This weekend marks the beginning of a six-week stretch of back-to-back conference basketball games—one of the Ivy League’s quirkiest sports traditions—for the Harvard men’s and women’s teams. Save for a few exceptions, over the next six weekends, each Ancient Eight team will play two games per weekend (one on Friday night and the other on Saturday) with both coming either at home or on the road.
If you haven’t been following Ivy League basketball up until this point, have no fear. We’ll give you all that you need to know about the conference’s eight teams, the five games today and tomorrow, and an outlook for the upcoming six weekends.
Last year’s conference marathon saw Princeton go a perfect 14-0 in league play—the conference’s first undefeated regular season since 2007-2008—en route to a championship in the inaugural Ivy League Tournament. The Tigers fell to No. 5 seed Notre Dame in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. It was the second year in a row that the league produced a 12-seed for the tournament, the highest seed an Ivy League team has received since Penn was an 11-seed in 2003.
Fast-forward nine months and the dominance of Princeton and the Ivy League’s reputation as a premier mid-major conference have been replaced by parity (through 10 conference games) and a belief that 2017-2018 is a “down year” for the conference. While the conference is arguably as talented as ever from a talent point of view, only Penn and Brown (BROWN!) posted nonconference records above .500. In the latest edition of ESPN’s Bracketology, Joe Lunardi picks Penn as his Ivy League champion but slots the Quakers as a 15 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
If you love parity, boy, would you have enjoyed the last two-plus months of Ivy League basketball. The Ancient Eight has had its fair share of good (Cornell’s Matt Morgan and his 23.3 points per game, Penn’s quadruple-overtime win over Monmouth, Princeton’s victory at USC), bad (Cornell’s decision to play at UMass Lowell, Cornell’s subsequent 20-point loss to UMass Lowell, and Evan Boudreaux’s decision to transfer from Dartmouth), and ugly (a Harvard-Fordham game that produced 92 total points, a decision to implement Flannel Night at a Dartmouth basketball game, and New Haven, Conn.).
Harvard, Princeton, and Yale—the top three teams in the conference last season and the projected top three in the preseason poll—have all faced their fair share of struggles to begin the season. Sophomore guard Bryce Aiken—the reigning Ivy League Rookie of the Year—has missed six games for a Harvard team that leads the conference in turnovers. Last season, the Crimson loved the three ball more than Winthrop loves testing its fire alarms but shot 28.2 percent from long range during nonconference play this year
Princeton boasts the conference’s most talented and experienced backcourt, but its frontcourt lacks playmakers and struggles to rebound. Yale lost sophomore forward Jordan Bruner—one of the top rookies in the conference a year ago—for the season and senior point guard Makai Mason—a first team All-Ivy pick in 2015-2016—has yet to play in a game this year after suffering a stress fracture in his foot.
Each summer, Deadspin produces a series called “Why Your Team Sucks”, in which its writers pen articles finding flaws for all 32 NFL teams and their fanbases. Entering the season, it looked like the “Why Your Team Sucks” for the Brown men’s basketball team would be longer than the syllabus for Sociology 175 (15 pages, single-spaced), but Mike Martin and company have surprised some people. Like Harvard’s, the Bears’ rotation is primarily composed of underclassmen. Sophomore Brandon Anderson and freshman Desmond Cambridge are both averaging over 15 points a game while shooting over 40 percent from the field.
It’s Brown, so a successful season means putting up 100 points on in-state rival Johnson & Wales (check) and having Jordan Spieth in attendance at one of its home games (probably not happening this year), but sneaking into the conference tournament as the four-seed doesn’t seem out of the question for a team that currently holds both the Ivy League’s fifth-highest Pomeroy College Basketball Ranking and its fifth-highest acceptance rate. If this mediocrity is intentional, don’t be surprised to see Jeff Fisher replace Phil Estes as the school’s football coach in the near future.
That’s not to say that the rest of the conference is without its flaws. Columbia won just three games in nonconference play (including one against Sarah Lawrence College) and is 1-9 in road games. Cornell junior guard Matt Morgan is arguably the best offensive player in the Ivy League yet his team has managed to concede more than 80 points eight times this season (including 91 to a Princeton team that averages 71.4).
Dartmouth cannot score to save its life and saw its best player announce thathe was transferring the day before the Big Green’s first game of the season. That’s almost as little notice as the Saints’ Marcus Williams gave fellow defensive back Ken Crawley before taking out his legs.
Penn currently sits in first place in the Ivy League despite shooting a putrid 63.2 percent from the free throw line, good for 343rd out of 351 eligible NCAA teams. If there’s one thing to say about the Ancient Eight as its teams enter the meat of the conference schedule, it’s that this year it’s anyone’s league.
DARTMOUTH AT BROWN
Don’t let matchup this distract you from the fact that Dartmouth played a month of basketball last season without winning a single game.
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