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November 9, 2007
The Ivy League
Killer Ps No More

by Caleb Peiffer

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The Ivy League is the most dynastic and antiquated conference in all of Division I. Its charter schools are among the oldest universities in the country, and this longevity has bred stubbornness and stagnation in the arena of college basketball--the Ivy League remains the last D-I conference without a postseason tournament. Some argue that this makes the Ancient Eight the final champion of unadulterated hardcourt achievement, rightly rewarding only the team that proves itself over the course of the regular season. While this theory is sound, in practice the lack of a tournament has allowed the monolithic dominance exerted over the rest of the conference by the "Killer P's," as Princeton and Penn are known by Ivy Hoops fanatics. Since the league's formal consolidation for basketball in 1955, either Princeton or Penn has captured at least a share of the title 46 out of 52 times, including in 37 of the last 39 seasons. The last team other than Princeton or Penn to win the title outright was Cornell in 1988. With the automatic berth in the NCAA tournament that comes with the title nearly always the only means by which an Ivy team can participate in postseason play (very rarely does a non-champion have a strong enough RPI for NCAA at-large or NIT consideration), each team's regular-season slate becomes a "14-game tournament," another Ivy League catch phrase. In the past, four league losses is the point at which title hopes die, an annual rite of passage for all the non-P's that usually occurs by the time the road trip to Princeton and Penn rolls around, if not sooner.

There are signs, however, that a rearrangement of the static Ivy standings is about to occur. On the administrative end, the league's athletic directors met last December to discuss the possibility of instituting a league tournament, and for the first time it appears that there might be enough support, from the coaches and school administrations, to get the idea off the mat. On the sidelines, the hiring this offseason of Sydney Johnson by Princeton and Tommy Amaker by Harvard highlighted the notable number of African-American Ivy League coaches. The introduction of Johnson and Amaker runs the count to six African-American coaches (out of eight Ivy teams), as that pair joins the Jones brothers (James of Yale and Joe of Columbia), Terry Dunn at Dartmouth and Craig Robinson at Brown. That's a positive sign for a league often viewed as anything but progressive. On the court, proud Princeton has seen its program crumble in recent years, and even Penn looks to not be mightier than all the rest this year, having lost its two best players. The Quakers should still be strong, but 2008 will be the year that the C's, not P's, rise up to challenge the long-standing hierarchy and bring fresh meat to the annual Ivy slaughter in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

CORNELL

The biggest addition to the Big Red this year will not be any freshman, but a junior: shooting guard Adam Gore, who injured his ACL in the first game of the 2007 season and missed the rest of the campaign. That loss was a huge one, as Gore was coming off a season in which he won Ivy rookie of the year honors by putting up an eFG% of 58.2 while playing 80% of Cornell's minutes. Gore will return to augment a stronger squad than the one he left, because in his absence freshmen Louis Dale and Ryan Wittman flourished. Dale, a 5'11" point guard from Birmingham, put up an eFG% of 55.9 while using a robust 28.3% of Cornell's possessions, bringing a deadly combination of three-point acumen (an efficient 44-for-94 from deep) and dribble-penetration skills (106-for-135 from the free-throw line). Wittman, a 6'6" guard/forward and the son of Timberwolves coach Randy, won Ivy rookie of the year thanks to his three-point shooting prowess. He connected on 93 of a mind-boggling 216 attempts. Adding Gore (who made 83 of 198 threes in 2006) to the fold will place Cornell among the best teams in the nation from long range, and give it the Ivy offense with the most explosive potential.

The worry is that the Big Red will be too perimeter-oriented, especially since Cornell loses its leading rebounder the past two seasons, 6'10" center Andrew Knaeve. However, 6'9 senior forward Jason Hartford showed in 2006 he can be an asset offensively and on the glass before missing last year to injury, and forwards Brian Kreefer and Alex Tyler, both 6'7, were effective last year in limited play. The Big Red is also importing 7'0" center Jeff Foote, a transfer from St. Bonaventure, to help out down low.

COLUMBIA

The Lions return virtually all of their minutes from last season, and have the top frontcourt tandem in the league in seniors John Baumann and Ben Nwachukwu. The 6'9 Nwachukwu is the Ivy's best rebounder, while the 6'8 Baumann, a favorite for league player of the year, brings an outstanding all-around game. He can bang inside, rebound and knock down the three. The Lions' offensive talent doesn't stop there, as Columbia could start five players who all had offensive ratings above 100 and eFG percentages above 50 last year. Baumann and Nwachukwu will draw double teams inside, which should open things up for a balanced three-point attack, featuring five players who hit at least 25 threes and shot no worse than 39% from deep last year.

While the Lions should challenge Cornell for the league's best offense, how the team holds up on the defensive end will determine whether this group can come up with the league title in its last shot playing together. Columbia was worse than every team but Harvard in adjusted defensive efficiency last season, and was particularly inadequate at coming up with steals and forcing turnovers. The Lions relied on three freshmen guards and two sophomores for significant minutes; if those underclassmen can take a step forward on defense along with the senior stalwarts, Columbia can hoist a banner for the first time since it shared first place with Princeton in 1968.

YALE

Senior point guard Eric Flato is the man here, supported by a deep corps; the Bulldogs have six returning players who had an eFG% of 50 or better last season. Yale also has a hidden advantage in the form of its home arena, the John J. Lee Amphitheater, which might be the most underrated venue in all of college basketball. Over the past four years, Yale has a 21-7 record at home as opposed to 10-18 on the road, a massive differential of 0.39 in winning percentage. Penn has lost just six league road games in the past four seasons, but three of those have come at the Lee Amphitheater, which has an old, cramped feel; resounding acoustics; and wooden bleachers that run right up to the very edge of the court, giving opportunity for Yale's voracious students to scream in the ears of opposing players. If not for Brown, Yale's homecourt advantage would be even better--the Bears have stolen three of their past four games in New Haven.

Yale overachieved to get to 10 league wins last year, but the team could reach that figure again provided it can replace what Casey Hughes provided. While the 6'5 Hughes wasn't a particularly efficient offensive player, he led Yale in both offensive and defensive rebounds last year, and was second in steals to Flato. Hughes was a large part of the Bulldogs' being fifth-best in D-I at limiting offensive rebounds last year, which was the key to the team's defensive effectiveness. More minutes for strong rebounding forwards Nick Holmes and Travis Pinick should help replace Hughes's loss.

PENN

The Quakers' run of three straight league titles could end this season thanks to the departure of the two best players in the Ivy League from a team that went 22-9, including 13-1 in league play, and lost to Texas A&M in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Penn loses point guard Ibrahim Jaaber, league player of the year the past two seasons, and first-team All-Ivy forward Mark Zoller. Jaaber, who was among the best defensive players in the nation, played a remarkable 92.3% of Penn's minutes last year--the 12th-highest mark in D-I--and used 23.7% of its possessions. While Zoller did not play as many minutes, he was the team's offensive focal point, using 27.6% of possessions while maintaining an outstanding 61.4 eFG%. Every returning player for Penn this year used fewer than 20% of the team's possessions (average offensive involvement) while on the court last year, the only Ivy team about which that can be said. This raises questions about how Penn can fill its void, because role players very rarely become go-to guys.

One player that unquestionably will be called upon to step up his offensive involvement is senior guard Brian Grandieri, who had a strong 110.8 offensive rating last year and 55.4 eFG%. Grandieri does a little bit of everything well, and he'll have to do a little bit more of everything this season. While the rest of the roster is talented, yet still largely unknown, junior guard Kevin Egee, who shot 20-for-39 from three-point range in limited duty, could make an effective backcourt partner for Grandieri. Penn has been the only Ivy squad to post an adjusted defensive efficiency below 100 in each of the past four years, and if the Quakers manage to keep that streak going, they'll be in the hunt for their fourth straight title no matter how the offense performs. Getting that defensive effort will be much harder without the thievery of Jaaber, who set the Ivy League record with 303 career steals.

BROWN

The Bears might have the best backcourt in the league in seniors Mark McAndrew and Damon Huffman. McAndrew's emergence in 2007 took many by surprise. He went from an eFG% of 33.6 in limited minutes two years ago to a 59.3 eFG% in 91% of Brown's minutes last year, bumping his possessions used significantly in the process, while also contributing on the defensive glass and in the assist column. Huffman was even better than McAndrew from the floor, ranking 19th in D-I with a 64.5 eFG%. The two did most of their damage from downtown, combining to make 137 three-pointers at a 45% clip. McAndrew was also extraordinarily adept at getting to the line, and made 134-of-158 free throws once there, the major reason why Brown got a larger percentage of its offense at the line than any other team in D-I.

Last year was the first at Brown for coach Craig Robinson. A two-time league player of the year at Princeton, Robinson assisted under former Princeton coach Bill Carmody at Northwestern before coming to Brown, and had the Bears running the Princeton offense last year. All the signature signs were there, from the slow tempo (62 possessions/40), to the three-pointers (17th-most reliant on threes among D-I teams), to the non-existent offensive rebounding (third-worst percentage in D-I). The approach didn't work all that well, and won't do much better this season unless Brown can find a passing big man, or even just a warm frontcourt body, to help McAndrew and Huffman run the Princeton set.

HARVARD

The Crimson remains the last team without at least a share of an Ivy title, and this doesn't look to be the year the team will capture that first flag and make its first tournament appearance since 1946. While Harvard loses its leading scorer, shooting guard Jim Goffredo, the pressing issue is the team's horrific defense. The Crimson couldn't stop anyone last year, finishing 316th in adjusted defensive efficiency. It allowed opponents nearly 1.09 points per possession, by far the worst figure in the Ivy League. New head coach Tommy Amaker presided over strong defensive teams at Michigan--the Wolverines ranked in the top 30 in adjusted defensive efficiency twice in the past four years--so Harvard will have to hope that its new coach, as well as regression to the mean, will improve things. The presence of 6'11 forward Cem Dinc (a former Indiana recruit who transferred to Harvard from junior college) should also help.

Harvard played at the fastest tempo of any Ivy team last year, clocking in at 70 possessions per 40 minutes with speedy point guard Drew Housman at the helm. It remains to be seen whether Amaker will push the tempo that much, as his Michigan teams over the last four years ranged from 62 to 66 possessions. Whatever the pace, the Crimson needs some players to step up from long range. Harvard's offense was extremely unbalanced last year, doing a great job of getting to the free-throw line, but a terrible job of knocking down three-pointers. Returning players combined for just 53 three-point makes last year, so it doesn't look promising. Even if a three-point specialist or two emerges, the Crimson's championship shot will have to wait until next season, when Harvard graduates only one player and will bring in a strong recruiting class, the first on Amaker's watch.

DARTMOUTH

It looks like it will be another long, cold, dark winter in Hanover for Terry Dunn's ballclub, which loses explosive scorer Leon Pattman from a team that couldn't score (0.93 points per possession last year). The Big Green couldn't really stop anybody, either, yielding 1.05 points per trip. Dartmouth needs a better shooting performance from junior forward Alex Barnett, who was second on the team last year to Pattman in both possessions used and shots taken, but didn't do a whole lot with those opportunities, putting up a sub-par 44.1 eFG%. The 6'6 Barnett did do an excellent job on the glass, finishing second to Baumann among returning Ivy players in rebounding. His teammate, 6'4 senior Jonathan Ball, led all returning Ivy players in offensive rebounds. Getting Ball more involved in the attack should be a priority for Dunn, as the small forward led the team in offensive rating, eFG% and assist rate last year. Dartmouth, which shot just 29.5% from three-point range, is in the same position as Harvard in terms of badly needing a source of three-point marksmanship to keep defenses honest. Point guard Devon Mosley is the team's best returning shooter by volume and percentage, but he was just 35-for-104 last year (33.7%). On the other end of the offensive spectrum, the team also needs a traditional source of post offense. In years past Dartmouth has been killed by its lack of any true interior presence, and it seems that will be the case again this year, unless 6'9 sophomore Elgin Fitzgerald can accelerate his development or one of the three frontcourt recruits emerge as a force.

PRINCETON

What has happened to the once-mighty Tigers? Joe Scott's three years at the wheel produced a number of ignominious firsts at Princeton: first last-place Ivy finish (2007), first sub-.500 record in Ivy play (2005), first loss to a D-III team in 23 years (to Carnegie Mellon in 2005). Scott ground down the Princeton offense nearly to a halt. This past season, the Tigers were the slowest team in the nation, accumulating only 53.4 possessions/40 minutes. That pace, combined with a strong defense and brutal offense--last in the Ivies and 313th in the nation at 0.9 points per possession--created some particularly unwatchable games. While in its glory years the vaunted Princeton offense was a surgical attack combining three-pointers and layups off continuous movement, Scott's version was one-sided. Half of Princeton's field-goal attempts last year were threes, and the Tigers ranked first in D-I with 43.4% of their offense coming from the three-point shot. New coach Sydney Johnson, who takes over the Tigers after three seasons assisting John Thompson III at Georgetown, will need to return the Tigers to the better balance they had under Thompson III four years ago. With the graduation of forward Luke Owings, forwards Kyle Koncz and Noah Savage are the most effective offensive players returning. Koncz was limited by injury last season, and Savage was kept on the bench by Scott, seeing his minutes drop to 13.8 per game from a team-leading 31.6 the year before. Keeping both on the court, along with the continued development of sophomore point guard Marcus Schroeder, who assisted on a team-leading 21.5% of teammates' field goals when playing, should improve Princeton's offense. Even that improvement won't be enough to get them out of the league's basement.

Predictions

With Penn no longer the clear favorite, four teams are harboring legitimate hope of wearing the Ivy crown. It looks like there will be more parity within the Ancient Eight than there has been in years, and it's very possible that a four-loss team could win the title. Cornell's troika of offensive stars should help the Big Red take its second Ivy championship, but the race will come down to the final Ivy weekend, and don't be surprised if there's some sort of a tie for the title for the first time since 2002. Then, there actually would be an Ivy League playoff.

            2007 Pythag    % Returning       2008  
Team            Wins         Minutes      Prediction 
Cornell         8.39          63.0           10-4
Columbia        6.81          98.0           9-5
Yale            8.56          77.5           9-5
Penn            12.36         51.8           9-5
Brown           6.78          68.5           6-8
Harvard         4.56          61.2           5-9
Dartmouth       4.07          66.5           4-10
Princeton       2.84          73.0           4-10

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Identifying Breakout P... (11/08)
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The Best of the Rest (11/09)

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