1. Princeton (7-7)
The Tigers showed what they’re capable of by scoring the biggest nonconference upset among Ivies this season with a 103-93 toppling of USC in overtime. The Tigers blew a seven-point lead with 46 seconds to go in regulation but rallied in gritty fashion in the extra period, getting seven points from Amir Bell in overtime. Princeton got 30 points from Myles Stephens and 23 points from Devin Cannady, who played all 45 minutes. Stephens and Cannady posted nine rebounds each. But what was perhaps most encouraging about Princeton’s victory over USC was freshman Sebastian Much continuing to emerge with a 19-point, four-assist performance that he followed up with double-figure efforts in Princeton’s next two games against Middle Tennessee State and Akron in the Diamond Head Classic. The Tigers let themselves down at the free throw line in their 69-67 loss to MTSU, going just 14-for-23 (60.9 percent) there.
But Princeton is rounding into shape as a team that wins at the three-point line at both ends of the floor, excels at a slow tempo and has a variety of options offensively (not just Bell, Cannady and Stephens). So this is indeed your typical Tigers squad, ready for the task of playing Penn at the Palestra to open league play Friday.
2. Harvard (5-8)
With Bryce Aiken out due to a knee injury, the Crimson fared reasonably well in a 74-63 win over Boston University and a 65-55 defeat at Minnesota, holding the Golden Gophers to a point per possession and hanging tough despite going 7-for-32 (21.9 percent) from three-point range. Harvard fared worse at George Washington, getting stymied throughout in a 58-48 loss and shooting 10-for-35 (28.6 percent) from tw0-point range.
It’s concerning that Harvard’s offensive efficiency has taken a nose dive from last season. Seth Towns isn’t having the breakout season that many expected out of him, but he’s still got plenty of time to rewrite the script. Harvard as a team ranks 11th-worst in the country in three-point percentage, doesn’t get to the foul line as often as it should and isn’t active on the offensive boards.
But its defense remains characteristically stingy as the best in the league statistically by a substantial margin, and that’s what matters most for now. If Aiken can get healthy, the Crimson can make the modest improvements they need on offense to win the Ivy League.
3. Penn (9-5)
Free cheesesteaks go a long way, don’t they?
Penn achieved just that by absolutely annihilating Delaware State Wednesday at the Palestra, 105-52, earning free Abner’s cheesesteaks for the entire Palestra crowd after it came up a point short of doing so in its previous home game, a 99-40 romp over Penn State Brandywine on Nov. 18.
The 53-point blowout of Delaware State is the latest signpost showing how far Penn has come under coach Steve Donahue. Penn opened the 2014-15 season with a 77-75 overtime loss to Delaware State at the Palestra and hired Donahue four months later.
Fifteen Quakers scored Wednesday against Delaware State, but it was Penn’s defense, holding the Hornets to 0.75 points a possession, that carried the historic day. Granted, Delaware State is terrible this year, ranked the worst team among all 351 Division I teams by KenPom. But Penn’s defense has been strong all season, cleaning the defensive boards with great efficiency and guarding the three-point line well.
But Toledo didn’t care about all of that Friday, dealing Penn an 85-72 defeat at the Palestra and shooting 9-for-14 from three-point range in a game much closer than the final score suggested. Regardless, reasons for optimism abound in this space. Ryan Betley is playing like an All-Ivy first-team talent and Penn’s proven it’s got the chops to hang tight in the race for the Ivy League regular season championship, let alone the conference tourney at the Palestra.
4. Yale (7-8)
Yale was without Alex Copeland for its 85-64 loss at home to Monmouth on Dec. 22, but with Copeland back into the fold and Makai Mason possibly being ready for Yale’s home-and-home series with Brown, the Elis could look very different. When Mason returns, he’ll be inserted into a lineup struggling with turnovers, three-point and free-throw shooting. He can help substantially in each of those categories.
5. Columbia (2-10)
The Lions notched an 83-71 victory over Maine that wasn’t nearly as close as the final score indicates, with Mike Smith, Quinton Adlesh, Patrick Tape and Lukas Meisner all scoring in double figures. Adlesh in particular should be a potent force come Ivy play, having turned in a seven-assist, zero-turnover performance against Maine and shooting 43.9 percent from deep on the season.
In fact, the Lions as a whole really live and die from beyond the arc. Its their interior offense that will have to improve if Columbia is to break into the top half of the conference.
6. Brown (6-6)
Brown throttled Marist at home on Dec. 22, 90-69, with freshman phenom Desmond Cambridge posting 33 points in just 27 minutes. Perhaps more impressive was Brown taking a 55-48 lead 4:30 into the second half at Northwestern, with Cambridge and Brandon Anderson combining for 48 points.
Coming into the season, it was a distinct possibility that the Bears’ defense would improve only because it couldn’t get any worse. But it’s improved very substantially regardless, gambling less and crashing the boards more. Cambridge and Zach Hunsaker stretch defenses while Anderson lives at the free throw line, making 31 foul shots on 35 attempts in December alone.
7. Cornell (5-7)
Cornell’s been busy, scoring an 80-71 home victory over Lafayette before suffering narrow losses to Niagara and Delaware in addition to a 98-77 defeat Saturday at Auburn. As our Rob Browne writes, Matt Morgan and Stone Gettings are hot right now, but the defense has a lot of work to do.
8. Dartmouth (4-7)
Dartmouth took care of lowly Bryant on Dec. 22, 75-58, before faltering Saturday at New Hampshire, 83-66. The Big Green are a better three-point shooting team than last season so far and have shot up in block percentage from second-worst in Division I to 56th in the nation. Dartmouth is also notching more steals and is a more aggressive team at both ends in year two under David McLaughlin.