It’s a wide-open field in the Ivy Madness men’s semifinals

The men’s competition in the Ivy League Tournament kicks off on Saturday afternoon at Columbia University and for the first time since the advent of Ivy Madness there is no clear favorite.  While the Princeton Tigers enter the tournament as the No. 1 seed and the regular season champion, each of the four teams competing on Saturday at Levien Gym legitimately has a chance to advance to the championship game on Sunday.

Let’s take a closer look at the two semifinal matchups in the men’s competition:

Semifinal 1:  No. 1 Princeton v. No. 4 Brown , Sat., 11 a.m.

Princeton (24-3, 12-2 Ivy) enters Ivy Madness on a roll.  The Tigers have won nine in a row and secured their third consecutive Ivy League regular season title after crushing their biggest rival, the Penn Quakers, 105-83, at the Palestra last weekend.  

The Tigers have been riding a magic carpet for the past twelve months.  Few followers of Ivy hoops believed coach Mitch Henderson could sustain the level of success he and his squad achieved last March when the Tigers reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament, especially after losing three stellar senior starters.  

But when the curtain lifted on the 2023-24 season, the Tigers picked up right from where they had left off, winning nine straight games to open the nonconference season.  

Other than a two-game dip on the road at Cornell and Yale, the Tigers have been consistently excellent throughout the regular season, finishing with a 24-3 record, and earning recognition as one of the top mid-major programs in the country.  Two of those wins came against the Brown Bears, whom the Tigers defeated by 10 points in Providence on February 3, 70-60, and by nine points at Jadwin Gym two weeks later, 72-63.  

Princeton’s starting five features one of the best quintets in recent Ivy League history, including the Ivy League Player of the Year, Caden Pierce, who averages 16.3 ppg and 9.3 rebounds, second-best in the Ivy League. 

Henderson, who earlier this week won his second Ivy League Coach of the Year award, can also rely on super sophomore and unanimous first team all-Ivy guard Xaivian Lee (17.7 ppg, 5.9 rpg) to slash his way to the basket for points in the paint or seniors Matt Allocco (Second-team All-Ivy) and Zach Martini to can clutch three-pointers.  

Against this background, Princeton should coast to victory over Brown on Saturday afternoon in the opening game of the men’s competition, right?  Not so fast.  

Brown is on a heater of its own.  Coach Mike Martin has guided his team to six consecutive wins, the longest streak of conference triumphs for the Bears since the 2007-08 season.  Brown punctuated its streak by knocking off Yale in an overtime thriller in New Haven last weekend, 84-81.  It was the first time Brown had won at Yale since 2010.  

The Bears are led Kino Lilly Jr., a first-team All Ivy guard from Glenn Dale, Md.  Lilly averages 18.4 ppg, tops in the Ivy League.  Lilly has been a star since he began his collegiate career, winning honors as the Ivy League Rookie of the Year in 2022 and earning a spot on the All-Ivy first team roster in 2023.  

Lilly may have saved Brown’s season two weeks ago when the Bears faced Harvard at home in a game that likely determined who would gain the fourth and final berth to the Ivy League Tournament.  Trailing by three with five ticks left on the clock, Lilly deked his defender, stepped to his left, and drained an off-balance three-pointer to send the game to overtime.  The Bears then prevailed in the extra session to put themselves in the driver’s seat for punching a ticket to Ivy Madness.

But as important as Lilly is to Brown, Bruno’s real strength lies in its frontcourt.  Led by Second-Team All-Ivy forward Nana Owusu-Anane (15 ppg, 8.8 rpg), Brown leads the Ivy League in rebounding, averaging over 37 boards a game.  In contrast, Princeton with its talented but under-sized front court, ranks seventh in the league in rebounding.  

At the pre-tournament press conference on Friday morning, Henderson acknowledged the challenge his squad faces:  “Brown is a terrific rebounding team, and we need to be ready for that.”

An X-factor in Saturday’s matchup may be the play of junior guard, Alexander Lesburt, Jr.  Since Martin inserted Lesburt into the starting lineup on February 16 against Princeton, the 6-6 sophomore from Derry, N.H. has averaged nearly 10 points per game.  A 36% career shooter from three-point distance, look for Leburt to get plenty of chances against a Tigers defense that likely will try to make someone other than Lilly beat them from outside.  

One challenge for Bruno, however, will be handling the nerves of playing under the spotlight of a postseason tournament.  This is the first time that Brown has qualified for Ivy Madness while Princeton comes to New York as a veteran, experienced and confident club.

Overall, I like Princeton’s chances to prevail, but this could be a very close game with foul trouble and free-throw shooting possibly making a difference in the outcome. 

Semifinal 2: No. 2 Yale v. No. 3 Cornell, Sat., 2 p.m.

The most anticipated matchup of the semifinals at this year’s Ivy Madness features the No. 2 Yale Bulldogs (20-9, 11-3) against the No. 3 Cornell Big Red (22-6, 11-3).  These two teams met in the semifinals of last year’s Ivy League Tournament, with Yale prevailing, 80-60.

Yale began the season as the consensus favorite to win the Ivy League while Cornell was considered to be competitive but not quite ready to contend for a championship. Both teams surprised the pundits, but in opposite ways. Yale blew a chance to win a share of the regular season title by losing its regular season finale at home while Cornell strung together seven consecutive wins to begin Ivy play and nearly won its first regular season Ivy title since the 2000-10 season.  

Yale arguably brings the deepest roster of any team to Levien Gym for Ivy Madness. The Bulldogs are led by sophomore center Danny Wolf, a unanimous first team all Ivy pick who finished first in the league in rebounding and tenth in scoring (14.4 ppg).  Coach James Jones can also rely on Second-Team All-Ivy guard Bez Mbeng to shut down the opposing team’s best scorer.  Earlier this week, Mbeng (11.8 ppg, 4.2 apg) was selected the Ivy Defensive Player of the Year for the second consecutive year.  

Other Yale stalwarts include junior forward Matt Knowling (11 ppg) and sharpshooters John Poulakidas (13 ppg) and August Mahoney (10 ppg).

Cornell also has a deep roster, led by First-Team All-Ivy forward Chris Manon (12.6 ppg) and Second-Team All-Ivy guard Nazir Williams (11.7 ppg).  Cooper Noard, who drains treys at a nearly 40% rate, could be an X-factor in the game for the Big Red.

The Big Red’s biggest trump card may be their up-tempo style of play which, combined with their relentless full court press, results in high-scoring contests.  

This will be the Big Red’s third consecutive appearance in Ivy Madness, with coach Brian Earl hoping to guide his team to its first ever championship game. 

“We had a hard-fought Ivy League campaign,” Earl acknowledged at the pre-tournament press conference on Friday.  “We’ve been here a few times, and this is honestly the first time we haven’t gone into the last game sweating everything that goes into it, so that was a little bit of a relief.

The Bulldogs and Big Red split their two regular-season matchups with both teams holding serve at home by a single possession.  

How will their rubber match turn out?  If earlier results this season serve as an indicator, the game is likely to remain close and could be decided by whomever has the final possession.  I like Cornell’s chances.