What a long, strange trip it’s been …
@IvyLeagueNet Thanks, Harvard was great in Shanghai
— Bill Walton (@BillWalton) November 14, 2016
This has been a crazy season for Ivy League basketball, all 16 weeks of it. From Harvard’s starting the season 14 hours away in Shanghai to Penn’s regular season-ending triumph over the Crimson Saturday night, this season has been full of surprises and unusual trends.
Princeton followed a so-and-so nonconference output with the first 14-0 showing in league play in nine years, while Penn followed out-of-conference wins at UCF and La Salle with a 0-6 Ivy start and then a 6-2 league finish. Columbia went from impressive non-Ivy road showings at Stony Brook and Miami to not being able to get anything done on the road down the Ivy stretch. Dartmouth started 0-9 overall and then 0-5 in league play before winning four of its last nine conference contests. And Yale went from using the three-ball to great effect in nonconference play, particularly in solid wins at Washington and versus Albany, to finishing last in three-point percentage in league play.
The Ivy slate was always going to be unique in that it was the first slated to culminate in a postseason conference tournament, but tourney or no tourney, it turned out particularly topsy-turvy.
The Ivy League finished last among 32 Division I conferences in home winning percentage (28-28, 50 percent), and the Ancient Eight finished first in percentage of three-point shots attempted in the conference a season after placing in the bottom tier of Division I. Yale, Penn, Columbia, Dartmouth and Brown all suffered losing streaks extending for at least four games, sometimes against unlikely opponents.
It’s been a hard season to get a read on, frankly. Ivy Hoops Online’s Pick Em pool has lower records across the board than the previous two seasons, indicating that it’s been tougher to predict how teams’ trajectories would unfold. I also can’t remember a season in which the Ivy first-team and second-team All-Ivy candidates are so varied, and the races for individual honors so wide open.
This past weekend was a microcosm of that. Penn stunningly lost to Dartmouth at home and then eked past Harvard in equally stunning fashion the next night. Brown blew out a Columbia team with everything to play for and then got drubbed by a Cornell team it had beaten soundly in Ithaca last month and which had gotten throttled at Yale the previous night. Dartmouth’s upset of Penn was followed by a 37-point demolition of the Big Green by Princeton. And the weekend’s two most exciting games were decided by role players that hadn’t done much of anything in the previous 39 minutes and 50 seconds.
Yet everything fell neatly into place. The top five teams placed exactly where they were projected to in the preseason media poll.
Regardless, the up-and-down, hard-to-pin-down nature of the season makes the setup of the inaugural Ivy League Tournament all too fitting. It makes no sense that 14-0 Princeton should have to face 6-8 Penn on the latter’s floor, although of course, it also makes no sense that 14-0 Princeton should have to face any other Ivy again with a NCAA Tournament berth. The Tigers swept the entire round-robin, and they get rewarded by … actually, they don’t get rewarded at all. Not yet, anyway.
Penn getting in with a win over Harvard that gave the Quakers a better conference record than Columbia was one of two positive outcomes that Saturday could have brought the Ivy League, with a Columbia win at Yale coupled with a Penn loss being the other. The Ivy League got to avoid Cornell-Brown deciding the No. 4 seed and got the No. 4 seed to cap its season with momentum rather than backing in at 5-9, which would have been the lowest fourth-place Ivy placing in this millennium and an even worse look than what the league ultimately got with 6-8 Penn getting in.
If the Ivy League must have a postseason conference tournament (and it shouldn’t because it robs regular season champions like Princeton of their rightful ticket to the Big Dance), it must retool the tourney. As IHO contributor Steven Tydings wrote Sunday, it is absurd that Saturday’s Cornell-Brown matchup had the potential to determine the No. 4 seed.
I think it’s blatantly obvious that the No. 1 seed should be rewarded for being such, and it’s worth repeating that the most just reward within the context of a conference tournament is to allow the No. 1 seed to host a three-team tournament and get a bye, with Nos. 2 and 3 playing each other for a shot at the No. 1 on the latter’s home floor. Princeton women’s coach Courtney Banghart also prefers a three-team format, according to an interesting article on the Ivy League Tournament in Thursday’s edition of the New York Times. The non-No. 1 qualifying teams could each receive a quarter of the full allotment of tickets for sale through their campus ticket office, and the No. 1 team could receive one half of the full allotment. If Lavietes Pavilion were to host a tournament, complaints would abound, but even in that scenario, Nos. 2 and 3 would get approximately 550 tickets apiece. If you don’t think that or a similar setup yields enough seats, especially if your school has a bigger gym, hope your team does better in the regular season next time and allow the No. 1 seed to do with their moment what they will.
Princeton coach and Ivy Coach of the Year shoo-in Mitch Henderson was quoted in the New York Times Thursday as advocating for the No. 1 seed to host the tourney. If the league opts to work away from similar observations to those of Penn senior center Sydney Stipanovich and former Penn athletic director and standout guard Steve Bilsky in the same article, it should at least listen to Henderson. After all, the league used a statement from Henderson to tout the tourney when it was announced last year, so clearly it values what he has to say.
1. Princeton (20-6, 14-0)
And Myles to go before they sleep, and Myles to go before they sleep …
Princeton isn’t getting that moment at Jadwin Gym, but isn’t that a motivating tool for Henderson? If the Tigers claw their way to 16-0 in league play in the Ivy’s first season with a tourney, claiming the tournament championship on their archrival’s floor and staying perfect in a league of much greater competition than the Penn-Princeton era, they can cement their place as one of the greatest Ancient Eight squads of all time, one that overcame hurdles that simply didn’t exist before.
Princeton’s final two Ivy regular season victories could not have been more different. One was a 37-point drubbing of a bottom-tier opponent and the other was a white-knuckler against the Tigers’ greatest obstacle in their bid for a NCAA Tournament berth, which would be the program’s first since 2011.
Harvard’s won four Ivy championships since then, and on Friday night, the Crimson almost ended Princeton’s run at Ivy perfection.
Princeton led 41-32 at the 19:50 mark of the second half, but three quick Harvard treys in the next 1:06 tied the game, and six more ties would follow, with the Crimson never nabbing the lead.
The Tigers clinched the game with a lefty Amir Bell drive and layup on Harvard’s Chris Lewis with 1.1 seconds remaining, giving Princeton a 71-69 lead. Then came a Harvard five-second (well, maybe not quite five seconds) violation, and two free throws from Myles Stephens to put it away. It was also Stephens who snared the offensive rebound with 30 seconds left to extend the Tigers’ possession and set the table for Bell, whose second basket of the game did Harvard in.
Steven Cook notched 30 points against a really good defense with just 15 shots taken from the floor and three free throw attempts. That’s efficient scoring at its finest.
Princeton also destroyed Dartmouth Saturday night, 85-48, and at one point eye-poppingly led by a 67-24 margin, 5:06 into the second half. That’s all that needs to be said about that game.
2. Harvard (18-9, 10-4)
It was a game that Harvard nearly won at the three-point line, going 13-for-28 from that range. But the Crimson’s defeat versus Princeton came down to turnovers – again.
The Tigers won the turnover battle again, collecting 18 turnovers and committing just five.
Of Princeton’s 73 points, 21 followed Harvard turnovers, while only three Harvard points followed Tiger turnovers. Seven of Harvard’s first 18 possessions in the first 10:40 ended in turnovers, keeping the Crimson from establishing an even bigger early lead while they were hot from deep. But the Crimson didn’t get a single shot off on any of those seven possessions ending in turnovers, which came back to clip the Crimson later. Harvard finished with 18 turnovers, marking 35 in two games versus Princeton this season. The Crimson are absolutely capable of beating Princeton in a tournament final and punching a ticket to the Big Dance. But they won’t make it happen unless they can take care of the basketball against Princeton’s seasoned defensive front.
And then Harvard lost at Penn, setting up the Red and Blue to play Princeton in round one of the tourney. Senior center Zena Edosomwan had his most prolific offensive output of the season, posting 15 points on a season-high 10 field goal attempts in 23 minutes. But the Crimson just happened to run into a buzzsaw named Matt Howard. More on that later.
3. Yale (17-10, 9-5)
Yale clinched an Ivy tournament berth with authority, pummeling Cornell, 90-63, on Friday and holding off Columbia, 75-71. The Columbia-Yale game was rendered meaningless from a No. 4 seed perspective by Cornell’s win over Brown, but it featured an encouraging performance from sophomore Blake Reynolds, who notched 16 points and six assists in 34 minutes.
Yale’s win over Cornell marked its second straight game with at least 90 points, as the Elis put up 1.30 points per possession.
If the Bulldogs are to beat Harvard for the first time in three shots this season, they’re going to have to shoot the ball much better from deep. They’re 6-for-30 (20 percent) from three-point range in both of their losses to Harvard combined. Sophomore guard Alex Copeland scored 20 points on Harvard in both games, but the Elis need someone else to hit that plateau along with him.
4. Penn (13-14, 6-8)
Now, about Matt Howard. I’ve seen a lot of talented Penn players pass through in recent history without enjoying a moment like Howard did Saturday night, when he poured 24 points, 12 rebounds, three blocks and two steals on Harvard to clinch a 75-72 victory. Fran Dougherty, Miles Jackson-Cartwright, Tony Hicks and Darien Nelson-Henry all had special moments for Penn, but they never happened in a context nearly as captivating as Howard’s performance – playing his heart out to extend his collegiate career.
And yet it was not Howard but sophomore guard Jackson Donahue who drilled the game-winning three-pointer from the right wing, incredibly his first field-goal attempt of the night. If Donahue doesn’t make that three and Harvard gets the defensive rebound with approximately six seconds left, that’s plenty of time for the Crimson to race back the other way for a game-winning and Penn season-ending drive, since Harvard coach Tommy Amaker prefers not to call timeout in that situation.
But Penn’s shooting, in the clutch and throughout the game, was there again after disappearing the previous night in a stunning 74-72 loss to Dartmouth. In that contest, Howard again had Penn’s hottest hand, but no one else had any heat whatsoever. Penn simply got outshot in that game, but its win over Harvard was the kind of special moment proponents of an Ivy tourney will point to as being positive for players and fans. On this count, they’re certainly not wrong.
5. Columbia (11-16, 5-9)
Columbia had a four-game lead in pursuit of the No. 4 seed six games into the 14-game Ivy slate. The Lions were 4-2 in league play at that point, and Penn was 0-6. The Lions lost their grip because they never found a rhythm away from Levien Gym. Columbia finished just 1-6 away from Levien in Ivy play versus 4-3 at home, and all six of those losses were in the second week of February or later, amid a backloaded schedule.
Columbia got troublingly blown away at Brown, 88-68, not a good look for a team with as much desperation as the Lions had going in. Coach Jim Engles indicated to IHO last week that the backloaded slate was proving tricky for his young squad, and he was too right. All of freshman guard Mike Smith’s 17 points came in the second half, by which time the Lions were already in a hole.
Still, Smith, Lukas Meisner, Nate Hickman and hopefully Kyle Castlin should provide a strong nucleus for the Lions next season in what will be year two under Engles. Any time you start 4-2 in league play and finish 5-9, it’s going to hurt, but Morningside Heights should be the site for good basketball in the Engles era.
6. Cornell (8-21, 4-10)
In his final collegiate game, Robert Hatter led the visiting Big Red past Brown, 92-78, in a game that ensured Penn would control its own No. 4 seed destiny versus Harvard. Hatter scored 20 points on 6-for-12 shooting in 30 minutes, a strong way for him to go out.
Cornell couldn’t stop Yale inside the previous night, though, and coach Brian Earl must ensure that the Big Red have a stronger defensive frontcourt going forward. The offensive efficiency has been much better this season, though, and Cornell is on the right track.
7. Dartmouth (7-20, 4-10)
Dartmouth scored a huge upset at the Palestra and then got steamrolled at Jadwin Gym. The latter game demonstrated that the Big Green need a huge upgrade on defense and more balanced offensive production, but the former underscored that the Big Green improved more over the course of the season than any other Ivy, save perhaps for Harvard. Defense is the watchword for Dartmouth in year two under David McLaughlin, who deserves credit along his staff for rounding the Big Green into shape after a 0-9 start.
8. Brown (13-17, 4-10)
Brown’s season turned in the second half of its home loss to Harvard on February 10. The Bears led 56-48 in the second half and then faded, and their shot at the Ivy tourney subsequently faded too amid a five-game losing skid. Despite consistently first-team All-Ivy play from senior Steven Spieth, the Bears remained the league’s most streaky team and struggled with inefficient stretches. Going forward, this program would benefit from finding players that can either better fit coach Mike Martin’s fast-paced, small-ball approach or undergoing a tweak of that approach that emphasizes defensive stops first and foremost. Brown had the Ivy League’s best defense in Martin’s first season at Brown in 2012-13, but since then, the Bears have gradually regressed on that side of the floor.