2017-18 Ivy League team-by-team season preview, part 1

This is part 1 of IHO’s 2017-18 Ivy League team-by-team season preview. Read part 2 here

The rise of the Ivy League is projected to continue.

The Ancient Eight is slated by KenPom as the 13th-best conference in Division I this season, just seven years after it placed 26th. That’s a quantum leap, a product of the league’s bolstered recruiting in that time frame. The Ivy hoops status quo now consists of top-25 recruiting classes, Nike Skills Academy members and expectations of NCAA Tournament success.

There’s a three-way cluster between Harvard, Princeton and Yale projected to top the league. In the Ivy Preseason Media Poll, Yale received the most first-place votes (eight) but Harvard garnered the most points overall. Without a clear conference favorite, it’s quite likely that the regular season champion will not also be the conference tournament winner, with Bart Torvik’s Ivy Tourney Simulator tabbing Penn as the favorite in an Ivy tourney as a No. 4 seed.

All this projecting and predicting is premature, of course, but notice that only Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Penn are getting any preseason play as upper-tier Ivies. There’s a clear top four and bottom four expected to be the same as last year’s groupings. In KenPom’s preseason rankings, 67 slots separate Penn (No. 144) from Columbia (No. 211), and 31 points separated the Red and Blue from the Light Blue in the preseason media poll.

Short-term, that’s okay for Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth and Brown. But what about the big picture? It’s hard to see any of those four unseating Harvard, Yale or Princeton on an annual basis for seasons to come, especially since the Lions, the Big Red and the Big Green have coaches in their second year helming their respective programs and have some more building blocks to put together.

So as Kevin Whitaker astutely pointed out at NYC Buckets, H-Y-P-P could feasibly become the norm as the tournament starts to actually feel like an annual tradition, a potentially new normal after years of the league’s Penn-Princeton duopoly. It’s not particularly healthy for the league to consist of “haves” and “have nots” with regard to postseason competition, and it doesn’t help that one of the schools on the fringe of legitimate Ivy title contention getting a huge homecourt boost.

Let’s hope that one or several teams in that Columbia-Cornell-Dartmouth-Brown defy recent (and not so recent) history and upset the Ivy cart. The recruiting upswing the league has been on recent years should help them avoid getting locked out of the upper tier and should at the very least ensure unpredictability at the top of the league. For the good of the league, it beats the Penn-Princeton days for sure.

1. Harvard 

In Siyani Chambers’ final season at Harvard, the Crimson built a 10-2 record in Ivy play before losing to each of last year’s other three upper-tier Ivies, ultimately bowing to Yale in the first round of the Ivy League Tournament after having swept the Elis in the regular season.

The Crimson’s Ivy tourney loss featured a whole lot of Bryce Aiken. The then-frosh had a whopping usage rate of 38 in that game, launching 25 shots in just 29 minutes and making 11 of them. Aiken went 7-for-11 in from the floor in the final 9:50, but he lost control of the ball on a drive through the paint with 24 seconds left and Harvard down two, a crucial turning point.

Still, the Bryce Aiken Show almost worked. Aiken’s 5-for-12 performance from three-point range very nearly offset the rest of the team going an ice-cold 4-for-24 from deep, and he accounted for a third of Harvard’s field goals himself, committing just one turnover despite his high usage rate.

So it bodes well for the Crimson that Aiken is their most pivotal player this season (now that Chambers is gone). Aiken as a rookie positioned himself as the successor to Chambers as the conduit for coach Tommy Amaker’s offense, nabbing a first-team All-Ivy selection. It’s no coincidence that Aiken’s two highest usage rates in 2016-17 came in two of Harvard’s biggest league games – the conference tourney loss and its 57-56 loss to Princeton in February. He can take games over from beyond the arc and create mismatches and foul trouble for opposing defenses off the dribble, looming large in Harvard’s climb from next-to-worst in the nation in free-throw percentage in 2015-16 to 40th last season. In the season-defining close games that will inevitably come in league competition, Aiken will make a difference at both ends of the floor.

It’s really the defensive end where Amaker’s teams thrive, though, and this season should be no different. Harvard placed first in three-point percentage allowed a year ago, a product of Amaker’s man-to-man, three-point line-pressuring defensive design. Chris Lewis showed he could anchor the Crimson defense as a rim protector and rebounder as a freshman last year, also leading the conference in field-goal percentage and showing that he can mitigate the loss of Zena Edosomwan. And Justin Bassey quickly established himself as a premier perimeter defender, also ranking first in the conference in two-point field-goal percentage and shooting 40 percent from three-point range. Bassey figured into Harvard’s offense away from Lavietes Pavilion in league play, becoming the KenPom game MVP in the Crimson’s wins at Dartmouth and Cornell and going 3-for-4 from deep at Princeton. Bassey’s a little like Princeton’s Myles Stephens in that he’s always outstanding on defense but can score himself in bunches too, particularly when his teammates are struggling to convert.

Like Aiken, fellow sophomore Seth Towns is in the preseason running for Ivy Player of the Year, likely to excel again on the defensive boards and from three after exploding in certain games (like his 26-point, eight-rebound performance at Princeton on Mar. 3). And despite being held scoreless in three of Harvard’s final five games a season ago, Corey Johnson remains a sharpshooter to be reckoned with, proving the difference in Harvard’s wins versus Penn and at Yale and nearly pushing the Crimson past Columbia at Levien Gym.

And rookie Rio Haskett, as IHO’s Robert Crawford pointed out in his Harvard season preview, is well-positioned to channel his athleticism into some eye-popping play at both ends of the floor.

I’m picking the Crimson to claim the Ivy regular season crown because they’re best equipped to win the three-point line at both ends of the floor, take away opposing teams’ offensive rhythm and make hay from the foul line with high efficiency and frequency. Amaker’s super sophomore class should be ready to assert itself fully come Ivy play.

2. Princeton

The Tigers simply reload. Princeton’s man-to-man defense, which stifled Ivy opposition a year ago and ranked 45th in the country per KenPom in adjusted efficiency, should be of the same caliber as last year, especially with uber-defender Myles Stephens (my pick for Ivy Player of the Year last season) still in tow.

Stephens was arguably the most clutch player in the Ancient Eight last season, registering as the KenPom game MVP in both of the Tigers’ Ivy Tournament wins, posting 20.7 points, 6.3 rebounds, 1.3 steals and 1.3 blocks in three games versus Yale and notched 16.5 points and four boards per contest in two matchups with Harvard.

Stephens came up large in the biggest moments, and there’s enough talent elsewhere on coach Mitch Henderson’s roster for Princeton fans to feel their team has just as much of a shot at the regular season Ivy crown as either Harvard or Yale.

The Tigers lose IHO 2016-17 Player of the Year Steven Cook and the actual Ivy Player of the Year Spencer Weisz, whose shooting and floor vision, respectively, will be dearly missed. But this roster is still full of sharpshooters who can create their offense within the framework of Henderson’s modified Princeton Offense. Stephens, junior Devin Cannady and senior Amir Bell can all shoot, and the latter’s got some long awaited momentum. Bell posted anemic offensive ratings early last season before reeling off an eight-game stretch through the end of the season during which he notched offensive ratings of 107 or higher in every contest, peaking with a 16-point performance against Penn in the Ivy Tournament.

Sophomore forward Will Gladson’s shrewd offensive spacing was underrated down the stretch last season, and he’ll be joined by freshman forwards Sebastian Much and Jerome Desrosiers. Much is likely to play a key supporting role right away, having been highly touted for his ability to shoot, drive and convince Henderson that he’s “more ready” for the college game than he would have expected. Desrosiers should be called upon this season to bolster Princeton’s rebounding, an area which will be adversely impacted by Weisz’s departure.

Princeton opens its schedule with three KenPom top 100 teams: Butler, BYU and St. Joseph’s, to square off later with Miami and USC. Don’t be shocked if, like last year, the Tigers struggle with nonconference competition sans Weisz and Cook but turn a corner in the new calendar year.

3. Yale 

Yale is KenPom’s No. 1 pick, and yet as Kevin Whitaker expertly outlined in his Yale season preview for NYC Buckets, there’s a lot of questions about this group.

The Elis’ collective health will continue to be a space to watch and hopefully becomes an exclamation point rather than a question. Coach James Jones said in the Ivy preseason teleconference on Oct. 18 that Makai Mason’s foot, which he broke last November in a season-ending injury, is 100 percent, and Mason was fully cleared for practice last week, according to Jon Rothstein of the FanRag Sports Network.

That’s good, because Mason meant everything to Yale as a sophomore in 2015-16 and has to be the biggest reason why Yale got the most first-place votes in the Ivy Preseason Media Poll. Mason is an outstanding ball distributor, can shoot the ball from deep and seems to relish drawing contact on drives through the paint. At the other end of the floor, Mason is a strong on-the-ball defender.

Mason brings an awful lot to the table, and so does another Eli standout who’s dealt with health issues: Jordan Bruner. The sophomore forward underwent knee surgery in April to repair his meniscus, per the New Haven Register, but should be fine now, even though he also dealt with a knee injury a year ago.

So the health of Mason, Bruner and their teammates will be crucial, particularly since Yale’s seen what potential can be squandered when that health goes south.

The other question mark is the frontcourt, which is unusual for a Jones-coached squad. Jones’ teams are usually big-oriented, featuring an inside-out offensive attack predicated on crashing the boards at that end.

But this roster, sans the graduated Sam Downey’s outstanding offensive rebounding and field-goal percentage, doesn’t fit neatly into that approach – at least not yet. Bruner often started possessions from the perimeter instead of on the block as a freshman, sometimes taking an outside-in approach. Since Bruner ranked fifth in field-goal percentage in the Ivy League in his rookie campaign, he should be okay as a sophomore from an efficiency standpoint. But he’ll be expected to shoulder a bit more of the offensive burden this year, having scored in double figures five times in the regular season last year.

Yale’s offensive rebounding percentage, per KenPom, was the lowest it’s been since 2010-11 last year, and that trend must be reversed by the Elis’ bigs, including frosh Paul Atkinson (more on his high potential here) and Wyatt Yess. At 6-foot-7, 220 pounds, Blake Reynolds outstanding floor vision, registering 13 assists in Yale’s final regular season weekend versus just three turnovers, a huge plus since ball movement factors heavily into Jones’s offense.

I can’t help but be a little concerned about Yale’s outside shooting as well. The Bulldogs placed worst in the conference last season in three-point percentage, but Mason’s return should help there. Alex Copeland and his rainbow jumper return, as do Trey Phills and his standout perimeter defense. If you combined Copeland’s offense with Phills’s defense, you’d have a truly complete player, but both Elis already add huge value on their respective ends of the floor.

And oh yeah, there’s Miye Oni. The stat sheet-stuffing sophomore served notice to NBA scouts at the Nike Elite Basketball Academy this summer, after having placed in the top 10 in the Ivy League in rebounding, assists, three-point percentage, three-pointers made and blocks. Oni’s athleticism is the primary reason why Yale should easily be the most fun Ivy to watch in 2017-18.

Yale opens the season at Creighton and then Wisconsin, so we should learn the Bulldogs’ health and depth will be tested quickly.

4. Penn 

After a 0-6 start in league play, Penn flipped a switch in dramatic fashion, going 6-3 the rest of the way, including an overtime loss to Princeton in the Ivy League Tournament in a game that Penn never trailed in regulation. Why the turnaround? Steve Donahue’s team full of sharpshooters found its shooting touch. Sophomore guard Ryan Betley went 24-for-57 (42.1 percent) from deep in that stretch, establishing himself as a surprisingly reliable defensive rebounder as well. Devon Goodman, a 6-foot-0, 200-pound speedster, sparked big wins at Brown and Yale during the same stretch with his transition offense.

And AJ Brodeur kept on doing his thing as a freshman phenom. Actually, Brodeur does several things – protects the rim (registered multiple blocks in 17 games, including four swats in a win at 7-foot-6 Tacko Fall-led UCF), passes the ball well (notched multiple assists in 17 games) and dominates on the low block offensively.

Now Brodeur’s going to do a new thing: consistently stretch opposing defenses with his shooting. At least that’s Donahue’s plan for Brodeur, who is moving to the four slot this season, with Max Rothschild slated to take over the center position. Brodeur did, after all, can eight of 19 three-point attempts a season ago. But Brodeur’s move to the four means Rothschild will have to step up as a conduit of Donahue’s motion offense, feeding the open man on the perimeter whenever he’s not in a position to take a high-percentage shot in the paint himself.

Penn’s projected starting lineup is essentially gaining Rothschild while losing Matt Howard, whose expansive offensive repertoire and intensity cleaning the defensive boards will be missed. Losing Howard means more than many Ivy onlookers seem to realize. The Columbia, S.C. native routinely logged serious minutes as a senior, playing 44 out of a possible 45 minutes in Penn’s Ivy tourney loss to Princeton and playing 34 minutes or more in 10 games. So Penn’s backcourt is going to have to make up for Howard’s loss by stepping up with greater offensive consistency, including getting to and converting from the foul line more.

That’s where Antonio Woods could come in. Yes, Woods is back after 22 months away from game action, having been declared academically ineligible in January 2016. In Donahue’s first season at Penn, Woods was Donahue’s only player who could create his own offense by putting the ball on the floor and beating defenders in isolation, a skill that was sorely missed during Penn’s outside shooting drought amid its six-game slide a season ago.

Also factoring in will be freshmen Jarrod Simmons and Eddie Scott, who started slowly but finished strong in the Red and Blue Scrimmage – which is kind of what their trajectory might be as rookies. Simmons seems very likely to be another rim protector for Penn and an in-the-paint presence on offense to pair with Brodeur hanging out on the perimeter a bit more.

Also with the potential to contribute to Donahue’s three-pointer-heavy motion offense are Sam Jones, Caleb Wood and Jackson Donahue, all of whom are hot when they’re hot and not when they’re not.

Darnell Foreman should continue to be one of the best ball distributors in the league as a senior and proved he could be a threat from beyond the arc in Penn’s win at Yale and Ivy tourney appearance versus Princeton.

KenPom projects Penn will start its season 5-0, including a tossup victory at Fairfield to open the 2017-18 campaign. More important than attaining that gangbusters start is Donahue figuring out how to make the most of this still young roster offensively. Sometimes a little bit of rearranging takes time.

 

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