BASKETBALL '06 IN LEHMAN’S TERMS: Around the Ivies

Sure, you’re surprised to be reading about basketball season already. It’s only mid-November. Heck, The Game hasn’t even happened yet.

But that’s part of the trick of Ivy League hoops. It lulls you with its three-month non-conference slate, slowly ticking off games against the Colgates and Vermonts of the world. Then Harvard, and its fans, ease into the league schedule with a home-and-home against Dartmouth in early January before breaking for exams and then picking up again and...bam! It’s over. Six more weekends is all it takes to play the rest, 37 days to go from 2-0 (the Big Green is good at generating confidence, or false hope) to just 0. No games left. Done. Kaput.

Just when you were starting to get into it, the walk across the river starting to thaw, the Crimson’s RPI starting to look good enough to sneak a bid into the NIT (forget it, just trust me and forget it), it was through.

So this year, don’t let the hardwood intrigues pass you by. Penn is still the team to beat, Princeton will be tough to dispatch, and Cornell and Yale are talented up-and-comers, while Harvard is trying to avoid slipping into the bottom half once again.

It’s only mid-November, but it’s not too early to brush up on the Ancient Eight contenders. Let me take you Around the Ivies, roundball-style, and if you’re not into the whole brevity thing, here’s a complete rundown of the field, in predicted order of finish:

1. PENN

Two-time defending champion Penn is once again the team to beat in the Ancient Eight, one year removed from romping to a league title at 12-2 and giving three-seed Texas a run for its money in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. Reigning Player of the Year Ibrahim Jaaber returns for his senior year, as does All-Ivy forward Mark Zoller. Long-time head coach Fred Dunphy is not back, however, after leaving Penn, but not Philadelphia, in the spring, to replace Hall-of-Famer John Chaney at fellow Big 5 institution Temple. So Glen Miller, formerly of Brown, takes over the reins of the Ivy League’s premier program.

Jaaber is the rare guard who consistently shoots over 50 percent from the floor—last year, he sported a .568 field-goal percentage in league games—for no other reason than no perimeter defender in the Ivies can keep him out of the lane. He can penetrate and get to the basket at will and is, in addition, accurate shooting from long range. According to unconfirmed reports, he can also touch the ground without bending over. He uses that freakish wingspan to lead the league in steals, boasting over three thefts per game a year ago. Zoller has really cute curly hair, and was the top rebounder in league play last season.

2. YALE

Anyone with half a brain has Princeton here. The Tigers were the only team besides Penn to earn a first-place vote in the preseason media poll, and Yale was all the way down in the four-spot. I don’t have half a brain. I have a full one.

The Bulldogs return four starters from last season’s fourth-place 7-7 squad. Center Domanick Martin is gone, but dynamic junior guard Eric “In” Flato and steady senior forward Sam Kaplan remain. I’ve always believed a talented inside-outside combo is the key to college basketball success and the Eli have it in that duo. Flato, especially, a 44 percent shooter from behind the arc, could turn out to be the second-best player in the league in 2007. Yale coach James Jones (brother Joe is the Columbia skipper) will push this bunch into the runner-up spot.

3. PRINCETON

Princeton is like West Coast and Wishbone—sorry, not Wishbone, that book-loving dog, but a wishbone, in that it has an offense named after it. That’s how historic a program the Tigers have: 24 Ivy League titles and a system of ball control and backdoor cuts to their name.

Princeton sunk to a memorable low on Dec. 14 of last season, when that strategy produced a mere 21 points in a home loss to Monmouth, but coach Joe Scott rallied the troops to a 10-4 league record and wins in four of their last five, culminating in a victory over Penn.

Justin Conway, Noah “Noble” Savage, and Luke Owings form a solid, veteran nucleus, but the Tigers are woefully undersized (Conway plays center at six-foot-four) and will suffer from the graduation of point guard Scott Greenman.

4. CORNELL

The Big Red offense runs through last season’s Rookie of the Year Adam Gore, an explosive scorer with lethal late-game instincts. Senior Graham Dow is a pass-first point guard (and bio concentrator, go figure) and classmate Andrew Naeve’s like Windex cleaning up the glass.

Cornell has some nice pieces, but needs more points from the block to crack the upper echelon.

5. COLUMBIA

A very young Columbia team is also very deep. Juniors John Baumann and Ben Nwachukwu anchor the Ivy League’s best frontcourt (a lot of good that did Harvard last year) and there are a number of nice options on the perimeter as well, most notably the Japanese sharpshooter ace K.J. Matsui. Try to avoid calling those three-point makes “bombs.”

The Lions opened their season against Duke, so they shouldn’t be daunted by anything the Ivies throw at them. They swept a Penn-Princeton weekend last season, so they’ve shown they can run with the big boys. Expect basketball to take Columbia’s athletic mini-renaissance (champs in women’s soccer, non-embarrassing in football) one step further.

6. HARVARD

Here’s the calculus facing the Crimson: subtract Matt Stehle ’06 and senior Brian Cusworth (for all but the first four Ivy games) from a 5-9 team and what do you get?

Harvard is charged with replacing Stehle’s shat-sheet-filling contributions and emotional leadership, and will be without the 7’0 Cusworth down the stretch, since he is using his final semester of eligibility in the fall term.

Sure, with sophomore Drew Housman at the 1 and senior captain Jim Goffredo at the 2, it could have the best backcourt in a guard-oriented league. But without a fearsome pivot keeping them honest, opposing defenses will key in on Goffredo and make senior Brian Darcy or junior Brad Unger or sophomore Evan Harris or freshman Jo Mama beat them down low. I’m hearing good things about rookie swingman Jeremy Lin, though.

The highlights of the Harvard schedule are playing at Michigan just before Thanksgiving and at Providence just before Christmas. The cruelty is that the Crimson could start its Ivy campaign 6-0 and still wind up with a losing record, with the only two of its last eight games at home coming versus Penn and Princeton.

7. BROWN

I’ll give you like 100 guesses: Who was the second-leading scorer in Ivy League play last season? Give up so soon? It was Keenan Jeppesen, posting 16.1 per game as a sophomore, a figure that would have been even higher if he had any free-throw shooting aptitude (58.5 percent from the stripe).

The Bears don’t look bad on paper. Fortunately, games aren’t played on paper. They’re played on rubber composites these days, right?

8. DARTMOUTH

I hate to say it, but Dartmouth is the only reliable bet to keep the Crimson out of the cellar. Leon Pattman leads the way, and the senior is unreliable at best. Ivy Rookie of the Year as a freshman, Pattman has been in and out of the lineup in the recent past. Michael Giovacchini, little brother of ex-Harvard point guard David, is an impressive shooter. And some other spare parts.

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