10 from the floor at Cornell but nevertheless proved himself one of the league’s most valuable players with eight assists versus zero turnovers to go along with four steals.
Weisz and Cannady are two of four Tigers ranked in KenPom’s top five Ivy League all-kenpom.com players – the other two are Myles Stephens and Steven Cook, who is ranked No. 1 overall. The only non-Tiger in KenPom’s top five is Penn freshman center AJ Brodeur, who is ranked No. 2 overall.
Princeton needs just two wins at Jadwin Gym versus Harvard and Dartmouth next weekend to complete the first 14-0 Ivy season since Cornell accomplished that feat in 2008. Unlike the ’08 Big Red, though, the Tigers will have to win two more games to wrap up a NCAA Tournament berth, since an at-large bid is out of the question.
2. Harvard (18-7, 10-2)
Harvard sailed past Brown and Yale at Lavietes Pavilion by respective 77-64 and 77-58 scores, notching its first win over the Bulldogs at Lavietes since 2013.
The Crimson’s stomping of Brown was more thorough than the final score suggests, as Harvard built a 75-45 lead nearly three quarters through the second half. Harvard held a potent Brown offense to 0.88 points per possession and at the other end of the floor, senior guard Siyani Chambers notched a season-high 19 points on 7-for-9 shooting and five assists versus two turnovers in just 28 minutes.
Senior forward Seth Towns quietly posted 16 points, the fifth time he’s scored at least that many in the past six games. Towns is a versatile stat-stuffer who is likely to be a crucial factor for the Crimson in the Ivy League Tournament. On Saturday night, Towns was one of five Crimson to post at least two assists, as Harvard’s ball movement helped win the contest.
Harvard also held Yale to 0.88 points per possession, as the Elis went cold from deep and were inefficient from closer range as well, save for sophomore guards Alex Copeland and Trey Phills, who combined for 12 of Yale’s 23 field goals. Harvard freshman guard Bryce Aiken continued to make a strong case for Ivy Rookie of the Year Friday night, registering 22 points, five assists and three steals. Despite having trailed 34-31 at halftime, the Crimson peaked at a 67-50 advantage with 5:53 remaining and continued to enjoy smooth sailing from there.
Harvard’s team weakness is turnovers, but the Crimson more than offset their 15 turnovers versus the Elis with 18 assists and 25-for-38 (65.8 percent) shooting from two-point range. The Crimson rank first in conference play in two-point percentage, and I don’t doubt Harvard’s ability to nick Princeton inside in an Ivy tourney final, especially with Chambers slicing through the paint and drawing contact. But Harvard committed 17 turnovers and posted just eight assists versus Princeton in the Tigers’ 57-56 win at Lavietes earlier this month. It will take superior, more efficient ball movement to better control the pace of game against Princeton and allow a Crimson upset of the Tigers, either this Friday at Jadwin Gym or on Sun., Mar. 12 at the Palestra in a potential Ivy tourney final.
3. Yale (12-13, 7-5)
Yale’s bugaboo continues to be turnovers as well, at least against upper-tier competition. The Elis committed 17 turnovers versus just eight assists against Harvard Friday night, and Phills’ five steals weren’t enough to offset that. During the Crimson’s 15-4 run to start the second half, a run that permanently flipped the game in Harvard’s favor, Yale committed three turnovers and shot just 2-for-7 from the floor, including three misses from point-blank range. The Bulldogs rank in conference play in three-point percentage, so they won’t be able to miss easy shots in such a pivotal point in the game if they get another shot at Harvard in the Ivy tourney.
Yale nearly hit the century mark Saturday night in a 99-86 win at Dartmouth, scoring an eye-popping 1.36 points per possession. Ivy Rookie of the Year candidate Miye Oni notched a career-high 27 points on 9-for-16 shooting, adding four assists versus just one turnover. Copeland added a typically efficient 23 points in just 26 minutes, hitting nine of Yale’s 24 free throws. The Elis’ win in Hanover didn’t come easily, but for Penn and Columbia, it crucially didn’t come at all.
The Bulldogs have not yet nailed down a slot in the Ivy tourney. A win versus either Cornell or Columbia in New Haven this weekend would do the trick, but getting swept would likely push Yale out of the conference’s top four for the first time since 1999-2000, James Jones’ first year as Bulldogs head coach. It’d be cruelly ironic if Yale somehow missed out on the top four in the first year it actually comprised a conference tournament after all those years of upper-tier placings.
4. Columbia (11-14, 5-7)
The Lions’ defense pushed them over the top in their biggest game of the season, bailing them out even as they endured a scoring drought in crunchtime that lasted 4:33 at the other end of the floor, starting at the 5:37 mark of the second half. Columbia held Penn to just six points in that span and snapping that scoring drought was freshman guard Mike Smith with what proved to be the game-winning step-back three-pointer, giving the Lions a 70-65 lead with 1:04 left. Penn sophomore guard Jackson Donahue’s would-be game-tying three-point attempt rimmed out with eight seconds left and Donahue’s followup attempt from long range was swatted away by senior forward Luke Petrasek, preserving the Columbia win.
The Light Blue win came courtesy of a surprising advantage at both ends of the floor from two-point range. The Lions shot 16-for-37 (43.2 percent) from that range, besting Penn’s 13-for-31 (41.9 percent) performance. Coming into the game, Penn’s strength (two-point defense) was also Columbia’s weakness (worst two-point percentage in the conference in league play), and the Lions had shot just 12-for-40 (30 percent) versus Penn’s 12-for-29 (41.4 percent) in Penn’s 70-62 win over Columbia at the Palestra earlier this month. On Saturday night, Columbia also neutralized the three-point line, attempting just two fewer three-pointers than Penn (23) and making just one fewer (nine). The Quakers had attempted 34 three-pointers versus Columbia on February 10, 18 more than Columbia, and they outscored Columbia by 12 from that range in that matchup as well. Coach Jim Engles’ decision to eschew a 2-3 zone in favor of a man-to-man setup turned out to be the right one, forcing the Red and Blue to take tougher shots and create their own offense more.
Smith scored 11 of Columbia’s final 24 points, cementing his place as one of the conference’s most electrifying offensive players. Smith misses a lot of shots because he takes a lot of shots, but he hasn’t turned the ball over more than twice in a contest since Columbia’s win over Harvard nine games ago. That’s an unusual level of ball protection for a freshman whose team is so heavily reliant on him. Regardless of whether the Lions make the Ivy tournament in year one under Engles, they have a bright future with Smith in tow, and that in turn means a middle-tier Ivy program in transition has a very viable upward trajectory ahead. That’s good news for the Ivy League.
Columbia did also get hammered by Princeton Friday night, getting lit up from downtown by Cannady in the second half at Levien for the second straight year.
For now, though, Columbia must take care of business at Brown and Yale, two teams that have struggled as of late. KenPom says Columbia is not the favorite to win either game, but the matchup with the Bears is a virtual tossup that the Lions can win if their perimeter defense is as sharp as it was Saturday night.
5. Penn (12-13, 5-7)
Penn’s defense coupled with poor shot selection helped encourage that 4:33 scoreless stretch late, but Columbia simply hit more big shots in the second half than the Red and Blue did. Sophomore guard Jackson Donahue went 4-for-4 from three-point range in the first 13:58, and it seemed as if Penn would just blow Columbia away with treys. But the Lions cracked down on Donahue, and Penn would only make six three-pointers the rest of the game.
Penn crucially held on at Cornell Friday night despite a 13-0 Big Red run that gave the home team a 53-51 lead with under 11 minutes to play. Penn responded with back-to-back assists from sparkplug Devon Goodman, and its defense tightened up late, with a Tyler Hamilton steal and Ryan Betley block allowing Penn to eventually win the game at the free throw line, notching the win after Cornell sophomore guard Matt Morgan’s would-be game-tying three rimmed out as time expired.
Penn does not control its own destiny as even coach Steve Donahue thought after the game, per Jonathan Tannenwald of Philly.com. But it can close in on a tourney berth wins over Dartmouth and Harvard. The Crimson collected 19 turnovers in their 69-59 win over Penn earlier this month, neutralizing Brodeur and winning in part because of a 6-for-24 (25 percent) clip from long range for the Red and Blue. This game, like Columbia’s matchup at Brown Friday night, is a virtual tossup that will be decided by how well Penn can handle Harvard’s pressure defense.
6. Dartmouth (6-19, 3-9)
Brown snapped a five-game losing streak and Yale snapped a four-game losing streak at Leede Arena this weekend, and both combined to score 179 points in Hanover. Brown held on for an 80-75 victory as Dartmouth’s interior defense collapsed, and the Big Green also got gouged from two-point range by Yale. Dartmouth still has a very minimal shot at an Ivy tourney berth if it sweeps Penn and Princeton this weekend.
It’s disappointing that double-double-dependable Evan Boudreaux is getting lost in the All-Ivy first-team conversation, one that is focusing on Princeton’s also very deserving standouts. Boudreaux ranks second in the league in scoring, first in rebounding and second in minutes played, and yet I feel like Ivy onlookers take him too easily for granted.
7. Cornell (7-20, 3-9)
Cornell raced out to a 23-13 lead in the first half of stanza one Saturday night but Princeton’s superior experience and defense took over from there. Senior guard Robert Hatter led the way for Cornell with 18 points. Morgan’s 26 points versus Penn and 40 points on 13-for-26 shooting for the weekend really shows how well he’s adjusted to coach Brian Earl’s offense. He still looked like his taking-the-game-over self against Penn, going 6-for-12 from deep, and he also went 4-for-8 from long range versus an outstanding Tigers defensive backcourt. But Morgan’s striking now within a much more efficient offense. The Big Red’s effective field goal percentage is way up above what it was last season, and so is its adjusted offensive efficiency. And Morgan’s still leading the league in scoring at 17.8 points per game with substantial increases in three-point and especially two-point field-goal percentage. Cornell’s got a long way to go as a program, but it’s laying the foundation.
8. Brown (12-16, 3-9)
Brown has a shot at playing spoiler this weekend, both when it hosts Columbia Friday night and then Cornell Saturday night. Six Bears scored in double figures in their win over Dartmouth, but only two did so versus Harvard the next night. Brown is the league’s most streaky teams, which makes their sudden position as a likely spoiler for either Penn or Columbia all the more intriguing. Senior forward Steven Spieth is probably the Ivy’s most consistent scorer, getting to double figures in 23 of 28 games this season, and he’s also a more than accomplished passer and rebounder. So around this time of year, it’s worth noting that he’s deserving of first-team All-Ivy honors.