Princeton, Harvard head Ivy men’s basketball race

8648-mbb-pre-thumb-300x216-8647.jpg
Kareem Maddox ’11 and the Tigers opened the year 11-4. Harvard, the other top Ivy League contender, is 12-3, including a win over Dartmouth in its league opener. (© Beverly Schaefer)

Although no team looks as strong as last year’s Cornell squad, which made a run to the Sweet 16, Ivy League men’s basketball, as a whole, has been great this season. It currently ranks 14th among Division-I conferences, according to RealTimeRPI.com – great for a league that usually finishes in the 20s – and Princeton and Harvard, the top two preseason contenders, have looked impressive in nonconference games.

 
What should you expect from the Ivy League this year? Here’s a start: a lot of shots falling. Six teams are among the top 120 nationally in shooting, with an effective field-goal percentage (which weights three-pointers more than twos) above 50 percent. On the other hand, only Princeton and Yale rank in the top 200 in defensive effective field-goal percentage; the rest have allowed a mark above 50 percent. 
 
The Ivy is notoriously fickle, as the back-to-back nature of conference play involves many Saturday evening games between tired teams. That has never been truer than it is this year, when the top squads generally have thin benches. Upsets will happen – as we saw last year, when Penn knocked off then-No. 22 Cornell and Brown won at Princeton – and the champion may finish with only 11 or 12 league wins.
 
Without further ado, a team-by-team breakdown. (Teams are listed in order of the preseason media poll. All stats as of Jan. 16.)
 
Princeton (11-4 overall) In the press conference after Princeton’s season-opening overtime victory, Rutgers head coach Mike Rice said that the Tigers are “not a typical Ivy League team.” Two weeks later, after another overtime win for the hosts at Jadwin Gym, Siena head coach Mitch Buonaguro used the exact same words. With the emergence of forwards Kareem Maddox ’11 and Ian Hummer ’13, Princeton plays a physical game. Five-foot-11-inch guard Doug Davis ’12 is the only player who is short for his position; the Tigers always have three players on the court who are 6 feet, 7 inches, or taller and easily have the most size in the conference.
 

In the preseason, seemingly every coach talks about playing at a faster pace – a prediction that rarely comes to fruition when the ball is tipped. But the Tigers have fulfilled the promise made by head coach Sydney Johnson ’97, speeding up what used to be one of the nation’s slowest offenses. Those who say Princeton is playing at a “fast” pace are mistaken – at 65.4 possessions per game, it still lies below the Division-I average of 67.6 – but it has certainly accelerated after playing many games in the 50s last season.
 
Johnson has been reluctant to go deep into his bench, which could cause fatigue in the rough Friday-Saturday conference schedule. The backcourt is particularly thin; Davis and Mavraides combine to play 70 minutes per game, while virtually all the remaining time goes to T.J. Bray ’14. Princeton has struggled to hold second-half leads, most notably at James Madison, where the Dukes overcame a 20-point deficit to win, 65-64.
 
The Tigers score efficiently from the inside and the outside. Hummer leads the balanced attack with 14.3 points per game, making 57 percent of his field goals, while Maddox, always a threat to throw down a crowd-pleasing dunk, averages 12.8 and 56 percent. Dan Mavraides ’11 and Davis are also in double figures, each hitting more than 40 percent of his three-point attempts. The Orange and Black is the top shooting team in the league overall (47 percent) and on three-pointers (38 percent).
 
Princeton struggled in November, losing two of three games in the CBE Classic at James Madison – though it did beat surging Bucknell, the only Ivy team to do so in four tries. The Tigers rebounded with an eight-game winning streak, including a double-overtime victory at Tulsa. They challenged then-No. 16 Central Florida on the road over the holiday break, taking a halftime lead before falling by six points. Currently in the middle of a 17-day hiatus, Princeton hosts The College of New Jersey in a tune-up game Jan. 23 before opening league play against Brown Jan. 28.
 
Harvard (12-3, 1-0 Ivy) The Crimson has been red-hot, winning by five points at George Washington to finish 11-3 outside the conference. Its only three losses came against tough competition: George Mason, Michigan, and then-No. 4 UConn, all on the road. Harvard also boasts two victories over major-conference squads – 82-66 against Colorado at Lavietes Pavilion and 78-69 at Boston College (its third consecutive win against the Eagles).
 
Offense is not hard for the Crimson to find; four players average double figures and two others are close. Junior Keith Wright leads the team with 14.5 points per game, making a league-high 58 percent of his shots and ranking second with 8.4 rebounds per game. Oliver McNally is making 94 percent of his free throws, 58 percent of his two-point attempts and 48 percent of his threes, good for fifth in the nation in true shooting percentage. Sophomore Christian Webster and freshman sensation Laurent Rivard have been proficient inside and outside the arc en route to 13.7 and 12.5 points per game, respectively. And it will be nearly impossible to overcome a final-minute deficit against the Crimson, which makes 80.5 percent of its free throws, second-best in the country.
 
Harvard also boasts the league’s best defense, allowing fewer than 64 points per game. Wright and sophomore Kyle Casey – who is working his way back into the starting lineup after a foot injury – clean up the defensive glass well, while the Crimson avoids sending opponents to the charity stripe. And, in what is a truly scary thought for the rest of the Ancient Eight, none of its key players are seniors; most will be around until at least the spring of 2013.
 
Harvard suffers from the same depth issue that plagues its foes, which could become a problem in the Ivy season.   Four players average more than 30 minutes per game, and coach Tommy Amaker seems to have cut his rotation to eight with Casey back in the fold. Still, Harvard looks like a clear co-favorite in the league – if not a slight favorite – and Princeton fans should look forward to Feb. 4, when the Crimson comes to Jadwin.
 
Cornell (4-11, 0-1) After three consecutive Ivy League championships, three NCAA Tournament appearances and a run to the Sweet 16, Cornell basketball is on the national radar. But after the graduation of several key players, including Ryan Wittman, Jeff Foote, and Louis Dale, the program has regressed significantly, currently holding the worst overall record in the Ancient Eight. The Big Red opened its conference season with a four-point loss at Columbia; even if it wins Saturday’s upstate return trip, it will have to dig out of a hole in the Ivy race.
 
The Big Red gave Minnesota a tough game in early December, but has since lost to bottom-feeder programs such as New Hampshire and Binghamton. Chris Wroblewski, the only returning player to average more than 12 minutes per game last season, leads the conference with 6.1 assists per game while scoring 15.5 points and making 42 percent of his threes.
 
The game plan for Cornell is largely the same as last year: shoot a lot of three-pointers. While nowhere near last year’s nation-best 43 percent shooting from the outside, Cornell still hits threes at a pretty good clip (37 percent). But its percentage on two-point attempts has dropped 10 percentage points to 41 percent, better than just a handful of Division-I teams. 
 
The Big Red gives up a major advantage at the foul line, shooting eight fewer freebies per game than its opponents. And without the 7-foot Foote in the paint to collect misses, Cornell has fallen from second to seventh in the league in defensive rebound rate. The defending champions will win some games and could upset one of the top two teams if the shots are falling, but the chances of a fourth consecutive title are slim.
 
Pennsylvania (5-7) One thing is for sure about the Quakers: They are battle-tested. No Ivy League team has faced as many top teams, including No. 5 Pittsburgh, No. 7 Villanova, and No. 13 Kentucky. But they went just 5-4 against the rest of the slate, which was much softer. Penn lost to Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference opponents Marist (4-14) and Manhattan (2-15). It has two non-conference games remaining – Big 5 contests against Temple and St. Joseph’s – before opening Ivy League play against Yale Jan. 28.
 
The roster starts with junior guard Zack Rosen, who was named first-team All-Ivy last season and entered this year as the favorite for conference player of the year. He has largely lived up to the billing, averaging an efficient 16.0 points and 4.6 assists per game. But like that of the two frontrunners, Penn’s bench is lacking; Rosen and 6-foot-8-inch senior Jack Eggleston have each played more than 35 minutes per game (in fact, only three players in the nation have played more than Eggleston). Freshman Miles Cartwright has established himself as a scoring threat and capable defender, but the team quickly runs thin.
 
The Quakers have suffered some poor luck in the first half of the season – their opponents have made 76.7 percent of their free throws, the highest mark in the nation. But the other weaknesses seem likely to continue into conference play. Penn rarely gets second chances, rebounding only 25 percent of its misses, competing with Brown for the conference cellar. The Quakers fare better on the defensive end, but don’t get enough opportunities to clean up the glass because opponents don’t miss shots – Penn has allowed opponents to shoot 47.3 percent from the field. 
 
In the preseason, Johnson frequently said he thought Penn was one of the Tigers’ biggest obstacles to the conference championship. And if they stay healthy, the Quakers can probably give the top teams a game, particularly when Rosen gets hot. But it seems likely that Penn’s dream of getting back to the top of the league is at least a year away.
 
Yale (8-7, 1-0) The Bulldogs pulled off perhaps the most surprising Ivy League victory of the season back in November, defeating Boston College 75-67 on the road. (If you’re counting, the Eagles are 0-2 against the Ivies this season and 13-3 against everybody else.) Yale continued with other strong showings in the season’s first month, losing by one possession at Providence and by four at 12-4 Vermont. But the Bulldogs have not defeated another top-200 team aside from BC, and home losses to Sacred Heart and Lehigh sent their stock reeling.
 
Greg Mangano easily leads the league with 10.2 rebounds per game and tops the team with 14.6 points. Mangano has the willingness to step outside the arc, but not with much accuracy (34 percent), and his eight assists in 15 games are criminally low for a player who has the ball that often. Sophomore Austin Morgan, averaging 14.0 points per game, has made 47 percent of his three-point attempts, good for second in the league. 
 
Yale opened its conference season with a 69-64 victory at Brown; while the Bears do not appear strong this season, road wins in league play are always hard-earned.   But the Bulldogs, 7-7 out of conference, have finished within one game of .500 in the league for three consecutive years, and seem likely to extend that streak to four in 2011.
 
Brown (7-8, 0-1) The Bears struggled to a .500 record against a soft non-conference schedule, and a five-point home loss to Yale suggests that they will finish in the bottom half of the league for a third consecutive season. Losses at intrastate rivals Rhode Island and Providence are excusable, but Brown has not faced another strong team.
 
Peter Sullivan paces the offense, averaging 13.1 points per game. The senior is remarkably adept at drawing fouls, easily leading the league in free throws attempted and made, but too often bails out the opposing defense with a bad shot – he is just 9-for-39 on three-pointers this season. Brown as a whole takes a lot of treys, but does not do so particularly well (a league-worst 33 percent). The Bears rank dead last in offensive rebounding, recovering only 24 percent of missed shots.
 
Despite taking good care of the ball on the offensive end, Brown also ranks last in the league in turnover margin, thanks to a near-total aversion to causing opponents’ miscues. The Bears force a turnover on 15.6 percent of defensive possessions, better than only two other Division-I teams (though remarkably a slight improvement from last year, when they finished dead last).
 
Columbia (10-5, 1-0) Picked to finish seventh in the preseason, Columbia is the biggest surprise of the Ivy League, already just one win shy of last year’s total. The Lions dominate the glass on both ends of the court. They rebound 37 percent of their own missed shots while allowing opponents to haul in just 27 percent of theirs. The biggest reason is 6-foot-6-inch Ghanaian forward Asenso Ampim, who leads the team with 6.3 rebounds per game despite playing less than half the time. Junior Noruwa Agho paces the offense, scoring a league-high 16.9 points per game.
 
Much has been made of Princeton’s faster tempo this season, but the Tigers’ acceleration has been nearly matched by the Lions. Columbia is averaging 70 possessions per game this season; the last time they were above 65 was 2004-05. So although the Lions lead the league by a fair margin with 74.5 points per game, they actually come in a close second to Harvard in offensive efficiency (points per possession). Still, Columbia has made huge strides on the offensive end, given that it that has not finished in the top half of the league in five years.
 
The Lions are considered a dark horse in the Ivy race this year, but there’s a good reason why few expect them to keep winning two of every three games: Their schedule has been incredibly soft. According to Ken Pomeroy’s rankings, only six Division-I teams (out of 345) have faced an easier slate to date. Columbia opened its conference season with a 79-75 home victory over Cornell, its first victory in its last 10 games against its travel partner, but will have to play better to compete against the likes of Princeton and Harvard.
 
Dartmouth (4-11, 0-1) In the preseason media poll, voters were nearly unanimous in picking the Big Green to finish last in the Ivy League. So far, the team from Hanover is on track to do just that. Dartmouth capped a disappointing non-conference campaign with a loss at Colgate – only the Raiders’ second victory of the season – and was beaten soundly at home by Harvard.
 
The Big Green has been outscored by 10 points per game this season, worst in the conference, mainly due to a woeful offense. Despite playing at an average pace, Dartmouth ranks dead last with 58 points per game – seven fewer than seventh-place Penn. In a league where nearly every team can put the ball in the basket, the Big Green lacks an efficient scorer, shooting 34 percent from outside and a conference-worst  40 percent on two-pointers. It doesn’t do anything else well enough to compensate, earning few second chances and even fewer free throws.
 
Dartmouth is the only team without a double-digit scorer. Junior guard David Rufful leads the team with 9.2 points per game, making 39 percent of his threes and the same percentage inside the arc; classmate Jabari Trotter has hit 44 percent from downtown. But few others can score points efficiently. The Big Green has not won more than 10 games in a season since 1998-99, a streak that may continue for another year.