By Howard Hochman
It seems like only yesterday that Doug Davis was hitting his buzzer beating, fall-back, fall-down jumper that turned Harvard followers crimson. And not soon after, Brandon Knight’s last-second layup was a stake in the eye of the Tiger. But we must look forward and we can only hope the 2011-12 Ivy hoop season can provide the same excitement. This year, it appears seven of the Ancient Eight will be battling for second place. Harvard returns everyone, will be favored to go unbeaten in league play, and, in fact, each starter is capable of earning all league honors. But more on that later. First….
Summer News and Notes
- Providence Coaching Change Trickles Into Ivy Ranks: We have yet to hear a good explanation why a title-winning Princeton coach and alum would leave that bucolic and secure setting for traditional basketball hotbed… Fairfield. Now granted, the MAAC is an underrated conference and departing coach Ed Cooley did not exactly leave the cupboard bare after a 25-win season. In my opinion, the move is lateral at best. But never fear, Princetonians, the apple does not fall far from the tree; the Pete Carrill coaching tree, that is. Mitch Henderson, another alum, and most recently Bill Carmody’s right hand man at Northwestern, was immediately signed on, so it would be wise to keep “three-pointer” and “back-door” in your vocabulary.
- Ancient Eight Coaches Resist GW Courtship: Speaking of coaches, when Jim Larranaga departed George Mason for the sunny climes and dollars at Miami, the school first looked north to the Ivy League for his replacement. Not surprisingly, Tommy Amaker chose to remain with his talent-laden bunch in Cambridge. What is surprising is that Bill Courtney turned Mason down as well. You might remember it was Courtney who was the recruiting architect of the Patriots’ Final Four team in 2006. Furthermore, the CAA is most assuredly a step up from the Ivy and enjoyed one of its finest seasons with VCU coming out of nowhere to make a Cinderella run to the Final Four. It makes one think Mr. Courtney likes what he sees on the roster and that the future may be brighter than most imagine at Cornell.
- Life Outside Campus: Last season, Greg Mangano of Yale was named the RTC Ivy Player of the Year as a junior. After a season in which his double-double average led the Elis to a third-place finish, and after some discussion with his coach, James Jones, Mangano decided to declare for the NBA Draft but did not hire an agent. A few NBA teams showed interest, but fortunately for Yale fans, he listened to the whispers in his ear and withdrew his name and everyone exhaled at Pepe’s Pizza and Louis’ Lunch. As a reward for his outstanding season, Mangano was invited to try out for the World University Games Team, beginning July 31 in Colorado Springs. The Games themselves will take place next month in China, but it won’t be as big a culture shock as most would expect for Mangano. He averaged over 21 points per game during Yale’s recent ten-day swing through the country. Only 12 (out of the 22 high-profile invitees) will make the traveling squad. We will keep you posted.
- Harvard: Just let the names Kyle Casey, Keith Wright, Brandyn Curry and Christian Webster roll off your tongue and you have the reasons why last year’s co-title holders should repeat with ease though the middle of the league has gotten stronger. An undefeated run through the league seems reasonable and with some out-of-conference success, a Top 25 ranking appears attainable. Kenyatta Smith, a rebounding machine a la Wes Unseld at 6’7″ and 260 pounds, leads a formidable recruiting class. Pencil in a meaningful Selection Sunday for the first time in Cambridge.
- Yale: Penn and Princeton not in the top two? Calls of blasphemy are sure to echo through the rafters of Jadwin and The Palestra, but believe it. The Elis boast the most formidable inside/outside tandem in the league with the aforementioned Greg Mangano and Austin Morgan. Throw in sophomore Josh Kreisberg (recently named to the Israeli U-20 team) and steady Reggie Willhite and you have a foursome as imposing as any outside Cambridge. The gem of the recruiting class may be the well-suited Armani Cotton, a 6’6″ swing forward from New York.
- Penn: The Quakers could certainly move up a spot if do-it-all guard Zack Rosen takes a step forward. He earned RTC POY honors in just his second season. Though his overall 2010-11 stats were good, he definitely regressed a bit. Miles Cartwright and Tyler Bernardini join him in the backcourt. Like last season, Penn needs to find a few bodies that can compete inside. They managed to lure Georgia schoolboy star Henry Brooks away from Connecticut. He is their most significant recruit, but even at 6’7″, he prefers playing away from the hoop.
- Princeton: The graduation of Dan Mavraides and Kareem Maddox (last year’s Sixth Man of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year, currently in a Dutch pro league) hurt. As will the defection of head coach Sydney Johnson. Yet it is hard to imagine a team that returns Doug Davis and Ian Hummer not being ultra-competitive. Bob Garbade at 6’10″ is tops in a recruiting class left in flux because of the coaching transition. Their style will keep them in most games, but beating the top three may be difficult.
- Cornell: Perhaps reading too much into Bill Courtney’s decision to stay, the Big Red are picked fifth with a bullet. They finished on a 6-3 run last year that included two wins over Penn. Chris Wroblewski, the last holdover from Cornell’s title teams, returns. A top recruiting class, headed by the ominously named Galal Cancer from Christian Brothers Academy, will give Courtney the luxury of once again using his entire roster. How that depth plays out will be the key to their success.
- Columbia: Another team that may go as far as their freshman class takes them, with four recruits that are 6’7″ or taller. The backcourt is solid with senior three-point specialist and 2010 All-League selection Noruwa Agho and junior running mate and deadly foul shooter Brian Barbour. The two combined to average nearly 30 points per game last season. Darius Stevens, from La Lumiere (IN) High School, could light it up. Steps forward by the two New York teams could spice up the Ivy race.
- Brown: Perhaps the smartest team, with four players honored by the NABC Honors Court, a coach on the rise in Jesse Agel, and last season’s Freshman of the Year in guard Sean McGonagill, are still not enough to get the Bears out of the second division. Junior forward Tucker Halperin is a nice complement to McGonagill, but after that, there isn’t much that can compete with the elite. Newcomer Christian Gore out of Texas is a knock-down three-point specialist with deadly accuracy.
- Dartmouth: The Big Green did not have anyone average in double figures last season and has no size to speak of. The backcourt is solid with RJ Griffin, David Rufful and Tyler Melville. The latter could prove best, as Melville had a very productive freshman campaign. Top incoming freshman Jvonte Brooks, a rugged 6’6″ forward, is the kind of athlete not usually seen in Hanover. He can buy a vowel and start right away. Dartmouth notched just one conference win last year. Equaling that could be difficult.
Guard-ian Angels: It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that in college hoops, guard play is key. You win and lose with your backcourt. And the winners are those who have guards that can handle pressure and knock down the three. Just look at last year’s Final Four teams and you see the names Kemba Walker, Shelvin Mack, Joey Rodriguez and Brandon Knight all playing significant roles and taking the important shots.
This year, there are four teams in the Ivy League that not only have one guard who can lead and score, but two. From the top, Harvard has shooter Christian Webster, and assist leader Brandyn Curry about to begin their third year together. Penn is led by POY candidate Zack Rosen and last year’s phenom, lightning-quick Miles Cartwright. Each is capable of playing the one or the two. Yale has the classically-monikered Austin Morgan and Porter Braswell, double figure scorers each. Up in Morningside Heights, Columbia can boast three point leader Noruwa Agho and Brian Barbour, Mr. Automatic from the line. And these pairs do not include other league stars like Doug Davis and Chris Wroblewski.
The bad news is that most of the Ivies have not released their 2011-12 basketball schedules as of this writing. The good news is that we all know that once conference play begins, the teams will play on six consecutive Fridays and Saturdays and two other random days against their travel partners to make up the 14-game slate. Assuming Harvard lives up to its pre-season billing, the most important of these games should be the round robin among Yale, Penn and Princeton with second place and perhaps a post-season invitation at stake.
A few pre-conference matchups look juicy enough to warrant attention. Yale concludes 2011 with a southern swing that includes a game at Wake Forest (12/29) followed by a New Year’s Eve date with Florida. Harvard and Penn both are in Thanksgiving tournaments. The Crimson, however, are the lucky ones as they get to spend the end of November in the Bahamas taking part in the Battle For Atlantis. Florida State, new Pac-12 member Utah and traditional rival Connecticut are also in the field. If Harvard is there to compete and not on vacation, expect a good showing that could catapult them into the Top 25 rankings.
Penn is at home in The Palestra to take part in the Philly Hoop Group classic. The Quakers will play four games, highlighted by matchups with Robert Morris (with favorite son Andrew Toole at the helm), Big East giant Pittsburgh, and a James Madison team that may be slightly confident knowing that they beat a Final Four team in 2010, even if it was conference-mate VCU.
By the time our preseason column appears, the schedules will be complete and we can provide a more in-depth look at some dates to be circled. We will also tweak any predictions, based on last minute recruits, injuries and the like and detail who we think will be the All-Ivy difference makers. Less than three months to Midnight Madness.