With the Ivy League men’s basketball season officially over after Penn fell to Texas A&M 68-52 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, it is time to take a very early look ahead to the 2007-2008 season.
Over the past three years, the unpredictability of who would win the Ivy League has been matched only by that of Major League Baseball’s National League Central race in that same frame of time. Each of the past three seasons, the Quakers have come on top, recording a record of 38-4 over that span.
Yet Penn’s utter dominance of the Ancient Eight will likely be a thing of the past next year. Major losses by the Quakers, as well as the impending return of many stars from the schools striving to take the top spot, will likely make the Ivy League championship chase one of the most open ever. Every team, including Harvard, has at least a decent shot at winning the league and heading to the NCAA tournament.
Conventional wisdom might ask: After being the class of the conference the past three season, why wouldn’t Penn be the favorite to win again? Three reasons—Steve Danley, Ibrahim Jaaber, and Mark Zoller. All three were starters on the past three league champions, the latter duo emerging as the top two players in the Ivies this past season. Unfortunately for the Quakers—but fortunately for everyone else in the league—those three have played their final basketball games in Penn uniforms.
Despite those key losses, anyone who thinks the Quakers have no chance next year has to be kidding themselves. Penn may not return its senior studs, but plenty of talent will come back to the Palestra next year. Swingman Brian Grandieri, an All-Ivy Second Team selection this past season, will be back, along with guard Darren Smith, who Crimson fans might remember from his lights-out performance from three-point range at Lavietes this year. Plus, during warm-ups before their home meeting with Harvard last month, seemingly every Penn player could dunk, indicating quite a few real athletic players will be suiting up in blue and red next season.
Looking at schools that haven’t won a title in the past three years, Cornell is the name I hear most often as a potential contender for next year’s title. There is good reason for this, as the Big Red, who finished third in the league last season, bring back the top two rookies from the 2006-2007 campaign in Ryan Wittman and Louis Dale. Joining those two should be three-point stud Adam Gore—the Rookie of the Year in 2005-2006—who missed last season with a torn ACL.
Yet Cornell is far from unflawed, as it will be hurt by graduation arguably more than any team except for Penn. The Big Red loses its starting frontcourt in Second Team All-Ivy center Andrew Naeve—who led the league in blocks and also averaged 10.5 points and 7.6 rebounds-per-game—and forward Ugo Ihekweazu. Starting guard Graham Dow, the school’s all-time leader in steals, also departs, but the main hole is up front.
Two other teams that finished in the top division look like prime title contenders, though each school has its own share of flaws. Fourth-place Columbia brings back its starting five and rising-sophomore Patrick Foley, but the Lions’ 7-7 record in league play last year makes one wonder if the team either has a knack for underachieving, or if it simply isn’t that good.
Second-place Yale has arguably the best home-court advantage in the league, as Lee Amphitheatre is constantly filled with students expressing their passion for Bulldog basketball—or maybe it’s just their way of unleashing their pent-up anger about living in New Haven. Either way, it is a tough environment for visiting teams. The Bulldogs also welcome back four starters from last year’s team, including potential Player of the Year Eric Flato at the point. The one starter Yale loses, however, is Second Team All-League swingman Casey Hughes, the team’s top defender and rebounder.
With a lack of dominance at the top, the bottom four teams in the Ivies last year shouldn’t feel too bad about their chances for a surprise title run. Brown brings back two stud guards in First Team All-Leaguer Mark McAndrew and Damon Huffman, as well as a deep recruiting class. The Bears frontcourt leaves much to be desired, however.
To the north, Dartmouth loses leading scorer Leon Pattman, but that should be the only loss. Forward Alex Barnett should be a First Team All-League selection next year and plenty of depth is back with him up front, including 6’9” center Elgin Fitzgerald.
Before Joe Scott arrived to coach Princeton three years ago, Princeton had been just as dominant as Penn in league play, as one or the other "P" school has won the league crown every year since 1988. But if the streak continues next season with a Tiger victory, that would be even more shocking than if a non-"P" school won, considering Princeton is coming off a 2-12 Ivy record. Still, all is not lost for next season. Most of last year’s players return and Scott won’t, taking his head-scratching division of playing time ideas to the University of Denver.
Last, but hopefully not least, is the Crimson. On paper, it should be better than this season, as the team loses just one starter—though that one starter is leading scorer Jim Goffredo. Among the returnees, Drew Housman could be the best point guard in the league with Jaaber gone and Evan Harris should be one of the better frontcourt players in the Ivies (even if he still can’t go to his right). Plus, many freshmen played well in limited minutes towards the end of the year, perhaps setting the stage for big sophomore seasons. And who knows, perhaps the new coach will bring an offense or defense so unfamiliar to the other Ivy teams, they won’t know how to defend it. 2008-2009 has been talked about as Harvard’s chance to make a run at the league title.
So what if it’s 10 months away? Strap in, come January and league play. It should be a wild ride.
—Staff writer Ted Kirby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.