We’ve reached the quarter pole (I know, it snuck up on me too), and we probably stand closer to where we thought we’d be at the start of the season than we did at the start of Ivy play.
Cornell made more headlines this week, cracking the USA Today Coaches Poll at No. 25, and bumped its Pomeroy number into rare territory for an Ivy squad, sitting currently at No. 39. According to Mr. Pomeroy, the Big Red is 80 percent to win the league outright from here and another 15 percent to be part of a tie for a title. The other two title contenders – Harvard and Princeton – sit at four percent and one percent to win the league crown outright.
Rather than frame the weekend with an interesting angle, I’m going to widen the lens and take stock of the Ivy landscape, as all teams have finally put crooked numbers in the conference game played category.
FIVE GUYS IN MATCHING SHIRTS
How is it possible for the Ivy’s fourth-best defensive team to be this absolutely awful? By being the league’s worst offense. Not just this year, but over the seven-year history of the Pomeroy ratings, and by a wide margin. The problem isn’t even really fixable. The Big Green might be the first team I’ve ever seen without an individual player having an offensive rating over the Division I average of 100, and only two guys are even over 90.
Do I think Dartmouth will go winless in the league this season? No. It has to pick someone off at Leede, almost certainly in a snoozer that stays in the 40s or 50s. This Big Green team will most likely supplant the ’04 edition as the worst Ivy offense of all-time, however.
I really liked the Bears’ November, but not much since. Strip out the two non-Division I wins, and all you’ve got since a Nov. 25 victory over Bryant is a 2-11 record with an overtime home win over an awful Wagner squad and a surprising road triumph over Yale.
Brown is finally getting bit hard by its inability to limit its opponents’ possessions (dead last nationally in forced turnovers and 283rd in defensive rebounding) and its own ineptitude at extending possessions (337th nationally in offensive rebounding percentage). For a team that plays with a 1.4 inch effective height advantage over the average team, it’s shocking that the Bears are this horrible on the glass.
ATTEMPTING TO IMPERSONATE A BASKETBALL TEAM
The Quakers have become more intriguing after last weekend, as it appears they’ve decided to play some defense during the league slate. Sure, Yale shot the lights out on them, but when the Bulldogs missed, they weren’t getting the ball back. The same went for Brown the following evening, and a weaker shooting performance from the Bears allowed Penn to linger just close enough to snatch the win at the end.
If the Quakers show up to Leede on Friday determined to shut down a Dartmouth squad which isn’t exactly explosive offensively, they would guarantee themselves a split of a tough four-straight road game slate to kick off the Ivy season.
The Lions had the unenviable task of opening up league play, staring at no better than a 1-3 start. In other words, they had the disheartening prospect of being eliminated from title contention before the calendar flipped to January.
Since starting off the year on a tear from behind the arc, Columbia has gone cold and has seen its three-point percentage fall six points over the past month or so to 41.2 percent. That’s still a blistering rate for the season (seventh nationally), but the Lions are “only” 42 for their last 118 (35.6 percent), which would still rank around 100th in the nation, but doesn’t cover up their shooting woes from inside the arc as well as their 52-for-110 or 47.3 percent start did.
It’s incredibly tough to judge Columbia after three games against the best teams in the league and one against the worst, but we’ll get a great look this weekend, as the Lions host two teams with which they should be more or less even.
SOMEONE HAS TO FINISH FOURTH
This Saturday at Levien will be absolutely crucial for the Bulldogs. With the league incredibly top heavy, 7-7 would not only lock up Yale coach James Jones’ 10th straight .500 or better league campaign, but it would also likely clinch solo fourth place, giving the Bulldogs an upper division finish.
But the Bulldogs are already 2-2 and face five more games in which their Pomeroy odds of winning are 13 percent or less (both against Harvard and Cornell and at Princeton). That leaves each of Yale’s two games with Columbia and Dartmouth as well as its Feb. 20th visit to The Palestra as must wins.
First up, and least likely of the five, is the visit to Columbia, which Pomeroy gives the Bulldogs a 40 percent chance of winning, though as a Saturday night contest following a brutal matchup with Cornell, those odds might truly be even lower. If Yale can find a way to win, however, fourth place would be its for the taking.
IN ALMOST ANY OTHER YEAR
All year people have been waiting for the Crimson to fold. After the stunning loss at Army in which Harvard fought off 29 turnovers only to have the 30th kill its chances, the Crimson scraped together four out of its next five. After a disappointing final 25 minutes against Georgetown, Harvard won its next seven, including a home win over George Washington and a West Coast sweep.
Now, after a complete disaster in Ithaca, can the Crimson respond facing four eminently winnable contests? Or will this finally be the time that all the pundits were waiting for, where Harvard can’t get up off the mat.
Look for turnovers to continue to be the key. The Crimson has lost just once when turning the ball over on 25 percent or less of its possessions.
Most people thought that the Tigers would sweep the Yale/Brown road trip, but no one thought it would be as easy as Princeton made it look.
The Tigers’ defense was absolutely suffocating, holding the Bulldogs and Bears to offensive ratings of 80 and 81, respectively. Princeton remained undefeated when posting an offensive rating of 100 or more, which it did in both contests last weekend. The Tigers are just 3-5 when failing to eclipse the century mark.
If Princeton wants to be taken seriously as a contender, though, it really needs to put together a nice showing in Boston this weekend. By no means do the Tigers need to win, but having played only three Pomeroy Top 150 teams this season and having lost by 15, 21 and 14 in those contests, Princeton still has to prove that it can do more than just handle competition it is supposed to beat.
TRUCKING TO A SEED BEFITTING 2011 FIRST-ROUND BYE
It’s all we’ve heard all week.
No. 25! Single-digit seed! This year’s Davidson!
There is no doubt that the Big Red is a very good Ivy team, likely one of the best of the AI era. The hyperbole surrounding this program right now is a little disconcerting, however. For the first two months of the season, this was a team that just didn’t appear to be getting the due praise it deserved, but now it appears that the national media wants to make up for lost time in a one-week deluge.
Cornell won’t continue to beat every Ivy team by 20-plus points. It just won’t happen. The squad that forgot how to play defense in monumental collapses against Bucknell and Davidson is still in there. The team that had to grind away on the back end of an incredibly difficult road trip to pull out a 71-65 win over South Dakota, two days after playing No. 1 Kansas to a draw for 39 minutes, hasn’t just disappeared.
Expect the Big Red to struggle in a few Ivy games. Don’t expect them to lose necessarily, but they will struggle at some point.
KEYS TO THE GAMES:
Game 15: Princeton at Harvard, Friday 7:00 p.m., Lavietes Pavilion
Princeton: The Tigers cannot get into a track meet with the Crimson, as it would struggle to match Harvard’s firepower. It just needs to slow the pace and make timely shots. The Princeton offense could baffle the Crimson’s freshmen, as it’s unlike anything they’ve seen this season.
Harvard: Take care of the ball. The Tigers are eighth in the nation in forcing turnovers. If there are only 65 possessions in this game, and the Crimson gives away the ball 20 times – well, you can do the math on where that leaves Harvard.
The Slant: Pace will be incredibly important in this game. A slow, half-court game adds variance and benefits Princeton. An up-and-down track meet (so long as Harvard stays somewhat under control) should favor the Crimson.
Game 16: Penn at Dartmouth, Friday 7:00 p.m., Leede Arena
Penn: The Quakers have to take advantage of the Big Green’s offensive ineptitude and work incredibly hard on the defensive end. If Penn keeps Dartmouth in the 50s, it should have a very good chance of moving to a very surprising 2-1 in the league.
Dartmouth: Implement the usual pattern for success at home. Slow the game down, play frustrating defense and keep the opponent from running away with the game. The Big Green should look to make this a 50/50 contest at the end and hope the home court carries it to victory.
The Slant: This is the last contest all season that Dartmouth is favored by Pomeroy to win. If the Big Green can’t pull this one out, it’s down to home dates with Columbia, Yale and Brown (odds between 30-39%) and the road game at The Palestra (30%) as the last four legitimate chances to avoid posting a bagel in the league win column for the year.
Game 17: Yale at Cornell, Friday 7:00 p.m., Newman Arena
Yale: Alex Zampier would need to go for a highly-efficient, 30-plus points, and the Bulldogs defense would need to turn the Big Red over on at least 25 percent of its possessions. There is a non-zero likelihood that this could happen. But it’s close to zero. Very close.
Cornell: Even asleep, the Big Red should win this game regardless. Yale has enough firepower to take advantage of a lackadaisical Cornell team for a little while, but the Big Red just has too many weapons and would drain enough threes to pull away.
The Slant: It will be interesting to see how Yale coach James Jones handles his deep bench, especially if this one starts to slip away. The Bulldogs have a winnable game on Saturday night to think about, especially if it is worried about hitting .500 in the league again.
Game 18: Brown at Columbia, Friday 7:00 p.m., Levien Gym
Brown: This team seems like it could go either way right now. It could use the frustration surrounding its flat weekend performance and questionable end-of-game call against Penn as a motivator, or it could use it as an excuse for awhile and get swept again this weekend. The Bears haven’t been able to force turnovers for a couple of years now, and it’s killing their defensive efficiency, which in turn is making it tough to win basketball games.
Columbia: This weekend is a definite measuring stick. The loss of guard Patrick Foley definitely hurts this team, but it’s a position that the Lions are deep at, and Noruwa Agho can shoulder more of the scoring load if needed. Columbia needs to hit a high percentage of threes to get its offense going.
The Slant: Columbia needs to sweep this weekend with six of its last eight on the road, whereas Brown needs a weekend split (and thus a win in Manhattan) to get back into the race for fourth. The loser of this one will probably hang around the bottom of the standings for the rest of the season.
Game 19: Penn at Harvard, Saturday 7:00 p.m., Lavietes Pavilion
Penn: Zack Rosen would need to have an absolute monster game to give the Quakers a chance. Also, Penn needs to continue to force turnovers as it did against Yale and Brown next week – on at least 25 percent of possessions or more to knock the Harvard offense off balance.
Harvard: If the Crimson clamps down defensively, the rest should take care of itself. No matter what the pace, Penn shouldn’t be allowed to hit 60 points, and it’s incredibly unlikely that even with the Quakers’ resurgent defense Harvard would be held under 60.
The Slant: Psychology will be a huge factor here. Penn needs to root hard for a Princeton win on Friday to shake the Crimson’s psyche, while picking up a win in Hanover to push it to 2-1 in the league and give itself a needed confidence boost.
Game 20: Princeton at Dartmouth, Saturday 7:00 p.m., Leede Arena
Princeton: If ever there was a game to push the tempo, this might be it. Allowing the Big Green to hang around in Hanover could be deadly and unnecessary, seeing as Princeton has far more talent offensively than Dartmouth. If I’m the Tigers, I treat this like the Goucher game and push the tempo into the upper 60s.
Dartmouth: Make this an all-out slugfest. The Tigers should come in a little weary after a battle with Harvard the night before, so the Big Green should combine physical defense with a lot of movement on offense to try to wear this Princeton team down.
The Slant: Of the large mismatch games this weekend, this is my favorite upset pick. The Tigers’ slow pace should give the Big Green a chance to hang around, and I wonder how much Princeton will have left on a Saturday night at the far north reaches of the Ivy domain.
Game 21: Brown at Cornell, Saturday 7:00 p.m., Newman Arena
Brown: Matt Mullery needs to force Jeff Foote into foul trouble early and then the Bears need to pray that all of the Big Red shooters are having an off night. It’s a nice thought, but it’s not happening.
Cornell: Show up on time, in matching uniforms. Take the court. Destroy the opponent. Rinse and repeat.
The Slant: Even if the snow isn’t bad enough to all the Bears to make it all the way to Ithaca, it shouldn’t matter much. Cornell destroyed Brown twice last year, and there is very little reason to believe the result will be any different this season.
Game 22: Yale at Columbia, Saturday 7:00 p.m., Levien Gym
Yale: As mentioned above, the Bulldogs’ deep bench should allow them to navigate a difficult road trip without too much fatigue. Yale needs to get its interior players involved in this one to take some of the pressure off of Zampier, who will likely be hounded by Noruwa Agho and company all night.
Columbia: The Lions have to shoot well to have a chance in this game. The Bulldogs are great at limiting second chances and creating turnovers, which means that when Columbia gets shots, it has to bury them. This applies in particular for the ever-efficient Noruwa Agho.
The Slant: This is one of the more interesting matchups of the weekend, as both teams seem to have equal claim to the final spot in the Ivy’s upper division. By the end of this contest, we should have a better idea which of the two is more likely to steal that spot.