One unique aspect of playing basketball in a conference that is based on the academic reputation of the schools rather than BCS bowl games or TV markets is that there is a genuine focus on the exam period. The Ivy League slate of games draws down to a trickle in mid-December, as chemistry and calculus take precedence over the halfcourt trap and the zone defense.
But enough platitudes about players going to class. The action on the court has been nothing but newsworthy over the first month of the season, and while there are no surprises at the top of the standings there are some contenders that few expected that have made their presence felt early.
Start with Harvard, since the Crimson were ranked in early December and are being talked about as one of the best Ivy League teams in recent history. The Crimson topped a ranked Florida State team en route to winning holiday tournament hardware, and its only loss came to No. 9 Connecticut. With size, shooting ability and depth, Tommy Amaker is team indeed looks tough to beat.
Yale looks like the top candidate to pull off the upset. It had a disappointing loss to Quinnipiac early, but has the best center in the league in NBA prospect Greg Mangano and a lot of talented players around him to shoulder the load. This class is it as flashy as Harvard is, but it matches up well with the Crimson and both games between the teams this season are going to be ones to watch.
A pair of other contenders struggled early. Princeton lost five of its first six games, but got a signature win for the league by winning at the Big East is Rutgers at the buzzer. Rival Penn will again be tested long before it tips off Ivy League play, facing (and losing to) Pittsburgh, Temple, Villanova and UCLA during the first month of the year).
But the No. 3 team in the standings early was Columbia, which would not have been a huge shock in the preseason thanks to the presence of Noruwa Agho. However, Agho suffered a knee injury that sidelined him for all but the first two games, and odds are small that the senior will again be able to take the court in a Lions blue and white uniform.
Columbia didn’t miss a beat, entering its 18-day break for exams on a seven-game win streak. Meiko Lyles has filled in admirably for Agho, and though the Lions can’t replace his scoring punch it’s been able to get the job done so far with defense, rebounding, and timely three-pointers.
Also worth watching is Cornell, mostly because it’s hard to know what to make of the Big Red. The team has looked solid enough early, but has been ravaged by injuries, particularly in the front court. Getting Errick Peck back could totally change how this team performs, and he should be ready to go by the start of Ivy League play.
Brown has weapons and earned nice wins over local rival Rhode Island and Central Connecticut State. The loss of Tucker Halpern hurts, but any team with Sean McGonagill and Stephen Albrecht is one that can put up points in bunches and will have nights when it can overwhelm deeper opponents. As for Dartmouth—well, the 2-6 Big Green look to still be a year away from a contender to finish in seventh, but it’s definitely not as bad as last year and could play the spoiler’s role if its freshmen continue to develop as fast as they did during the first month of the year.
This is still Harvard’s race to lose, and the Crimson are positioning themselves for an NCAA seeding that will give it more than a Cinderella’s chance at a victory in the postseason. But the rest of the league showed in the season’s first month that there’s more than just the team from Cambridge to be reckoned with.
• Princeton was poised to pick up a lot of frequent flier miles early in the season. Beginning with its Dec. 7 victory at Rutgers, the Tigers embarked on a streak where it was to play 12 consecutive Division I opponents on their home floors. The next Princeton home game against a D-I foe won’t be until Yale comes to town on Feb. 4, and encompasses the first five games of the Ivy League slate.
The Tigers do have one home date during that span; a Jan. 8 meeting against lower-division College of New Jersey.
• In order to beat Harvard, an opponent is going to have to shut down the Crimson offense. Harvard entered its exam break 5-0 when scoring 75 or more points, and is 17-0 over the last two seasons when it breaks the 75-point barrier.
• Center Greg Mangano was poised to become the all-time leading shot-blocker in Yale history. He entered the exam break just three blocks behind former NBA star Chris Dudley’s career total of 172.
• As seems to be the case every year, defense is key for Columbia. The Lions held six of their first 11 opponents to fewer than 60 points, and won all six of those games. The only game it has won all season when allowing more than 60 points is also its most impressive victory of the season, a 69-61 triumph at Loyola Marymount.
—Brown got tough news in early December when coach Jesse Agel announced that forward Tucker Halpern would miss the 2011-12 season. Halpern, who averaged 12.6 points a year ago, is battling illness.
• Cornell is hopeful that Errick Peck will be back and in shape to make a big impact by the start of Ivy League play. The junior hasn’t played this season because of a knee injury, but was counted on to take a big step forward after averaging 11 points per game a year ago.
• If you’re trying to figure out which Dartmouth player corralled a particular rebound, the best bet is to look for the unfamiliar faces. Through the season’s first eight games, 59.1 percent of its boards had come from freshman, with Jvonte Brooks and Gabas Maldunas each averaging 5.5 per game.
• Little-used Penn guard Steve Rennard took advantage when his name was called against Delaware. Asked to check Devon Saddler, who entered the game second in the nation with a 24.7 ppg average, Rennard not only helped hold Saddler to six points on the night, but added six of his own on a pair of three-pointers. Not bad for a guy who hadn’t played a minute all season.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Matchup To Watch: Harvard at Boston College, Dec. 29—The Eagles are the team the plays in the BCS league, but the Crimson will likely be favored in this one. Harvard has won the last three matchups in this series, including last season’s 78-69 victory.
Movers And Shakers: If you’re looking for a reason that explains Columbia’s seven-game winning streak despite the loss of Noruwa Agho for the season, guard Brian Barbour has a lot to do with it. Barbour entered the exam break tied for sixth in the conference at scoring in 14.1 points per game, and he’s also among the top 10 in assists, free throw percentage, and assist/turnover ratio. Of course, he’s also hard to take off the court, so he’s fifth in the league in minutes played as well.
Games To Watch:
Princeton at Northeastern
The Huskies are far from the biggest name on the Tigers nonconference schedule, but it went to St. John’s and knocked off the Red Storm in December.
Cornell at Penn State
The second of back-to-back road games against Big Ten teams for the Big Red, which faces Illinois on Dec. 19.
Yale at Wake Forest
The Demon Deacons may play in the mighty ACC, but the Bulldogs could enter this as the favorite given how these teams have started.
Princeton at Florida State
The Tigers look to be the second Ivy League team to knock off the Seminoles this season, after Harvard did so in The Bahamas.
Pennsylvania at Duke
Zack Rosen, Tyler Bernardini and company get the chance to shine against one of the top backcourts in the country.
Around The League
• Dockery Walker missed the Providence and New Hampshire games because of illness, but the sophomore returned against CCSU and had nine points and seven rebounds in 25 minutes off the bench.
• Patrick Donnelly and Tellef Lundevall were added to Brown’s roster in early December. Both came to the squad from the football team, where Donnelly is a quarterback and Lundevall a wide receiver.
• Toledo transfer Stephen Albrecht has become a fixture in the starting lineup for Brown this season, and is having a big impact as a shooter. Albrecht is averaging more than two three-pointers per game, including back-to-back efforts against Sacred Heart and Rhode Island in which he went 11-22 from beyond the arc.
• Jean Harris is the only senior on Brown’s roster, and is back on the team after a year-and-a-half absence. He’s been a member of the rotation all season, and went 4-5 from three-point range for a season-high 17 points against Central Connecticut State on Dec. 10.
• Andrew McCarthy tied Anthony Katsaros for fifth place on Brown’s all-time career blocked shots list with 77 after swatting away two against CCSU. Next up: Jamie Kilburn, with 89 career blocks. Matt Mullery tops the list at 163.
• The Lions weren’t expected to do much in 2011-12, especially once Noruwa Agho was lost for the season due to injury. But Columbia entered its exam break having won seven games in a row, its longest winning streak since the 1981-82 season.
• Columbia trailed Holy Cross by 20 points on Dec. 6 before closing the game on a 31-10 run to with 46-45. It marked the biggest comeback for the Lions in more than six years.
• Sophomore G Meiko Lyles earned Ivy League Player of the Week honors on Dec. 5, and it was well-deserved. At one point in the Lions’ three-game sweep of a California road trip he made 12 three-pointers in a row.
• Columbia’s seven-game winning streak has come without last season’s leading scorer Noruwa Agho, who suffered a knee injury in the second game of the year that will likely sideline him the rest of the way.
• Freshman Shonn Miller made himself the early favorite for Ivy League Rookie of the Year honors with a strong showing in the first month of the season. He shared Rookie of the Week honors the first three weeks of the year, and entered mid-December leading the Big Red in rebounding at 6.4 per game.
• Freshman G Devin Cherry suffered an ankle injury in practice that caused him to miss the five games heading into the exam break on Dec. 3.
• Senior swingman Anthony Gatlin missed the first seven games of the season with a knee injury, but hoped to be able to return following winter break.
• Junior center Eitan Chemerinski has taken advantage of the opportunity presented by the Big Red’s injury situation and emerged as a fixture in the starting lineup. He entered the exam break averaging 8.9 points and 2.9 rebounds per game.
• Freshman Mack McKearney got to play before a sympathetic crowd when Dartmouth travelled to South Bend, Ind. to play Notre Dame in December. McKearney grew up in Okemos, Mich, just an hour or so away from Notre Dame’s campus. He brought along a sizable portion of the Dartmouth fan base for the road contest, and that group was rewarded by McKearney’s three points and five rebounds in 18 minutes off the bench.
• Freshman forward Gabas Maldunas came to play against Notre Dame, finishing with 12 points and nine rebounds. That was enough to get him Ivy League Rookie of the Week honors, the second time this season he’s gotten the nod.
• Dartmouth was one of the worst shooting teams in the country a year ago, and didn’t get off to a great start this season either. The Big Green was shooting just 38.2 percent from the floor through eight games, though it was at least making 70.6 percent of its attempts from the free throw line.
• Sophomore G Tyler Melville is looking to duplicate the success his father had in Ivy League play. Randy Melville was a two-time All-Ivy First Team selection at Princeton from 1978-81, and was the co-captain of the Tigers conference title winning team as a senior.
• The Crimson enter the exam break riding a 20-game winning streak at Lavietes Pavilion, the eighth-longest home court winning streak in the country. Of course, there’s a big gap between Harvard and the familiar face atop the list: Duke and Mike Krzyzewski, who coached Amaker during his playing career and has the Blue Devils on a 40-game streak in Durham.
• When Harvard jumped into the Top 25 in early December, it marked the first time in school history it took the court as a ranked team. Unfortunately, the initial experience wasn’t a positive one, as the Crimson lost to No. 9 Connecticut 67-53.
• Freshman forward Jonah Travis hasn’t gotten a ton of opportunities to shine this season, but he took advantage of every chance against Seattle on Dec. 4. Travis finished with 19 points and 10 rebounds in 19 minutes, becoming one of just two Harvard players with a double-double in the first month of the season. Keith Wright had the other.
• Tommy Amaker brought in seven freshmen for 2011-12: Max Hooper, Corbin Miller, Steve Moundou-Missi, Alex Nesbitt, Wesley Saunders, Kenyatta Smith and Jonah Travis. That ties Harvard for having the sixth-biggest roster in the country, but it’s just tied for second in the Ivy League. Cornell boasts a 21-player roster, while Columbia also has 19.
• Add Tyler Bernardini to the list of college basketball players who are at their best when they return to their hometown. The Southern California native nearly led the Quakers to an upset of UCLA on Dec. 10, scoring a career-high 29 points in a 77-73 defeat.
—Zack Rosen was held under double figures in points for the first time all season in the loss to UCLA. He finished with eight points, but did have 10 assists and entered the exam break just 25 assists away from passing current Penn head coach Jerome Allen atop the school’s career assists list.
• Freshman forward Henry Brooks has moved into the starting lineup, and pulled down a career-best six rebounds against UCLA.
• Senior guard Rob Belcore entered the exam break on a high note, with a season-high 13 points against UCLA. He’s been in double figures in three of his last four games.
• Junior Ian Hummer got off to an impressive start to the 2011-12 campaign, leading the team in scoring in nine of the first 10 games and averaging 17.5 points and 7.8 rebounds per game. He certainly made a believer of Rutgers coach Mike Rice after scoring the game-winning basket with 2.7 seconds left in the Tigers 59-57 win. “Ian was a man playing with boys tonight,” Rice told the Newark Star-Ledger.
• Senior forward Patrick Saunders regained his former position as a starter after coming off the bench for the season’s first four games.
—Through the season’s first 10 games, Ian Hummer had been in double figures every night and Douglas Davis had scored 10 or more points eight times. Nobody else on the team had done so more than twice.
• Princeton’s 59-57 victory over Rutgers was its first at the Rutgers Athletic Center since the 1999 season. But it was old hat for coach Mitch Henderson, who won there twice as a Tigers player in 1995 and 1997.
• The Bulldogs continued to break new ground as they emerged as a likely contender for the Ivy League crown this season. Yale’s 7-2 start was the best in James Jones’ 14 years at the school, and when it stopped Bryant 76-59 on Dec. 7 it was the team’s fifth victory in a row, the longest winning streak since the 2008-09 season.
• Freshman guard Javier Duren missed four games with an undisclosed injury, but was back in the lineup by the Bryant game on Dec. 7.
• Freshman forward Brandon Sherrod had a career-high 10 points off the bench against Bryant. He had totaled eight points in the four games leading up to that contest.
• Yale got its last dose of home cooking for weeks when it knocked off Bryant on Dec. 7. It wasn’t slated to play in its own building again until a Jan. 3 date with Holy Cross. In the meantime, it had an 11-day break for exams and road dates at Rhode Island, Wake Forest and Florida.