After losing eight players from the 2016-2017 season (13-17 overall, 4-10 Ivy), including first team All-Ivy Steven Spieth, four-year starting point guard Tavon Blackmon, and three-point specialist JR Hobbie, the Brown men’s basketball team was picked last in the 2017-18 Ivy League preseason media poll. With underclassmen filling out almost 64 percent of the roster and playing 74 percent of the team’s minutes, the Bears finished last year at 11-16 with a second straight 4-10 mark in the Ancient Eight. While the record was not impressive, Brown did take Providence to overtime, defeat Princeton on the road for the first time since 2010, and have a third place 4-4 record halfway through the conference schedule. After gaining a year of experience leading the program, the talented young core will attempt to move Brown beyond four straight seventh-place league finishes and make a push for a first-ever spot in the Ivy Tournament.
This is part 1 of IHO’s 2017-18 Ivy League team-by-team season preview. Read part 2 here.
The rise of the Ivy League is projected to continue.
The Ancient Eight is slated by KenPom as the 13th-best conference in Division I this season, just seven years after it placed 26th. That’s a quantum leap, a product of the league’s bolstered recruiting in that time frame. The Ivy hoops status quo now consists of top-25 recruiting classes, Nike Skills Academy members and expectations of NCAA Tournament success.
There’s a three-way cluster between Harvard, Princeton and Yale projected to top the league. In the Ivy Preseason Media Poll, Yale received the most first-place votes (eight) but Harvard garnered the most points overall. Without a clear conference favorite, it’s quite likely that the regular season champion will not also be the conference tournament winner, with Bart Torvik’s Ivy Tourney Simulator tabbing Penn as the favorite in an Ivy tourney as a No. 4 seed.
Last season, the Brown men’s basketball team went 9-7 in nonconference action. The nine wins tied the program’s record for non-league victories with the 2001-02 and 2014-15 teams. The Bears’ 8-0 start at home was the best beginning since the 1934-35 squad. In league play, Brown appeared to get a boost of confidence from its nonconference schedule, dominating Penn and Cornell on the road and losing by one at home to Yale. With a 2-3 start in Ivy competition, the Bears were looking good for the fourth spot in the inaugural Ivy Tournament.
Unfortunately, Brown lost its next five matches, derailing its hopes for an upper division finish. Despite beating Dartmouth on the road to start the next to last weekend of the season, the loss to Harvard the following evening eliminated the Bears from postseason play. The team did bounce back in its penultimate game, beating Columbia by 20 and damaging the Lions’ hope for the league’s final four. A Senior Night loss to Cornell left the Bears with a 4-10 record (13-17 overall), tied for sixth in the Ancient Eight.
Trey Phills and Nick Victor are different people. Really.
Phills is a sophomore at Yale and stands 6-foot-2. Victor graduated from Yale last year and stands 6-foot-5. He currently plays in Norway and last week was named Player Of The Week in his league, scoring 24 points and grabbing 14 rebounds.
Now let the comparisons begin.
With the first-ever Ivy League Postseason Tournament, the regular season has focused on which teams would make it into the top four. In the preseason and the first two months of the campaign, Princeton, Yale and Harvard appeared certain to get to the Palestra for the second week of March. The first two weekends of conference play has confirmed those ideas. For most of the nonconference season, Penn seemed to take control of that fourth spot. While losing to Princeton at Jadwin Gym on the opening night of the league schedule, the Quakers showed enough on the offensive and defensive sides to justify those predictions. However, the Quakers’ two home losses this weekend showed that their path to the Palestra is uncertain and opened the fourth spot for all five lower division squads. After Saturday’s action in Philadelphia and Ithaca, Brown and Columbia took strong steps towards claiming the last spot in the top tier.
After winning on the road against Central Connecticut this Saturday, Brown basketball finds itself as the only Ivy League team with a winning record (5-4) heading into the first week of December. The Bears’ 75-58 victory was its best road victory since back-to-back wins against Providence and Central Connecticut State in December 2014. With its yearly rematch with the Friars scheduled for this Tuesday, it is worth spending time reviewing the first month of the Brown season before looking to the future.
This one Ivy League season has been worthy of a shrug. The funk began when Yale junior guard and Ivy Player of the Year candidate Makai Mason was declared out for the season due to injury, and it deepened when it became obvious that Harvard coach Tommy Amaker had more tinkering than expected to do with his impact freshman-heavy roster. Preseason favorite Princeton, meanwhile, got clipped at Lehigh and is 0-3 against higher-ranked teams in KenPom. And league losses to Binghamton (Cornell), Army (Columbia), Longwood (Dartmouth), Navy (Penn) and Bryant (Yale) have suggested that the league has a lot of room for improvement. As a result, the Ivy League has fallen from 14th in KenPom’s preseason Division I conference rankings to 18th in just three weeks.
What happened last year: (8-20, 3-11 Ivy) The Bears’ 2015-16 season was underwhelming overall. Brown tied for last in the conference despite being projected to finish fifth in the preseason media poll with two-time Ivy Defensive Player of the Year Cedric Kuakumensah still in tow and an unusual level of offensive depth. But a five-game skid in league play in February followed back-to-back 24-point losses to Yale and Princeton in the Bears’ second and third conference matchups, a tough slog for Brown.
What’s new: Kuakumensah is gone after leading the league in blocks and three-point percentage as well as ranking second in rebounding last season. Say howdy to freshmen forwards Joshua Howard and David Erebor as well as rookie center Brandon Charnov and frosh guard Brandon Anderson, who selected Brown over Columbia. Most of Brown’s offensive playmakers return, but the Bears were projected to finish last in the conference in this year’s preseason media poll, probably because of Brown’s distinct lack of defensive fortitude last season.
Cornell 75, Brown 71
Cornell won this season finale for both teams, scraping up a win with Brown offensive linchpin Tavon Blackmon missing the game due to an ankle injury. In his final collegiate game, Cedric Kuakumensah posted a characteristic 21 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks, with Steven Spieth adding 13 rebounds, 12 points and seven assists. But Cornell’s 27-18 advantage in points off treys and 11-0 advantage in fastbreak points proved enough, featuring freshman Matt Morgan with 25 points, four assists and four rebounds, a steal and a block.
1. Princeton (20-5, 10-1 Ivy)
It’s Princeton’s versatility that gives the Tigers a better chance to win in a potential NCAA Tournament berth than Yale, or indeed, most mid-majors. What matters most in an Ivy playoff is that Princeton’s offense matches up well with Yale’s defense, complete with multiple sharpshooters and slashers that can use the Elis’ size advantage against them.