1. Penn (13-6, 3-0 Ivy)
After Penn let Temple slip away at the Palestra last weekend, it got Big 5 revenge Saturday with a 67-56 win over St. Joseph’s, displaying a stout defense that had Steve Donahue singing its praises after the game.
“The story of our team, and our season, is our defense,” Donahue said according to The Daily Pennsylvanian. “Playing two bigs, with the defensive numbers we have right now … we’re way different than last year, and way ahead.”
Max Rothschild and AJ Brodeur, the two bigs, are versatile defenders, and Donahue’s preseason decision to pair them up in the starting lineup is paying off. But good defense is naturally an ensemble effort, and Penn’s backcourt has been up to the task all season too. The Red and Blue defend the three-point line exceptionally well and crash the defensive boards with great success. Penn did both Saturday, helping contribute to the Hawks’ dismal 6-for-24 (25 percent) posting from three-point range and allowing just eight offensive rebounds on 68 shots, with Antonio Woods, Darnell Foreman and Ryan Betley notching eight, six and five defensive boards respectively.
Penn’s adjusted defensive efficiency ranks 55th in the nation, a dramatic improvement from last season and the Red and Blue’s best rating since 2005-06, Fran Dunphy’s last season at the helm at Penn.
The knock on Steve Donahue when he was being considered to take the reins at Penn three seasons ago was that his defenses were traditionally mediocre and that he might not be able to build a championship-caliber team on that end of the floor. That perception seems silly now.
The good news for Penn is that defense travels. The better news is that come the Ivy League Tournament, it won’t have to.
2. Princeton (10-8, 2-1)
The Tigers have been in Finals mode lately, so nothing new in game action to report here other than an 86-50 rout of Division III Rowan Sunday. But now’s a good time to note that four of Princeton’s final six games are away from Jadwin Gym, so it’s important for the Tigers to take care of business and become the official conference championship frontrunner in their upcoming three-game Ivy homestand against Yale, Brown and yes, Penn.
3. Harvard (9-10, 4-0)
The Crimson ended this weekend a much more robust contender for another Ivy crown than they entered it.
First came an ugly-is-beautiful 54-52 squeaker over Yale in New Haven that saw the Crimson race out to an early 27-11 lead and stave off an inspired Yale comeback effort that peaked when the Elis took a 49-47 lead with 5:11 to play that it would soon relinquish for good.
Miye Oni’s three-point attempt was blocked by Justin Bassey with four ticks left, preserving a Crimson win made possible by doers like “Lew.”
That’s Tommy Amaker’s spoken shorthand for Chris Lewis, who he said was the biggest difference in the game other than Harvard’s quick start, per the New Haven Register. Lewis’s 16 points and 11 boards were crucial in such a grinder of a game, as were Seth Towns’s eight rebounds, five assists and 11 points, two of which came from free throws which put Harvard up 54-49 with two seconds left, thus sealing the victory and marking the second straight game in which Towns made clutch free throws late that facilitated a win.
Then came Harvard’s 86-77 win at Brown, the first time the Crimson topped 80 points in a game since an 87-75 home victory over Cornell last season. Harvard got 30 points out of Towns, who has stepped up in Bryce Aiken’s absence due to injury. Towns ranks first in league play so far in percentage of possessions used and second in percentage of shots taken. It had been his team, at least offensively, during an eight-game stretch in which Aiken missed six games and played just 17 minutes combined in the two games in which he did appear.
But Aiken asserted himself off the bench at Brown, scoring 18 points in just 20 minutes of play, including an 11-for-12 showing from the foul line for a team that struggled to get free throw attempts without him.
Harvard is a top-40 team nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, and the offense should get marginally better as Ivy play continues – enough to make the Crimson an Ivy League championship-caliber team yet again.
4. Yale (9-11, 2-2)
Yale has work to do. The Bulldogs’ interior defense needs to improve, as their two-point percentage allowed on defense is the worst the program has given up in the KenPom era (dating back to 2001.) And while Yale’s offensive two-point percentage is likewise the best of the KenPom era, it gets offset by the team’s abysmal three-point and pedestrian free-throw shooting. Yale’s faded a bit on the defensive boards so far in league play too.
With opposing defenses keying on him, Miye Oni is shooting 19-for-58 (32.8 percent) from the floor in Ivy play through four games, and no one besides Alex Copeland, Trey Phills or Oni have proven themselves to be effective scoring threats in league play so far. Up next is a daunting Princeton-Penn road trip that if it yields two Eli losses would leave Yale at 2-4 with its worst six-game start to Ivy play in the James Jones era (dating back to 1999).
All of that history gets viewed through a new lens if Makai Mason returns soon. There’s a chance that Mason comes back for Yale’s swing through the Ps this upcoming weekend, per the New Haven Register.
5. Brown (9-8, 2-2)
The Bears never trailed hosting Dartmouth Friday night, but it took a buzzer-beating layup from Zach Hunsaker to give them a 64-62 victory at the wire, breaking a tie that came about after the Big Green’s Will Emery hit one of two free throws with 14.6 seconds left.
But Brown couldn’t clip Harvard at the Pizzitola Sports Center and still hasn’t beaten the Crimson since Mar. 6, 2009, during Jesse Agel’s first of four years at the helm in Providence.
Brown’s defense remains a liability, but its marked improvement, particularly around the three-point line, bodes well.
Meanwhile, Desmond Cambridge is a pretty captivating candidate for Ivy Rookie of the Year, ranking first in conference play so far in percentage of shots taken, third in percentage of possessions used, fifth in block percentage and ninth in fouls drawn per 40 minutes.
6. Columbia (4-13, 1-3)
Columbia relinquished yet another double-digit first-half lead en route to a tough 82-81 defeat at Cornell, snapping a five-game road winning streak at Newman Arena for the Lions, who are now 0-7 this season in games decided by six points or less.
The Lions just don’t seem to have the intangibles needed to preserve early leads or win see-saw contests, and since the Ivy League is fourth among 32 Division I conferences in percentage of close games (decided by four points or fewer or in overtime), they might be in the wrong league for that kind of trend this season.
Cornell again held Mike Smith to just nine points, this time on 2-for-10 shooting from the floor, while freshman guard Gabe Stefanini pitched in 19 points for the Lions.
Columbia is intriguingly aggressive on defense but just doesn’t have the overall D to put the team over the top. Still, give Jim Engles credit for overseeing Columbia’s rise from 166th in the nation in percentage of field-goal attempts that are from three-
The Lions are now 1-3 in Ivy play with Harvard and Dartmouth coming to Levien Gym this coming weekend in games that KenPom gives Columbia the edge to win. Penn proved by making the Ivy League Tournament after an 0-6 start that it’s definitely not too late for any team sitting at 1-3 to turn things around. But Columbia’s got to get going now.
7. Cornell (7-10, 1-3)
Cornell nabbed a win by the slimmest of margins that it absolutely had to have over Columbia, courtesy of a classic Matt Morgan performance consisting of 29 points and five assists versus just two turnovers. Stone Getting got back on track after two subpar offensive performances with 25 points, seven rebounds and five assists.
This Friday’s matchup of Dartmouth at Cornell will feature the league’s worst defense during conference play (the Big Red) versus the league’s worst offense during conference play (the Big Green). Dartmouth’s defense has had to face Harvard twice, though, so it’s more of a battle of tempos (Cornell-fast, Dartmouth-slow) than anything else.
8. Dartmouth (4-13, 0-4)
Dartmouth would have beaten Brown if it made even two of 17 three-point attempts at Pizzitola Sports Center Friday night, but it made only one before faring only slightly better at Payne Whitney Gym Saturday night with a 4-for-17 performance. At least Will Emery posted a career-high 18 points in 29 minutes at Brown a night before Dartmouth got a more balanced scoring stat sheet with Taylor Johnson leading the way at Yale. Dartmouth’s three-point shooting should get better soon, and rookie stalwart Chris Knight will only improve too. It’s also encouraging that Dartmouth’s turnover percentage is significantly improved from a season ago. The Big Green are better than their conference record so far, but to avoid going 0-5 to start Ivy play for the second season in a row, they’ll have to shoot the ball better from deep, limit turnovers and slow the game down.