Season Preview: Columbia Lions

The Lions will only go as far as All-Ivy guard Noruwa Agho can carry them. (Photo credit: gocolumbialions.com)

The good news for Columbia is that they return a proven backcourt duo in Noruwa Agho and Brian Barbour. The pair made for a dangerous tag-team last year, dominating foes that allowed them to get to the rim and take high percentage shots. The Lions lived and died by Agho and Barbour, as the pair accounted for 47.9 percent of Columbia’s points during the conference season. Despite this backcourt dependence, Columbia could very easily have finished last year in the top half if they had held on to late-season leads at Princeton and against Yale. In games where the Lions weren’t outmanned in the frontcourt, they performed extremely well, pulling out sweeps of Cornell and Dartmouth, and splits with Penn and Brown. It all starts with the two guards though, and there’s no reason to think that this season will be very different.

In Agho, Columbia has a true scorer. As much as some critics disparaged his efficiency numbers last year (and the All-Ivy First Team selection certainly did take his fair share of shots), Agho shouldered a bigger load than any other player in the league because the Lions lacked another consistent scoring option on the wing or down low. With little help surrounding him, Agho coasted to the conference scoring title. Meanwhile, Barbour quickly emerged as one of the league’s best point guards, posting the conference’s second-best offensive efficiency numbers behind Harvard’s Oliver McNally. First-year coach Kyle Smith leaned heavily on his young point guard, as Barbour played the third-greatest share of minutes for his team of anyone in the Ivy at 86.9 percent (Agho was fourth at 85.5 percent).

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Season Preview: Dartmouth Big Green

Senior David Rufful looks to lead a young Dartmouth squad out of the Ivy basement. (Photo credit: dartmouthsports.com)

It was a long winter in Hanover. The 2010-11 Dartmouth men’s basketball team compiled a 5-23 record, including just one league win, to match its results from an equally forgettable 2009-10 campaign. The Big Green had some moments—opening a 28-point lead on Cornell and holding on to the win, forcing Yale into overtime on the road, dominating Penn in the first half on the last Saturday of the season—but its final record was befitting of its talent on the court. Dartmouth’s adjusted offensive efficiency was just .883 points per possession, a number that confirms the Big Green had one of the most anemic offenses in the whole country.

“We just didn’t have anyone that could score the ball,” head coach Paul Cormier succinctly noted in last week’s teleconference.

A new class of freshmen offers a glimmer of hope for the Dartmouth faithful. Cormier, now in the second year of his second tenure, has made it clear that he intends to give his recruits a lot of burn on the hardwood, even suggesting that we might see a few of them in the starting lineup. A team of freshmen can hardly be expected to compete with the top teams in a year as deep as 2011-12, but the youth movement will perhaps pay big dividends and lift the Big Green out of the Ivy cellar down the road. 

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Season Preview: Brown Bears

Co-captain Tucker Halpern will try to instill some consistency to a talented team that struggled to put together back-to-back forty minute efforts last season. (Photo Credit: brownbears.com)

The Brown basketball team showed last year that it was talented enough to beat anyone in the league when it knocked off tournament-bound Princeton and held double-digit leads twice against co-champion Harvard. Harnessing that talent and executing a game plan for a full forty minutes is the next step for a young Bears squad that looks to leap into the top half this season. Brown is a dangerous offensive team with proven weapons in the backcourt and on the wing, not to mention the help arriving on the interior. Last year though, the Bears struggled on the defensive end, ranking last in the league in adjusted defensive efficiency, giving up 1.09 points per possession (adjusted for opponent). On several occasions, the Bears failed to generate stops in key situations, including a 46-point half surrendered to Harvard in a head-scratching game at Lavietes. This season, the Bears will look to buckle down and get serious about defending their bucket.

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Season Preview: Harvard Crimson

Brandyn Curry, finally healthy after playing through knee problems the last two seasons, looks to have a breakout year in the Crimson backcourt. (Photo Credit: Associated Press)

 

Harvard enters this year with few unknowns. Returning its entire roster from last year’s Ivy League co-champions, anything less than an NCAA tournament appearance would be a massive disappointment. But that’s not to say reaching March Madness will be a cakewalk for Tommy Amaker’s crew. The Crimson faces a difficult non-conference slate before squaring off against the strongest field the Ancient Eight has seen in recent memory.The gauntlet begins in earnest the week of Thanksgiving, as the inaugural Battle 4 Atlantis will provide some measure of exactly how Harvard stacks up against premium competition. It begins the tournament with a matchup against Pac-12 newcomer Utah, and an opening win would probably pair the Crimson with Florida St., which is coming off a Sweet Sixteen appearance. Reigning national champion UConn looms as the top dog of the eight teams in the tournament, though in all likelihood Harvard would not face the Huskies in the Bahamas unless it reaches the final.

But the Crimson will face UConn in Storrs in early December, looking to avenge a 29-point loss at the XL Center a year ago. This game, the centerpiece of Harvard’s non-conference slate, is bracketed by a pair of road tests against America East favorites BU and Vermont (and a game against independent Seattle). The schedule hardly softens as it enters the holidays. Harvard hosts Sun Belt contender (and fellow NIT participant) Florida Atlantic in a student-bereft Lavietes on Dec. 22, and then it shoots for its annual “upset” of Boston College a week later. The Crimson rounds out its non-Ivy schedule against a trio of middling Atlantic 10 schools—St. Joe’s, at Fordham, and George Washington—as well as a gimme at Monmouth.

Of course, November and December are only a preamble to the games that actually matter—the 14-game tournament. Almost across the board, members of the Ancient Eight have improved, and each will save its best shot for the prohibitive favorite from Cambridge. The road to March will be difficult for Harvard. Rarely has a team been such a consensus preseason pick; rarely has a team had so much room to fall short of expectations.

Backcourt:

Outside the paint, the ball is in sure hands for the Crimson. Junior Brandyn Curry has proved to be one of the best distributors in the conference, averaging the most assists (5.9 per game, and 7.0 per 40 minutes) and boasting the best assist-to-turnover ratio (2.29) among Ivy players last season. Curry was at his best the last weekend of the regular season when he posted 13 points and 14 assists against Penn and then 10 points and 10 assists in the banner clinching win over Princeton. Bob Ryan gushed afterward, “Somewhere in America a ballyhooed power conference point guard might have exceeded Curry’s mastery of the position this weekend. But I doubt it.”

This year, Curry is finally healthy after healing from a knee injury that has nagged him the last two seasons. At times, the Harvard guard struggled finishing around the rim, shooting just 47 percent from two (en route to posting the lowest effective shooting percentage of all the Crimson’s major contributors), but if he regains some explosiveness, you should expect his scoring and his assists numbers to improve.

Joining Curry in the backcourt is co-captain Oliver McNally. The senior has perfected the art of doing the little things. He shoots over 90 percent from the stripe (after shooting 75 percent as a freshman); he turns the ball over just 1.5 times per game (the lowest rate among the top 15 league leaders in assists); and he only takes, and usually makes, good shots (a team-best 60.4 effective field goal percentage). This leadership is evident on the court as well as the stat sheet. McNally has a knack for drawing the tide-turning charge and draining the run-capping bucket. The great chemistry between him and Curry allow both players to stay on the court at the same time, and most Ivy opponents have a difficult time defending two All-Ivy caliber guards.

McNally and Curry generally combine for 80 percent of the backcourt minutes (with at least one of them on the court for an even larger percentage of game play). The small remainder of the ball-handling duties will fall to sophomore Matt Brown, who distinguished himself as a defensive specialist last year, and freshmen lookalikes Corbin Miller and Max Hooper (though Hooper might prove to be more of a wing player). Technically, sophomore Laurent Rivard is called upon to join the backcourt in free-throw situations as well.

Frontcourt:

Nominally forwards or off-guards, junior Christian Webster and Rivard provide wing play for the Crimson offense. Webster is primarily a slasher, unafraid to drive into the lane, though he also knocks down threes at almost a 40 percent clip. Webster’s aggressiveness is a crucial ingredient to Amaker’s offensive philosophy, as it earns the junior frequent trips to the charity stripe (123 free throw attempts on 246 field goal attempts) where he makes 89.4 percent of his freebies. This style of play makes Webster the most consistent perimeter scorer on Harvard’s roster: he was held to fewer than eight points just three times all season.

Though Rivard also showed a willingness to venture into the lane, he primarily specializes as a shooter. His 39.6 percentage from deep betrays the extent of his impact on the court. Rivard is a threat to shoot from as deep as 25 feet, denying defenses the choice to pack the middle. The Canadian emerged as an early contender for Ivy League Rookie of the Year after a torrid December and January, but his production dipped in the middle of conference play enough for Brown’s Sean McGonagill to pass him. Regardless, Rivard was, and will remain, one of the most feared shooters in the league as well as perhaps the Ivy’s best sixth man.

The Crimson’s true frontcourt consists of junior Kyle Casey and co-captain Keith Wright. Last year, Casey was a trendy preseason pick for Ivy League Player of the Year, but a well-documented foot injury hampered him all season. Still, he gutted out a 10.7 points, 6.0 rebounds per game line that earned him an all-league second team nod. This year, Casey returns at full strength. His combination of athleticism and size is unmatched by anyone in the conference. His ability to score in a variety of ways—off the dribble, catch-and-shoot, post ups—make him Harvard’s most interesting and fun-to-watch player. He has the highest ceiling of anyone on the Crimson and could be primed to make the same kind of leap we saw from Wright last year.

Wright’s transformation was the biggest reason for Harvard’s success a year ago. He became the go-to guy in place of Jeremy Lin and carried the Crimson further than it’s ever gone, averaging 14.8 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks per game en route to being named Ivy League Player of the Year. His ability to stay on the court last year (upping his minutes from 21.4 per game to 32.3) was perhaps the biggest reason for his success, and, continuing a trend throughout his college career, Wright has shown up to camp in tremendous shape yet again. For what he lacks in explosiveness, Wright makes up for in strength. Yale’s Greg Mangano was his only equal last season; until we see more competition, we can only assume Wright will provide more of the same dominance.

Barring injury, Harvard’s rotation is largely set. As a result, the much-heralded freshman class will likely play a complementary role and compete for minutes off the bench alongside veterans Andrew Van Nest, Jeff Georgatos, and Ugo Okam. Still, the Crimson is rightly excited to see exactly what it has in Steve Moundou-Missi, Wesley Saunders, Kenyatta Smith, and Jonah Travis. They provide some relief against the inevitable attrition from the Ivy League’s grueling schedule, as well as a glimpse into the future of Harvard hoops.

Final Thoughts:

If you could have any team’s frontcourt, you might pick the Yale or Princeton bigs over Harvard’s. If you could have any team’s backcourt, you might pick the Quaker or Big Red ball handlers ahead of the Crimson’s. But no team comes close to matching the talent from Cambridge in both areas.

Of course the season will surprise us in a million different ways, but right now, my guess is that Tommy Amaker feels like a man holding ace-king suited at the poker table. Who knows, maybe he’ll get screwed on the river, but pre-flop—before the first tipoff of a long season—he wouldn’t trade hands with anybody.

Season Preview: Yale Bulldogs

Junior Ivy League POY candidate Greg Mangano will lead the Yale Bulldogs on their championship quest this season. (Photo Credit: ivyleaguesports.com)
The 2011-2012 Bulldog squad comes into this season with significant hype and expectations. Yale returns arguably the league’s best player in Greg Mangano (feel free to check out his Twitter if you want to hear his opinion on the subject) and is losing only one major contributor from last year’s squad in point guard Porter Braswell. In fact, the preseason optimism in the Elm City feels quite similar to four years ago, when the team found itself in a somewhat similar place as it does now.The 2007-2008 Yale squad was coming off a surprising 10-4 season the year before, in which junior point guard Eric Flato had a breakout (though not quite 2011 Mangano-esque) season, as that Bulldog team rode its junior class and underclassmen to 10 league wins, including a home upset win against Penn, which resulted in an amorphous mob of Ivy title dreaming fans at center court after the final buzzer. Things were looking up for Yale, and with Princeton down and Penn losing Zoller and Jaaber, there was an opening for a program that was not traditionally a powerhouse to step up and take control of the conference. That program was… Cornell. I won’t go too much further into the 2007-2008 season, as that isn’t the point of this piece, and moreover, it wasn’t a particularly exciting season for Yale and its supporters. Let’s just say the preseason buzz proved a bit unwarranted.

Anyway, this Yale team shares some similarities with the squad that returned in the fall of ‘07: a couple of players who had breakout seasons the year before (‘11: Mangano, Morgan; ‘07: Flato, Pinick), a split with the previous season’s champion or co-champion, and high expectations. It seems, though, that the resemblance ends there and history may not repeat itself.

Here is a close look at who the Bulldogs are going to put on the hardwood this year.

Backcourt:

When the Bulldogs traveled to Chestnut Hill to face BC in the third game of last season, junior guard Austin Morgan quickly became a household name (at least among the households of people who read this blog… Or households of BC fans maybe). It was quite a performance: Morgan dropped 25 with six threes and the Bulldogs led the game from start to finish. Austin went on to average 12.6 points per game last year and provided backcourt stability and balance for the team. This balance was critical to combat opponents who started to game plan against Yale’s interior strengths. This year, Morgan looks to play a major role for the Bulldogs once again.

Reggie Willhite, the senior captain this year, will be an interesting player to watch. Reggie played limited minutes as a freshman and started just four games the next year, but began to develop a penchant for getting steals, nabbing 27 during his sophomore campaign. When he worked his way into the starting lineup this past year, he continued his work on the defensive end, finishing third in the league in steals with 40, while also shooting just under 45 percent from the field on the year, good for top ten in the Ivy League. Willhite made the leap last year, starting all 28 games for the Bulldogs. This Yale team doesn’t need to replace significant scorers, and the Bulldogs will look to Reggie to average around ten points per game once again, while continuing to be a force on the defensive end.

One player who will play a large role in whether this team can challenge for the league title will be junior Mike Grace. Grace saw significant playing time as a freshman, finishing third on the team in assists, but was hampered by an injury through much of last year. He could step into the role of starting guard with the graduation of Porter Braswell, and form a strong backcourt with Willhite and Morgan. Given this team’s strength in the frontcourt, some consistency at the guard positions could bump this team from slightly above average to legitimate challenger for a league title.

Junior Sam Martin, who almost never saw the floor his freshman year, saw increased action last year, as he developed into a three point shooter. Martin shot the ball very well and earned a lot of praise for his play on the team’s China trip this summer, and Coach Jones has been vocal about how high he is on Martin’s shooting ability.

One guy I am interested in watching is sophomore Isaiah Salafia. He struggled a bit from the field in his limited minutes last year, but shined in helping Yale pull out a hard-fought overtime victory over Dartmouth. I’ll pick Isaiah as a sleeper contributor for the Bulldogs this year.

Frontcourt:

Greg Mangano has certainly been the talk of the town in New Haven, as the New Haven area native put forth a monster junior year, making him a serious candidate for Ivy League POY last year, averaging a double-double and also providing three blocks per game on the defensive end, highlighted by a seven block effort against Brown in an early conference victory. After declaring for the NBA Draft then retracting his name and playing with some of college basketball’s finest players on the World University Games team, Mangano comes in as the Lindy’s pick for this year’s Player of the Year, anchoring a Bulldog frontcourt that matches up favorably with every other frontcourt in the conference.

Mangano and sophomore Jeremiah Kreisberg give this team a lethal 1-2 punch down low. The 6-10 Kreisberg was the rookie of the year for the Bulldogs, shooting 55.6 percent from the field last year while averaging 7.2 points and 4.5 board while starting every Ivy League game. Kreisberg played on Israel’s U-20 team over the summer, getting some valuable international experience in the off-season. If these two can stay healthy and out of foul trouble, this team features two dominant players down low and at the high post who will be a very difficult matchup for other Ivy squads.

Aside from these two, the Bulldogs will likely rely on a pair of impressive freshman. One Bulldog who will be fun to watch is 6-6 forward Brandon Sherrod, who was Connecticut’s high school Player of the Year last year, sporting six triple doubles and averaging 16 points, 14.5 rebounds and 6 blocks. It could be fun to see if Coach Jones throws the three of these guys out on the floor together to see how high the blocked shot tally will go. Meanwhile, 6-11 freshman center Will Childs-Klein will also likely be called on to step in and provide some key minutes when the Bulldogs have their top big men on the bench. If the Bulldogs are in foul trouble down the stretch in key games this year, these two frosh may go a long way in determining whether this is a middle of the conference team or a legitimate title contender. In a league with effectively no margin for error, every league game will prove vital, and it’s almost a certainty the Bulldogs will turn to these two youngsters late in a close game during the Ivy campaign.

Yale’s depth is one of their greatest strengths this season. There are other names I haven’t yet mentioned here who could very well end up playing big roles for the ‘Dogs. Rhett Anderson stepped in early last year and started the team’s first seven games, and we could see the veteran big man play some important minutes off the bench. Freshman name of the year candidate Armani Cotton averaged over 20 points per game in high school. As a 6-7 guard, his length could be a disastrous matchup for some teams. Sophomore Greg Kelley will finally see the floor after missing his freshman year to an injury and if his game is half as good as his blog (midmajorchillin.blogspot.com), the Bulldogs will be extremely deep at every position except point guard.

The backcourt and perimeter play will be key for the Bulldogs. Will they be able to knock down the big shots when teams double down on Mangano? Can they keep up with a team that tries to push the pace? Will they be able to avoid the pitfalls of the 14-game tournament without dropping a game to team in the bottom half like they did to sharpshooting Cornell (and almost at home to Dartmouth)?

Final Thoughts:

This team is capable of winning the title. If Michael Grace (or someone else) develops into a consistent point guard, Mangano and Kreisberg stay healthy and one or more of the freshman bigs can step in and play right away, this team will be a nightmare matchup for most Ivy teams. It’ll be interesting to see the combinations that Coach Jones puts together when he wants to, for example, “go big”, and the pace that he employs (you have to assume he’s going to want to slow it down). The non-conference schedule will help us answer many of these questions.

Will the Bulldogs win the league and go to the tournament for the first time since that tough 1962 overtime loss to Billy Packer and the Demon Deacons? It’s certainly going to be a tough task for anyone to top Harvard. But if anyone is going to do it, it’ll be the boys from New Haven.