As we near the midpoint of the Ivy League season, preseason narratives are beginning to take shape. After losing Siyani Chambers ’16 to an ACL injury before the year started, Harvard was projected a distant fourth in the standings behind the league’s academic middle class—Yale, Princeton, and Columbia. Narrow losses to Providence and Kansas and a run to the finals of the Diamond Head Classic changed the story on the Crimson temporarily, but injuries and defensive lapses have induced a market correction. After five straight losses, Harvard carries the worst point differential in the Ancient Eight.
The three preseason favorites, by contrast, have gone 13-0 against the rest of the league. Yet calling it a three-team race is a bit misleading. Through six games, Yale is on pace to be one of the most dominant teams in the last two decades. The Bulldogs have six of their remaining eight games on the road—including trips to Morningside Heights and Jadwin Gymnasium—but have aced their first exams. After some early-season struggles, Yale is knocking on the door of Ken Pomeroy’s top 50. That plateau hasn’t been crossed since the Harvard teams of 2012 and 2014, statistically the two best league champions of the 21st century.
The battle for second between the league’s welterweights, Columbia and Princeton, highlights the third full weekend of play. Despite starting 5-1, Columbia has been less than impressive—barely surviving a Harvard team without junior forward Zena Edosomwan and needing a late run to get past Brown. Princeton, by contrast, put up a much better fight against Yale and ran Harvard out of the gym. Tiger forward Henry Caruso is a matchup nightmare at the four and gives Princeton a lot of lineup flexibility. Of all the teams in the league, only the Tigers can ably punish Yale for going big with seniors Justin Sears and noted Whiffenpoof Brandon Sherrod. While Yale is the definite favorite heading down the stretch, Princeton has the best shot at knocking it off.
For the remainder of the league, the future is much rosier than the present. Lost in Yale’s dominance has been the emergence of one of the most productive freshman classes in recent memory. Cornell’s Matt Morgan ranks second the league in scoring, performing with decent efficiency for the league’s highest-volume shooter. Just behind him is Dartmouth’s Evan Bourdeaux, who in his first year on campus has been better than 2015 graduate Gabas Maldunas—arguably the best Big Green player of the last five years.
Beyond the cream of the crop is a deep pool of contributors. Both Penn and Harvard boast freshmen backcourts with tough-nosed point guards and excellent spot-up shooters. Princeton’s Devin Cannady is knocking on the door of the starting lineup with stellar backcourt contributions—ranking among the league’s top 20 in scoring while approaching the rarified 50-40-90 air of efficiency. Rounding out the impressive group is quality talents Troy Whiteside, Weisner Perez, and Max Rotschil—all of whom have shown All-Ivy flashes in small samples.
On the backs of this freshman class comes a group of high school seniors whose next four years will do a lot to determine the league’s future. Harvard brings in a pair of ESPN Top-100 recruits in Chris Lewis and Robert Baker Jr. in a class ranked an absurd 10th in the nation. However, the league’s incoming talent runs deeper than that—both Penn and Yale bring in three-star recruits in deep classes.
Lewis and Baker Jr. are crucial quintessential components of the vision Harvard coach Tommy Amaker sells to recruits—a Top 25 basketball program paired with the world’s best education. Amaker isn’t the first, nor the only, Ivy League coach to pitch this on the recruiting trail, but he’s by far the most successful. It isn’t surprising that Amaker can recruit (after all, the same man brought the nation’s no. 1 recruiting class to New Jersey, a feat more impressive than taking a Valentine to Qdoba); what’s unexpected is that the demand exists for the pitch.
After all, it runs contrary to jock stereotypes to expect the nation’s best athletes to choose to challenge themselves academically—especially with UNC offering the degree equivalent of Natural Disasters and Kentucky hosting freshmen on a glorified seven-month training camp. Harvard’s ability to establish proof of concept could be a huge boon for the league’s elite. James Jones, Mitch Henderson, and Kyle Smith can all pitch roughly the same academic credentials at Harvard and ascendant basketball programs. With expanded financial aid eliminating a historical recruiting barrier, a deep run by an Ivy League team could close the gap further.
For now, a wild three-team race begins. On to the picks:
PRINCETON AT CORNELL
Cornell is the league’s biggest wild card. Morgan and backcourt mate Robert Hatter rank one-two in the league in scoring but are high-volume chuckers whose efficiency is hard to predict. When they are on, the Big Red are hard to stop. When they aren’t, it gets ugly quick. Against Princeton, who has the guard play to break the Cornell press with ease, it won’t be pretty.
PENN AT COLUMBIA
After sweeping a home Ivy weekend, Penn has restored some faith to a Palestra that has seen a young team endure significant growing pains this weekend. Senior Darien Nelson-Henry gives the team one of the league’s most reliable deep post threats and helps bail out freshmen Jake Silpe and Jackson Donahue from the burden of having to create their own shot late in the shot clock. Penn doesn’t have nearly enough three-point shooting to win here, but it will be competitive down the stretch.
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