Thursday, January 13, 2011

Ithaca Journal Previews Ivy League Race

Cornell guard Chris Wroblewski.

By Brian Delaney
Ithaca Journal
January 13, 2011

In the era of the three-point shot, only one men's basketball program has represented the Ivy League in the NCAA tournament four consecutive seasons: Princeton from 1989 through 1992.

Since that Tigers' run, the league has seen a trio of three-time champions fail to make it four straight NCAA appearances: Penn from 1993-95, Princeton from 1996-98 and Penn from 2005-07.

Now it's Cornell's turn to try for four -- an immense task that Bill Courtney's first Big Red team will undertake starting Saturday night at Columbia.

The Ivy League remains the only Division I conference without a postseason tournament, which places full emphasis on a demanding Friday-Saturday regular season schedule.

The back-to-back weekends start later this month. For the next two weeks, Cornell and Columbia are spending their time preparing for each other.

"(Winning Saturday) is hugely important," Courtney said. "Every game is like a tournament situation, so you have to be prepared to win the tournament every single weekend."

Success in sports is cyclical, and the Ivy League is no exception. For 20 years before Cornell's run, league championship talk generally started and stopped with Princeton and Penn.

Developing balance

Now more teams are in the conversation. While Cornell won three straight Ivy championships and defied the odds as a non-scholarship program to reach the Sweet 16 last season, its league brethren have put their success plans in overdrive to catch up.

Look at coaching staff turnover: aside from Yale's James Jones, who's now in his 12th season, the longest-tenured coaches in the Ancient Eight are Princeton's Sydney Johnson and Harvard's Tommy Amaker -- both beginning their fourth Ivy seasons.

The 2010-11 season features four first-year coaches: Courtney, Columbia's Kyle Smith, Penn's Jerome Allen (who had the interim tag removed after last season) and Dartmouth's Paul Cormier.

Cormier, who coached the Big Green from 1984-91 before returning, got his first taste of the new-age Ivy League in Saturday's 68-53 loss to Harvard.

"If there's a better team out there, and there might be in the Ivy League because again, I haven't seen everyone, (then) wow," Cormier said. "This league has gotten a lot better since I left it (19) years ago. There's some kids on that team that are going to hold all types of records if they stay healthy and continue to improve."

Jones is considered the dean of Ivy League men's basketball coaches. In the 2001-02 season, his was one of three teams to tie for the league championship in what was considered a highly competitive season. Jones said he doesn't think there's a team in 2010-11 as good as the 01-02 Penn team, with Koko Archibong and Ugonna Onyekwe, but that this year's league may be better overall.

"I think there are more better players overall," Jones said. "It seems every team has them. ... I don't know if we have a team as good as Cornell last year, but from top to bottom it's as good as I've ever seen it."

Jones said he expects the league will see more weekend to weekend "stunners," and that the champion could carry an 11-3 or 10-4 record into the NCAA tournament.

Cornell 'confident'

Right now, Princeton (11-4, 0-0) and Harvard (11-3, 1-0) are the favorites. The Tigers return their top five scorers from last year's second-place team that lost twice to Cornell by three points, and sophomore forward Ian Hummer is enjoying a breakout season. Guards Doug Davis and Dan Mavraides are three-year starters.

The Crimson appears just as potent as last year despite losing all-league guard Jeremy Lin to graduation and the NBA. Freshman swingman Laurent Rivard has added perimeter punch to Amaker's club, which has no seniors, an improving big man in 6-8 forward Keith Wright, and an unusually unselfish mentality.

Princeton and Harvard have combined for wins over Rutgers, Tulsa, Boston College, Colorado, Bucknell, Siena and St. Joseph's.

Penn, Columbia, Cornell and Yale all have at least one player expected to receive consideration for a first-team all-league selection and possibly league player of the year. The supporting casts for each are solid.

For Brown to be successful, in the words of coach Jesse Agel, it will take a village. The Bears will win onlyif the sum exceeds the talents of their individual parts, he said (although senior forward Peter Sullivan is a pretty good part).

Cormier and the Big Green are clearly rebuilding, but a road win at Drake on Dec. 21 raised eyebrows across the league.

Cornell players aren't surrendering any ground, despite a 4-10 record against a strong nonleague schedule and a loaded league schedule with five of the first six on the road.

The team feels itself very much capable of winning a fourth championship.

"We talk about it every day," guard Chris Wroblewski said. "We're looking at our schedule, the Ivy League schedule. We could win every single game on our schedule, and that's the mindset we need going into each game. Is that going to happen? We're going to have to play very well and we're going to have to pick it up defensively. But we're still a confident group that we can get it done in the Ivy League."

Sophomore Errick Peck said the team is close to turning a corner and becoming the team it envisioned in November.

"This has been a brutal schedule," Peck said. "We've learned a lot of lessons. If we apply them, we should be able to win a fourth championship."

If not, it won't be a surprise. Not with the league as tough as it's ever been.

* According to Ken Pomeroy's advanced analysis college basketball ranking system, seven of eight Ivy League men's teams are among the top 270 (out of 345) in Division I through Tuesday's results. Their rankings:
Team Ranking
Harvard 95
Princeton 110
Yale 202
Penn 206
Cornell 210
Columbia 228
Brown 267
Dartmouth 304

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