What a wild and crazy Ivy season the 2017-18 campaign turned out to be.
The Ivy League finished first among all 32 Division I conferences with a whopping 39.3 percent of conference games being decided by four points or less or in overtime, a record for any conference in the KenPom era dating back to 2001-02, per Kevin Whitaker of NYC Buckets.
Every Ivy squad played in at least one league game that went to overtime, and the extra periods helped define at least two squads’ seasons in-conference: Harvard went 3-0 in such contests en route to a shared Ivy League championship, while Princeton went 1-4 to seal its first finish outside the league’s top four in 10 years.
Ivies went 39-17 at home in conference play, tops in Division I a season after they went just 28-28, worst in Division I in 2017.
But instead of being rewarded with a one-shot Ivy playoff game for getting through the roller-coaster league slate at 12-2, Harvard and Penn have to each play squads that didn’t even get to 10 wins in conference play just for a shot at a winner-take-all contest. The 2015 league playoff game between Harvard and Yale at the then-neutral Palestra was one of the most organically thrilling moments in Ivy hoops in recent years.
Instead, the Ivy League has chosen to value excitement over merit, so we get a four-team tournament played at the southernmost site of the No. 2 seeds on both the men’s and women’s sides instead of another natural NCAA Tournament berth-deciding grudge men’s match between Harvard and Penn and a well-earned automatic NCAA Tournament slot for the Princeton women.
As the No. 1 seed, Harvard doesn’t even get to play its semifinal game on the ESPN2 platform like Penn does, which does matter since the tournament is a valuable recruiting tool, as James Jones noted on Inside Ivy Hoops last month.
And why is Harvard the No. 1 seed anyway? Because the Crimson beat Yale twice and Penn didn’t, per the league’s second tiebreaker of record against the highest seed outside the tie when neither team has a head-to-head advantage. That’s silly, especially when Penn has higher KenPom, Sagarin and BPI ratings than Harvard (that would have been the next tiebreaker) and a substantially better overall record.
With that being said, I do look forward to a lot of positive memories being created for teams, their followers and other members of the participating programs at the tournament this weekend. The tournament’s site, seeding tiebreakers and overall purpose all need revisited, though.
2017-18 Ivy Men’s Basketball Tournament Semifinals (Sat., Mar. 10):
No. 4 Cornell vs. No. 1 Harvard, 12:30 p.m., ESPNU
No. 3 Yale vs. No. 2 Penn, 3 p.m., ESPN2
T1. Harvard (17-12, 12-2 Ivy)
— Seth (@seth_towns17) March 4, 2018
Harvard claimed its first Ivy League championship in three seasons and sixth in 11 seasons under Tommy Amaker Saturday night with a 93-74 romp over Columbia, having gotten a little help from Yale Friday night, No Ivy team got better over the course of the 2017-18 season than Harvard, which went from beating MIT by just single digits in the season opener and struggling with the likes of Holy Cross and Fordham to mustering one of the conference’s most potent offenses despite the midseason loss of 2016-17 All-Ivy first-teamer Bryce Aiken.
The Crimson made 29 three-pointers this weekend, emblematic of their turnaround from ice-cold in nonconference play to the best longball Ivy during the league slate.
Given Harvard’s Ivy League Tournament semifinal matchup, though, the much more interesting match for the Crimson this weekend was their 98-88 double overtime victory over Cornell at Lavietes Pavilion Friday night. Harvard committed 19 turnovers, including six each from Christian Juzang and Justin Bassey. But the Crimson shot 48 percent from three and shredded Cornell’s interior defense with Chris Lewis leading the way with a 11-for-13 two-point clip.
Lewis has 46 points on 18-for-23 shooting in two games versus Cornell this season, and the Crimson were hot from long range in both contests. But they struggled with turnovers (they do rank last in the league in offensive turnover percentage anyway) and containing the Big Red’s dynamic duo of Matt Morgan and Stone Gettings in both games as well. The Crimson have the much more talented lineup, but the Cornell-Harvard semifinal should be a tighter contest than some might assume.
T1. Penn (22-8, 12-2)
— AJ Brodeur (@AJBrodeur) March 4, 2018
Adding to this season’s craziness has been Penn’s rise to Ivy championship status after being slated to place just fourth in the Ivy preseason poll.
It wasn’t supposed to happen this quickly. In just Steve Donahue’s third season as head coach at Penn, the Red and Blue became the league’s steadiest team atop the conference, scoring impressive road victories at Monmouth and Dayton before establishing that this season would be different with its first win over Princeton in four seasons back on Jan. 6.
Donahue came to Penn in 2015 with a reputation for top-notch offenses at Boston College and particularly Cornell but just so-and-so defenses, so it’s been a bit of a surprise in that context to see Penn win with arguably the league’s best D, allowing just a 29.8 percent shooting clip from three-point range, third-lowest in Division I.
A program that had enjoyed just one winning season in the previous nine years is now rejuvenated. With Penn’s 26th Ivy League championship in hand, the future on 33rd Street looks bright for years to come.
That doesn’t mean Penn’s weekend was without its ups and downs, though. Penn had a 98.4 percent shot of winning with a 73-68 lead with 46 seconds remaining at Yale, which subsequently scored 12 points before the end of regulation as Donahue decided to foul on defense once Yale got the ball down three with 11 seconds left despite having one of the best three-point defenses in the country and the worst free-throw shooting team in the league. That plan backfired, as Miye Oni made four of four free throws from that point on before a Max Rothschild inbounds pass got deflected out of bounds with 3.4 seconds left off of what referees decided (and then confirmed) was Darnell Foreman’s fingertips rather than Azar Swain in what appeared to be a tossup call.
From there, Yale executed brilliantly underneath Penn’s basket, with Oni finding an open Paul Atkinson in the paint for a game-winning layup as time expired. Just another wacky ending in the Ivy League.
Penn notched 1.27 points per possession the following night with a 99-93 victory at Brown that featured a 30-point, eight-rebound performance from Ryan Betley.
The Red & Blue shot a blistering 21-for-38 (67.7 percent) from three-point range this weekend, an encouraging sign for Penn as it readies for a grudge match with Yale in the Ivy tournament semifinal.
3. Yale (16-14, 9-5)
No Ivy is more red hot than Yale, which started league play 2-4 but has looked like a different team ever since the second half of a 64-49 loss at Harvard on Feb. 17.
Miye Oni has been nothing short of spectacular recently. In the extra period of Yale’s 94-90 overtime win over Princeton Saturday night, with the Tigers up two, Oni forced a Myles Stephens miss in the post with great stand-up defense, got the rebound, deflected a Stephens pass for a steal on the following possession, later followed up his own miss with a layup and then made a three-pointer to break an 85-85 tie and give Yale the lead for good with 34 seconds left.
— Yale_Basketball (@Yale_Basketball) March 3, 2018
Oni had 41 points on 15-for-29 (51.7 percent) shooting, 21 rebounds, seven assists, two blocks and two steals this weekend, which he entered coming off a 26-point, nine-board, eight-dish performance in a win at Columbia.
Oni is doing it all right now, but he’s getting a lot of help too. Paul Atkinson posted a very efficient 17 points in each of Yale’s wins this weekend, and rookie guard Azar Swain exploded for 18 points in 28 minutes versus the Tigers, a game in which Alex Copeland registered seven assists versus just one turnover, eight days after Noah Yates had 17 points in 23 minutes at Cornell, including a game-winning trey. Yale’s got an ensemble effort going within an offense that isn’t overwhelming but values diligent ball rotation and high-percentage shots.
And it shouldn’t even really be a surprise at this point in James Jones’s 19-year tenure at Yale that the Elis managed to make the Ivy tourney even after losing Makai Mason and Jordan Bruner to injury, the 18th straight top-half league standing under Jones. Yale’s peaking at just the right time.
4. Cornell (12-15, 6-8)
What a feeling.. still more work to do!! Back to the lab!! #MISS10N 🔴🔥
— Matt Morgan (@TheRealMM10) March 4, 2018
The Big Red hadn’t made the league’s top four since 2010, a corner that appeared to far to turn just weeks ago after a 0-3 start to Ivy play. Earl admitted there was a lot to fix, especially on defense, when he guested on Inside Ivy Hoops following Cornell’s 91-54 shellacking at Princeton in mid-January.
Multiple clutch finishes later, in just Brian Earl’s second year in Ithaca and only four seasons removed from going 2-26, Cornell is in the Ivy League Tournament, having become the second straight Ivy Tournament No. 4 seed on the men’s side to make it to the tourney after starting league play 0-3. (Penn, of course, started 0-6 last season.)
In a year in which league road wins came at a premium, Cornell posted double-digit victories at Brown and Dartmouth and won several white-knucklers at home, overcoming a five-point deficit with a minute to play against the Big Green en route to an 86-85 victory in regulation last month and pulling off what turned out to be the No. 4 seed-decider: a 107-101 triple overtime victory over Princeton after having trailed by 22 in the second half.
Cornell’s “whatever it takes” M.O. came through at Dartmouth Saturday night, as Jack Gordon, Steven Julian and Josh Warren all scored in double figures in addition to Morgan and Gettings amid the Big Red registering 1.28 points per possession.
Cornell ultimately ran out of gas at Harvard Friday night, mustering a single point in the second overtime period. But Cornell has acquitted itself well against a lockdown Crimson defense twice this season and might have won at Lavietes Pavilion last month if it wasn’t for horrid foul shooting (10-for-18, 55.6 percent, in a 76-73 loss).
This season is a win for Cornell even if its game against Harvard Saturday isn’t. But with a highly efficient offense in place, the Big Red aren’t done yet.
T5. Columbia (8-19, 5-9)
No Ivy’s struggles have been more amplified by having a league tournament than Columbia. The Lions placing fifth two years in a row wouldn’t have attracted much attention pre-Ivy tourney, but doing so has underlined the fact that the Lions just can’t seem to win down the late-season stretch very much or on the road at all in league play.
Columbia has gone 1-6 and now 0-7 the past two seasons in Ivy road games, having lost 13 straight after last winning at Cornell on Jan. 14, 2017. The Lions also lost their last 13 road contests overall this season after winning at Longwood on Nov. 14. And a year after a 1-7 finish to league play after a 4-2 start, Columbia lost six of its last eight games after starting 3-3 this season.
Columbia gave up 80 or more points in eight of 15 games away from Levien this season and this season posted the program’s worst adjusted defensive efficiency of the KenPom era dating back to 2001-02. The Lions’ defense forced a lot of turnovers but couldn’t stop teams from scoring inside or hitting the offensive boards.
A 14-5 Dartmouth run to start Columbia’s matchup at Leede Arena Friday night put the Lions in a hole they dug out with a 10-0 run of their own, only for the Big Green to respond by scoring 49 points over the next 20 minutes, shooting 62.1 percent from two-point range on the night en route to an 80-78 Columbia loss.
Columbia’s three-game slide to end the season was despite the solid offensive play of senior Nate Hickman, who in his final three collegiate contests averaged 18.3 points per game on 45.9 percent shooting. Kyle Castlin (IHO’s 2014-15 Rookie of the Year), added 22 points on 9-for-16 shooting at Dartmouth, while Mike Smith pitched in 17 points and six assists while playing all 40 minutes at Harvard.
The Lions will have ample offensive talent returning next season, but the defensive side of the ball is what will determine whether Columbia can finally make it into the Ivy League Tournament.
T5. Princeton (13-16, 5-9)
The malaise that set in after Desmond Cambridge hit the game-winning shot in Princeton’s 102-100 double overtime loss to Brown on Feb. 3 lasted just a little too long.
In retrospect, the seven-game losing streak that followed just barely knocked Princeton out of the Ivy League Tournament. The Tigers would have gotten in with a win at Yale Saturday night, but a fourth overtime defeat in league play made Cornell the No. 4 seed instead.
Princeton seemed to snap out of its malaise in the final two weekends, taking Harvard and Yale to overtime while winning easily over Dartmouth and Brown. But the Tigers’ loss to Yale Saturday night was a microcosm of their Ivy season. Princeton had a huge hole to climb out of (an 18-5 deficit just over eight minutes in) but got back in the game only to lose at the end as their defense failed them.
Will Gladson scored a career-high 16 points in 17 minutes at Yale in what Tiger fans have to hope is a sign of greater things to come from the sophomore center. In his final game at Princeton, senior Amir Bell posted 20 points and five assists in 41 minutes, a night after notching 21 points and seven rebounds in a 78-63 win at Brown that eliminated the Bears from Ivy tourney contention. Myles Stephens had identical 7-for-12 shooting nights at Brown and Yale, scoring 39 points and grabbing 21 boards on the weekend.
It’s hard to accept that a team with Stephens, reigning Ivy Defensive Player of the Year, and coached by Mitch Henderson could have went 5-9 in league play and had such a liable defense. Princeton finished the season with the second-worst adjusted defensive efficiency of the KenPom era dating back to 2001-02, just ahead of the 2007-08 Tigers that went 6-23 in Sydney Johnson’s first season at the helm. Princeton sunk from first in the league last season in defensive turnover percentage to last.
As a result, the Tigers went from starting the season as a top 90 KenPom team nationally to just inside the top 190.
It’s hard to see the 5-9 outcome as anything other than an aberration under Henderson, who has presided over slides before. Princeton started the 2014 Ivy slate off 0-4 after three nail-biter losses and eventually made the CBI. But the Tigers had a really strong defense that season too, and the program doesn’t have one of those anymore until further notice.
7. Brown (11-16, 4-10)
Brown’s loss to Penn Saturday night clinched the Bears’ fourth straight season with 10 or more losses in league play. The Bears ended the season on a six-game losing skid, and their four league wins came by a combined eight points, including two overtime wins. Just like last year, Brown looked better than expected in the first few games in Ivy play before hitting a wall in mid-February.
Looking ahead to next year, the Bears have the obvious 2017-18 Ivy Rookie of the Year in Desmond Cambridge, a great ball distributor and scorer in Brandon Anderson and a versatile talent in Tamenang Choh. The Bears are great at creating offense individually at an uptempo pace but struggle mightily with efficiency from both inside and outside. On defense, they struggle almost everywhere on the court, except when it comes to forcing turnovers. Brown’s run-and-gun, small-ball approach keeps coming up short.
8. Dartmouth (7-20, 3-11)
Dartmouth played spoiler versus Columbia Friday but not Saturday against Cornell, which completed a season sweep of the Big Green by shooting 22-for-31 (71 percent) from two-point range.
But senior and 2014-15 Ivy Rookie of the Year Miles Wright came to play in his final Ivy weekend, posting back-to-back KenPom MVP performances amid 40 points (including six three-pointers) and nine rebounds.
Dartmouth’s defense is already Ivy tournament-caliber, and the Big Green got a lot of bad bounces amid a 0-7 start to league play. But they currently lack an offense to match. This season, Chris Knight and Adrease Jackson both showed glimpses of offensive dominance, Taylor Johnson was a reliable conduit as a senior and Brendan Barry was dangerous from beyond the arc. Still, the Big Green need more oomph on that end of the floor if they hope to build toward their first top-half league finish in four years next season.