Eight thoughts on the Ivy men’s basketball, which, per KenPom, gave us the highest percentage of games decided by three or fewer points or in overtime in all of Division I for the second straight season:
Crimson are No. 1 for a reason
Harvard conquered its house of horrors, Levien Gym, 83-81, after an obligatory overtime period to claim its seventh Ivy League championship under Tommy Amaker and the No. 1 seed in the Ivy League Tournament. But is Harvard a vulnerable No. 1 seed?
Harvard claims the No. 1 seed for the second-consecutive year, but unlike last year, when that bought the Crimson a matchup with the easiest team in the field, it’s given Harvard a much tougher road this year – Crimson will likely be underdogs in the semis.
— Mike James (@ivybball) March 10, 2019
Early ESPN BPI projections seriously favor Yale next Saturday and give Penn a narrow advantage over Harvard in its Ivy Madness semifinal. pic.twitter.com/fqM0dGsajt
— William McCormack (@wjmcmack) March 10, 2019
But let’s hold on for a second. Penn may have more momentum right now, but the Crimson still have a typically stout defense and Bryce Aiken, the most dangerous offensive threat in the league. It was only nine days ago as of this writing that Harvard held Penn to 53 points and 0.79 points per possession without defensive stalwart Justin Bassey and Aiken shooting just 3-for-12 from the field. The Crimson are 5-0 in Ivy play in games decided by five or fewer points or in overtime, including a remarkable Aiken-powered comeback at the Palestra, and Penn is just 2-3 in such games. Intangibles do matter, and this game’s to even to have a clear favorite – certainly not one that lost in conference play seven times.
Yale’s mojo is back
Yale hit the reset button after disappointing efforts at Penn and versus Columbia with a decisive 81-59 win to sweep the regular season series with the Tigers and make them the clear underdog (undercat?) going up against the Bulldogs at John J. Lee Amphitheater next weekend. Senior forward Blake Reynolds posted 20 points in just 26 minutes, cementing the highest individual offensive rating in conference play a night after making several extremely difficult, contested three-pointers at the Palestra. But it’s sophomore guard Azar Swain who could push the Elis over the top in the conference tournament, scoring in double figures in two of the past three games, including a very efficient 14 points in 15 minutes versus Princeton that gave him the second-highest offensive rating of his career. Miye Oni will need help at the offensive end against a disciplined Princeton defense, and Swain and Reynolds (to say nothing of Alex Copeland) can provide it, particularly since Jordan Bruner has struggled offensively in two games against Princeton this season.
It’s a credit to that Princeton defense that the Tigers are even in the Ivy tourney at all given that they’re last in the conference in adjusted offensive efficiency, three-point shooting and assist rate in league play. Princeton hasn’t reached a point per possession since its 79-61 win over Columbia Feb. 23, and without Ryan Schwieger versus Brown and Yale, the Tigers’ offense consisted of Richmond Aririguzoh inside, Myles Stephens and little else. Even if Schwieger is healthy enough to play Saturday, the Tigers probably won’t suddenly get a lot of shots to fall, so their best shot is probably winning ugly by getting some transition buckets off turnovers and crashing the boards.
In it to win it
Penn’s defense came through again with the chips down versus Brown, collecting 22 turnovers and holding Brown without a field goal in the final 7:47 and without a point in the final 2:13. That defense will have to carry the day again versus Harvard in the Ivy League Tournament – particularly on the perimeter. The Crimson are 21-for-46 (45.7 percent) from deep against Penn in two matchups this season, even if they’ve gone cold since their win over Penn at Lavietes Pavilion. while Penn’s gone just 14-for-54 (25.9 percent). Since Penn relied on the three-ball more than any other Ivy during league play and goes into every game at a shooting disadvantage from the free-throw line, just a few more accurate looks from long range could be enough to turn back the Crimson.
Or just one look at Antonio Woods:
Donahue: “My wife said ‘I think Antonio has that Darnell look in his eyes,’ and I have to agree with it”
— Daily Penn Sports (@DailyPennSports) March 10, 2019
Simply because Penn swept Brown, Cornell’s sweep of Harvard ultimately didn’t matter from an Ivy League Tournament seeding perspective. Since the Big Red made it to .500 with their 66-51 win against Dartmouth last night, they qualify for postseason play, so perhaps we haven’t seen the last of Matt Morgan, who ironically saw his Ivy League record streak of 80 straight games in double figures end in his final regular season contest. Cornell significantly overachieved finishing 7-7 in Ivy play, again getting the best of Ancient Eight opponents in close games but just losing one too many games during the most challenging portion of its conference schedule. Cornell will be a very different team without Matt Morgan and defensive standout Steven Julian next season, but the program is trending very positively overall, becoming a defense-oriented group under Brian Earl, as expected, and Jimmy Boeheim’s 21 points in 23 minutes versus the Big Green showed who might be leading the way for Cornell with Morgan having graduated next season.
Brown made history
Brown achieved a program-record 19 wins this season, no small accomplishment, and that shouldn’t be dampened by not making it to the Ivy League Tournament in a particularly brutal season for the league. The Bears’ defense took a huge leap forward this season, and Brown’s got enough talent to crash the conference tourney for years to come. This is an even more classic example of a team whose season should keep going in postseason tournament play, both to cap off a memorable year and gather further momentum into the next one.
Momentum to build on
Even with its overtime loss to Harvard last night, Columbia won four of its final six games, with junior center Patrick Tape and sophomore guard Gabe Stefanini establishing themselves as All-Ivy talents. The Lions will presumably get back Mike Smith from injury next season, and he should help the Light Blue get to the foul line more often (at least more than the third-lowest free throw rate that hurt Columbia in close games this season).
Hope beyond the slide
It would have been hard to imagine Dartmouth finishing league play 2-12 after it blew Harvard away at Leede Arena in the Ivy opener. But besides an inspired Flannel Night performance against a Columbia squad coming off a triple overtime loss the night before, the Big Green didn’t win again, ending the season on an eight-game losing skid that exposed Dartmouth’s surprisingly league-worst defense. Dartmouth isn’t slated to endure much roster turnover next season, so perhaps the Big Green can make the same strides on defense that Cornell and Columbia made this year. Chris Knight continues to be an All-Ivy first-team-caliber scorer and shot-blocker, and any coach would like to have Brendan Barry in their backcourt. It’s just a matter of shooting the ball better during conference play and shoring up the defense inside and out.