The protagonist of the rollicking Tom Petty tune “Into the Great Wide Open,” Eddie, is described as “a rebel without a clue.”
In this season’s Ivy League men’s basketball title race, the most wide-open in many years, a number of clueless rebels will try to end Penn and Princeton’s stranglehold on the league crown. The conference’s southern powers have earned at least a share of first place—as well as the Ivies’ automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament—in every season since 1987-88. Only a single Yale blip—the Bulldogs were co-champs in 2001-02—interrupted the 20-year string of Tigers and Quakers titles.
But with Princeton still stuck in a rut created during the disastrous Joe Scott tenure and Penn having graduated its three best players from a year ago—including two-time Player of the Year Ibrahim Jaaber and big-time forward Mark Zoller—the Ancient Eight’s long-suffering underlings are all gunning for the top spot.
Cornell, the favorite in the preseason media poll; Yale, a dominant home team; and a very deep and experienced Columbia squad all have legitimate title aspirations. Brown and Dartmouth hope to hang around, and even Harvard, likely still a year and a round of Tommy Amaker recruits away from seriously contending, has a prayer to hang a banner in the rafters of Lavietes Pavilion.
Like T.P. says, “The sky was the limit.”
The Big Red boasts a truly explosive backcourt, and, in a perimeter-oriented league, that should be enough to propel it into the Big Dance. Sharp-shooting Ryan Wittman was the Ivy Rookie of the Year last season, scoring 15.6 points per game mostly by hoisting up a stunning 216 three-balls—and draining 43 percent of them.
The league’s top freshman from the year before, Adam Gore, missed all of last season with a torn ACL, but he’s another guy who can score in bunches. And Louis Dale is a dynamic point guard with excellent rebounding skills for a six-footer.
Cornell checks out well in the key indicators. Last season, it was second in the league in scoring margin, second in field-goal percentage, and first in field-goal defense.
The major question mark is the lack of a Windex man, to borrow a Dick Vitale-ism—someone to clean the glass. Physical center Andrew Naeve is gone, but coach Steve Donahue drew a 7’0 transfer from St. Bonaventure, Jeff Foote, to help fill the lane.
A fellow Crimson writer—let’s just say his name rhymes with Bed Derby—provided the Lions’ lone first-place vote in the preseason poll. Senior John Baumann has to be the early front-runner for Player of the Year—in 2006-07, he was eighth in the Ivies in scoring, third in rebounding, and first in field-goal and three-point accuracy. Plus, he tallied a team-leading five wins on the mound for the Columbia baseball team.
Senior center Ben Nwachukwu does not mess around. Point guard Patrick Foley is an electric playmaker, and coach Joe Jones is knee-deep in wings who can shoot.
The Lions may make City college hoops (apologies to Manhattan and Wagner and the like) relevant come March.
The thing with Yale is you can mark it down for five or six wins at minimum in the claustrophobic, noisy John J. Lee Ampitheater. The Elis have the best home-court advantage in the league, better even than Penn’s in the historic Palestra.
The Bulldogs are motored by All-Ivy guard Eric Flato, a little-engine type who can shoot, pass, and D up. But when opposing teams stick a long, physical defender on Flato—Jaaber held him to 11 points in the teams’ second meeting last season, eliminating Yale from contention—who is going to put up the points that push the Bulldogs to key road victories down the stretch?
Don’t be surprised if the Quakers just go out and win the thing again, although they will be understaffed. Penn’s best remaining player is Brian Grandieri, whose legs are of uneven length (true story). On top of Jaaber and Zoller, Penn skipper Glen Miller lost Steve Danley, the erudite center who guest-blogged for The New York Times last March. For the first time in a long time, the Quakers should be free to blog by late February.
The arrival of Tommy Amaker in Cambridge has Crimson partisans dreaming big for the future. A season-opening 55-point loss at Stanford may move some to “wait ’til next year,” when the duo of point guard Drew Housman and forward Evan Harris will be seniors, a steady sophomore class will have another year of experience under its collective belt, and a bevy of Amaker-wooed rookies will be patrolling Lavietes.
But this could be the season Harvard snaps double-digit losing streaks at Penn and/or Princeton.
Just a few key facts about the Bears: reigning Ivy Coach of the Year Craig Robinson is presidential candidate Barack Obama’s brother-in-law. Brown is led by the guard tandem of Mark McAndrew, the leading scorer in Ivy games last season, and dead-eye shooter Damon Huffman, who is balding.
The mighty have fallen in Jersey—Harvard came oh-so-close to toppling the Tigers in Princeton last season. Sydney Johnson was installed to be the leader of the turnaround, which starts with a return to the bottom of the Ivy ranks.
Junior forward Alex Barnett is too good a player to be stuck on this mediocre a team.
—Staff writer Jonathan Lehman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.