Another college basketball season is upon us. So what can we expect from the Ancient Eight this season coming off a down year for the league overall?
With so much returning talent across the conference, anticipate higher quality of play from both the Ivies who make the conference tournament and those who don’t.
The Crimson missed their two highest-usage players on offense down the stretch of the Ivy League Tournament final versus Penn at the Palestra: Bryce Aiken, who suffered a knee injury and missed 18 of the final 22 games of the season, and Seth Towns, who suffered a knee injury with around eight minutes left and did not return. Of course, Penn edged out Harvard in the end, the Crimson coming up just short in the face of the Red and Blue’s home-court advantage even without the 2017-18 Ivy Player of the Year (Towns) and 2016-17 Rookie of the Year (Aiken).
Harvard would have likely punched a NCAA Tournament ticket if it had those two standouts in tow, and they’ll probably do the same if they have them in tow this season.
Coach Tommy Amaker said that both remain “out indefinitely” as they continue to recuperate, per David Tannenwald. For now, then, Harvard will miss Towns’s league-best perimeter shooting, ferocious shot-blocking in addition to Aiken’s stellar point play.
Fortunately, Harvard always has a lockdown half-court defense to fall back on, their thread that won’t unravel. The Crimson pressure the three-point line and usher opposing ball-handlers into a stifling interior defense anchored by a shot-blocker extraordinaire. That formula shouldn’t change this season, with 6-foot-9 Chris Lewis taking on the lead shot-swatting role and Justin Bassey patrolling the perimeter.
Harvard’s season arcs have been long and intriguing, but they always seem to bend from underachieving in nonconference play toward fulfilling some (though not all) of the potential that such a blue-chip roster brings. Last season was the starkest example, with the Crimson eking past MIT in the season opener, enduring its annual loss to Holy Cross and dropping games to other lesser opponents like Manhattan and Cal State Fullerton. Later, of course, the Crimson got their act together.
Their start shouldn’t be nearly as slow this year, because their three-point shooting variance shouldn’t be as great. Harvard shot a blistering 42.2 percent from deep in league play a season ago but just 35.4 percent on the year overall, a contrast not likely to hold this season since Ivy defenses are usually pretty focused on chasing teams off the three-point line.
Last season brought Harvard’s second-worst three-point shooting percentage of the 11-season Amaker era, but its highest three-point shooting percentage in Ivy play (even greater than the 2014 Crimson that enjoyed sharpshooter Laurent Rivard at his best). A slightly more reliable three-ball and elevated comfort level playing without Aiken if necessary should help the Crimson out before Ivy play. Once Ivy play rolls around, Harvard’s plethora of players who can score from anywhere – Christian Juzang and Danilo Djuricic spring immediately to mind – should be more than enough to carry it to a regular season Ivy League title if they eventually get Towns and Aiken back 100 percent.
Harvard returns 99.4 percent of its scoring from a season ago. Penn does not return Darnell Foreman, the gritty (before there was Gritty) backcourt weapon who in his senior campaign fired on all cylinders in probably the two most enjoyable games last season for Penn fans: an 82-65 romp over Princeton at Jadwin Gym and the 68-65 victory over Harvard in the league tourney final. (Foreman was KenPom game MVP of both matchups.)
Penn also loses sharpshooters Caleb Wood and Sam Jones (and the rarely used Matt MacDonald) but returns all of its other major contributors. What’s also not going away is Penn’s stout defense, which was perhaps the league’s biggest surprise from a season ago. Coach Steve Donahue wasn’t known for shutdown half-court defenses prior to 2017-18, but pairing AJ Brodeur and Max Rothschild in the frontcourt and emphasizing three-point defense paid Macquarie-like dividends for Penn last year.
Penn also didn’t get enough credit for its offensive discipline last season. The turnover percentage for Donahue’s squad was easily the lowest of the KenPom era (dating back to 2001-02), and it got lower in league play. This is the facet of the game in which Penn will miss Foreman’s ball-handling and decision-making.
But even a couple of Donahue’s Boston College squads were strong in that category, and his motion offenses are typically pretty efficient. It’ll be sustaining last season’s defensive intensity that will determine whether Penn earns a second straight Ivy League championship.
That’s why I’m interested to see how Michael Wang can contribute on the defensive end. The highest-rated recruit of Donahue’s tenure, Wang seems to fit two key attributes of a big man in a Donahue offense: shrewd passing and strong post play. But Donahue is apparently trying to get Wang to elevate his defensive play. If Wang does so, that could be the edge Penn will likely need to upend Harvard again.
Yale will finish in the league’s top half for the 19th straight season under coach James Jones, and it’ll look a lot more like a typical James Jones team in the process. Last year’s edition of the Elis didn’t crash the offensive boards or defend particularly well, and its offensive rebounding percentage and adjusted defensive efficiency were both second-lowest in the KenPom era.
Getting Jordan Bruner back will help.
Bruner returns after a torn meniscus injury kept him sidelined last season, and he’ll bring rim protection as well as offensive production inside and out.
Miye Oni will stuff more stat sheets, Trey Phills will lock down more opposing guards, Alex Copeland will can rainbow jumpers here and there and Paul Atkinson will continue his scoring efficiency in the paint.
But can the Bulldogs make more of their three-pointers? That’ll be the key to nudging past Harvard and Penn (and any other comers) at the Ivy League Tournament at John J. Lee Amphitheater. Yale went ice-cold from deep in its four losses to Harvard and Penn, not necessarily a coincidence since both opponents excel at guarding the three-point line. Still, there were ample open misses that caused Yale to fade in those defeats. Who gets hot to keep opposing defenses keying in on Yale’s inside-out approach honest when the Ivy title or NCAA Tournament berth is on the line?
Princeton’s defensive intensity wasn’t its usual self in critical stretches last season, and coach Mitch Henderson indicated to IHO that he knows that shoring up the defense will be a challenge since the Tigers lose 2017-18 Ivy Defensive Player of the Year Amir Bell. If the Tigers can’t get their defense right, forget about the rest.
Princeton’s defense last season was a shortcoming, not an anomaly. The Tigers dropped from first in the league in defensive turnover percentage in 2017 to last a year ago because they simply did not have the rim protection or backcourt defensive discipline to keep opponents off their game.
Still, there’s a lot to be excited about in this space. Jaelin Llewellyn should be able to create his own offense off the dribble as a rookie, Devin Cannady is around for one more year of lighting opposing defenses up from deep and Sebastian Much and Jerome Desrosiers are poised for significant steps forward as sophomores, particularly on defense. And of course, Myles Stephens brings tight defense from post to perimeter and a knack for beating teams off the dribble and at the foul line at the other end of the floor in big moments.
KenPom ranks Princeton just ahead of Penn for third place among Ivies in its preseason ratings, and it’s not hard to envision the Tigers challenging for Ivy supremacy at the end of the season. After all, the Tigers’ tossup games in league play aren’t likely to cut against them nearly as often as they did last season.
Princeton finished its nonconference slate with a flourish last season, notching wins over Monmouth, USC, Akron and Hawaii. Of course, the season turned sour after that. The Tigers haven’t forgotten about Penn’s dominant second half at Jadwin Gym in February last season. When the Ps meet again in January – twice – we’ll find out whether Princeton’s interior defense measures up. If it doesn’t, the Tigers will have another hole to dig out of and back-to-back road trips to endure immediately afterward.
Ah, Bruno. What a season this could be for you.
The Bears will enjoy the electrifying talent of Desmond Cambridge once again, and Brandon Anderson was quietly one of the most versatile rim attackers in the Ivy League again last season, getting to the free throw line with ease and continuing to distribute the ball efficiently.
The Bears return 93.5 percent of their scoring, fifth in the nation.
Brown’s breakneck pace under coach Mike Martin has been hard on its defense in recent years, though, and if the Bears don’t crack the league’s top four this season, we’ll know at which end of the floor to place the blame.
But since the Bears are a veteran team now, they should enjoy modest defensive improvement – as they did last season, actually. But this roster isn’t teeming with rim protectors, and that’s what it’ll need during critical stretches to hang with teams like Harvard and Penn that do.
Coming in fifth in the league after four straight seasons at the bottom would be viewed as a significant step forward. If Brown fulfills its preseason media poll ranking and places fifth this season, though, it could be viewed as just another Ivy League Tournament missed instead. The bummer about the tourney is it makes getting into the top four so much more meaningful now – perhaps more meaningful than it should be from a program assessment standpoint.
I’m just a little higher on the Lions than was the preseason media poll, which slotted them in at seventh.
Like Brown, Columbia has little rim protection to boast of, and losing Lukas Meisner to the pro ranks is a huge blow to the Lions’ rebounding and perimeter shooting.
Mike Smith is a thrill to watch in the backcourt and one of the league’s greatest talents. If he improves his shot selection as a junior, watch out. Columbia’s three-point shooting won’t be an issue so long as Quinton Adlesh is around, and the Lions wisely took more shots from the three-point line last season after ranking last in league play in 3PA/FGA.
Patrick Tape will be the X-factor for the Lions as a junior, given his offensive rebounding and rim protection. Columbia’s gotten a lot of the former in two seasons under coach Jim Engles. It needs more of the latter this season.
I don’t think Ivy followers fully realize what Cornell lost when Stone Gettings transferred to Arizona.
Last season, Gettings turned in 16.7 points, 6.6 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 26.8 minutes per contest, ending the season third in the league in rebounding, sixth in scoring, sixth in free throw percentage (82.5 percent), ninth in assists, and 10th in field goal percentage (48.7 percent). Gettings was a crucial cog in coach Brian Earl’s offense, ranking 39th in the nation in percentage of possessions used (and tied for first in the Ivy League with Seth Towns).
You don’t replace that kind of production very easily.
But Cornell can at least take comfort in the fact that the player who ranked third in usage rate throughout the league is sticking around for one more season.
Matt Morgan withdrew from the NBA Draft (again) to return to the Big Red, where hopefully he’ll continue to be one of the league’s most efficient scorers despite taking on such a huge offensive load. Morgan staying in the league for his senior campaign when so many other Ivy standouts are transferring elsewhere – including his own teammate – shouldn’t be taken for granted.
It was Morgan, of course, who led the Big Red in close-shave victories at home over Columbia, Dartmouth and Princeton (the latter in triple overtime), wins that made Cornell’s unlikely appearance in the Ivy League Tournament possible.
The Big Red don’t seem to have enough talent to get there again, even with Troy Whiteside returning after missing his junior season due to injury.
Their defense actually regressed last season, a step back offset by their offensive rhythm rounding into shape under Earl. The defense isn’t likely to improve significantly this season either, given the returning league-wide talents that the undersized Big Red are going to have to deal with. Cornell’s shot selection, foul-drawing prowess and, well, having Matt Morgan should keep the Big Red in contention for an Ivy tourney berth late into the season, though.
The Big Green could very well feed off low expectations and turn some heads this season.
They did do a lot of things well last season – forcing ample turnovers without fouling too much amid tangible defensive improvement, greater interior offense and a scrappy 2-4 finish after a 0-7 start to league play that could have easily been a 4-3 beginning instead.
Losing Taylor Johnson and Miles Wright to graduation will hurt, but Brendan Barry proved himself more than capable last season of leading the Big Green offense, and the versatile Guilien Smith is back after missing most of last season due to injury.
Chris Knight’s shot-blocking and defensive rebounding prowess gives Dartmouth a rim protection edge over the rest of the Ivies in the lower tier, and it’ll be exciting to see what Adrease Jackson brings to the Big Green as a sophomore after Jackson flashed brilliance as a rookie, most notably in a 24-point, 14-rebound performance in just 30 minutes at Columbia.
But unlike the other three lower-tier Ivies, Dartmouth still may not have enough offensive firepower to keep up this season. The Big Green offense was disjointed for too much of league play last season, struggling to find a rhythm. If Smith makes a splash, Knight and Jackson ascend, Barry stays hot from deep and highly touted rookie Taurus Samuels asserts himself in the backcourt, Dartmouth just might crash the Ivy tourney party. But it’s got a lot to prove at that end of the floor.