The non-conference games for Ivy League basketball teams are far from scrimmages. They affect March Madness seeding, they give teams a chance at an at-large tournament bid, and they can raise the profile of Ivy League basketball.
But let’s be realistic. Probably, no matter what happens in non-conference play, the Ivy League champion will be relegated to a low seed. Probably, there will be no at-large bids. Probably, the Ivy League will forever remain a second-tier conference.
So the time of year that really matters is now. Starting on Saturday, January 11, conference play begins. Known as the “14-game tournament” (a sorry excuse for not having an actual tournament like every single other conference), every Ivy teams plays every other one twice, starting with defending champion Harvard tipping off against Dartmouth. Where do the teams rank heading into Ivy League play?
1. Harvard (13-2)
The Crimson have done exactly what they were expected to do, beating the teams they’re supposed to beat and losing to the teams they’re supposed to lose to. You can’t fault them for falling by 8 on the road to #15 Colorado or by 5 on the road to Connecticut. But, they certainly haven’t proven themselves either, with their only top-100 win coming at a neutral site against Green Bay. Still, just looking at a highly experienced roster featuring Wesley Saunders, Siyani Chambers, and Kyle Casey, it’s hard to pick any other squad to finish first in the Ancient 8.
2. Princeton (11-2)
With only a slightly easier schedule than Harvard, the Tigers have picked up right where they left off after Ian Hummer’s graduation, with only two losses to start the season. And those losses are to Butler and Portland – both top-100 teams (note: we are using Sports Reference’s Simple Rating System, rather than the less mathematical RPI system). However, their only top-100 win is by 2 points over Penn State, not exactly a Herculean task. But, T.J. Bray is a true star who was overshadowed by Hummer last year, and he definitely has what it takes to lead the Tigers to a surprise Ivy title.
3. Columbia (10-6)
Surprised to see the team that came in dead last in the preseason poll up at third? Not me. The only surprise was Columbia’s ranking in the preseason poll, especially after their 78-63 dismantling of Harvard last year. The Lions played with #5 Michigan State (#1 at the time) right up until the last minute when the Spartan home crowd fooled the visitors on the shot clock not once but twice. When you put big men like Alex Rosenberg, Isaac Cohen, Cory Osetkowski, and Maodo Lo against a diminutive Ivy lineup, expect the Lions to outrebound everybody and make it look easy.
4. Brown (7-6)
Everyone beyond this point has only a negligible chance of going to the tournament. The high point of the Bears’ season was a 5-point win over American – their remaining six wins were against some truly awful teams. They also fell to Niagra, a team that’s worse than every Ivy squad save for Cornell. Sean McGonagill is averaging an impressive 19.4 points per game and Rafael Maia sits at 8.3 rebound per game, so there is a core here that could make some games close. But they just don’t have the raw talent of the top three teams on this list.
5. Yale (5-8)
Bulldog hopes were buoyed by the arrival preseason Ivy freshman of the year Anthony Dallier. And while Dallier may one day emerge as an Ivy League star, for now he’s averaging just 12.5 minutes per game and 2.7 points per game, not exactly numbers that will improve upon a 14-17 record from the year before. Justin Sears leads the way as expected, but he’s not going to do enough to save a team whose best win is against Hartford.
6. Dartmouth (7-6)
Without a single win over a top-300 team (and there are only 350 teams in Division I), the Big Green has earned their wins as a bottom feeder. They did come within 7 points of #23 Illinois, proving they can at least play close to some of the top teams. And with Tyler Melville being the only senior on the roster, look for Dartmouth to make a legitimate title run in 2014-2015, led by Gabas Maldunas and Alex Mitola.
7. Penn (2-10)
Is it fair to penalize the media’s preseason #2 by 5 spots just for playing the league’s toughest schedule? Yes, when they hardly even compete with that schedule. Their only two opponents with true merit, #8 Villanova and #20 Iowa, crushed the Quakers. You don’t get bonus points just for scheduling great opponents if you don’t even make it close. Their only two wins – Monmouth and Niagra – are nothing to write home about. There was probably a lot of speculation that the return of Fran Dougherty would be enough to vault the Quakers to glory, but for now they’re more of an upset special than a true contender.
8. Cornell (0-13)
Of the 350 Division I teams, the Big Red are in serious consideration for the ignominious title of worst team in basketball. They are the only team left in the nation without a single win. Even cellar dwellers like Grambling, Southern Utah, and Maryland Eastern Shore have scraped together a single win. Now that Shonn Miller’s shoulder injury might keep him out for the entire year, there’s no way Nolan Cressler can do it all by himself. I’m not seeing any light at the end of this tunnel.