Thursday, January 12, 2012

Ithaca Journal Previews Ivy Season

Preseason Poll

2011-12 Ivy League Men's Basketball Preseason Media Poll

(First-place votes in parentheses)

1. Harvard (16) 135

T2. Yale (1) 103

T2. Princeton 103

4. Penn 90

5. Brown 62

6. Cornell 52

7. Columbia 50

8. Dartmouth 17

ITHACA -- There seems to be a general consensus among Ivy League men's basketball coaches concerning the state of the conference, and what it ultimately boils down to is "This ain't your daddy's Ivy League."

Better players, better teams and more balance means parity is at an all-time high in the Ancient Eight. What it also means is that in 2012, wins will be harder than ever to come by, no matter the opponent.

"Every game is going to be a dog fight this year, much more so than last year," said Yale coach James Jones during the Ivy League's midseason media teleconference Wednesday morning. "It's just a very tough league. And just as I feel that we're going to be capable of beating anybody in the league, I think anybody is going to be capable of beating us as well."

While all coaches seem to be in agreement over the league's collective strength, another point of accord is Harvard's role as the clear-cut conference favorite.

The Crimson has started the season 14-2 (1-0 Ivy League), and is coming off its best season in program history, securing a share of the Ivy League title and competing in the Postseason National Invitational Tournament for the first time in school history. A week ago, the Crimson was ranked 22nd in the AP Top 25 poll and 21st in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll.

In the Jan. 9 rankings, Harvard dropped out of the AP poll but remains in the coaches poll at No. 25, becoming the first Ivy team to be ranked in the poll two weeks in a row since Cornell during the 2009-10 season.

"We certainly have been pleased with a lot of areas with our ballclub for this year," said Harvard coach Tommy Amaker, whose team was ranked on top of the Ivy League preseason poll for the first time in school history. "It's been exciting for a number of things that our kids have been able to achieve thus far, but we also recognize that our league is outstanding, and there's no doubt in my mind that it's going to be a bear from beginning to end."

Harvard won its first eight games, including a nationally televised 46-41 win in late November over then-No. 20 Florida State. Propelled by one of the best defenses in college basketball, the Crimson also has posted wins over Central Florida, Boston University and Boston College, while dropping games to No. 9 Connecticut and a 60-54 road shocker last weekend at Fordham.

Another of Harvard's strengths is balance, with 6-foot-8 senior forward Keith Wright and 6-foot-7 front-court mate junior Kyle Casey tied for the team lead in scoring with 11.3 points per game. Sophomore guard Laurent Rivard averages 10.3 points, while junior Brandyn Curry is the team's primary playmaker, averaging 4.9 assists and 2.3 steals. In the Crimson's Ivy League opener, a 63-47 home victory over Dartmouth on Jan. 7, senior guard Oliver McNally had a team-high 17 points on 6-for-11 shooting.

"We've been fortunate in the last couple of seasons in particular to have that balance," Amaker said. "That's a key word in our program. We talk about 'the go-to guy is the open guy.' That's the way we've been able to hone in on being unselfish and sharing the ball."

Competitive depth

Behind Harvard sits a pack of quality teams, including Yale (10-4), last season's co-champion Princeton (7-9), Pennsylvania (7-9) and Columbia (11-5).

Yale heads into its Ivy League opener Saturday against Brown having won eight of its last 10 games, and is led by 6-foot-10 senior forward and double-double machine Greg Mangano, who is averaging 19.9 points, 10.6 rebounds and 2.5 blocks while shooting better than 50 percent.

Mangano put up 26 points and 15 rebounds in a 90-70 loss at No. 10 Florida on Dec. 31, followed by 35 points and 22 rebounds in a 101-86 win over St. Joseph's of Long Island last Sunday. The Bulldogs rank 23rd in the country in rebounding at 39.6 per game and lost by a single point at Atlantic Coast Conference opponent Wake Forest on Dec. 29.

Coming off its league-leading 26th Ivy title and 24th NCAA Tournament appearance, last season's co-champion Princeton is the second team in the conference to have beaten national powerhouse Florida State this season, downing the Seminoles in a three-overtime road thriller, 75-73, on Dec. 30.

The Tigers open their Ivy League season at 7 p.m. Friday at Cornell having won five of their last six, and are led by 6-foot-7 junior forward Ian Hummer, who averages 17.9 points and 7.9 rebounds. Princeton has also posted wins over Rutgers and Buffalo, while falling to North Carolina State by just two points on Nov. 16.

Despite a 7-9 record, Penn enters Ivy League play as the most battle-tested team in the conference, having already played at No. 5 Duke, at No. 16 Pittsburgh, at UCLA and at Villanova, all losses. The Quakers did post a quality win over 12-5 Robert Morris on Nov. 19, and are led by the league's best point guard, senior Zack Rosen, who averages 19.4 points and 6.1 assists.

Like Yale, Columbia is entering Ivy League play on a hot streak, having won 11 of its last 12 after starting 0-4. The Lions, who open league play this weekend by hosting Penn and Princeton, are led by junior guard Brian Barbour, who averages 14.3 points while shooting 34 percent from 3-point range and 89 percent from the free-throw line.

Cornell, another battle-tested squad, should also figure into the Ivy's second-tier conversation, although Big Red coach Bill Courtney will have to find a way to hide his team's glaring weaknesses while employing the right mix of veteran and inexperienced players.

Undersized and depleted by injuries, Cornell ranks 301st in the country in rebounding, with freshman Shonn Miller (8.7 ppg., 6.3 rpg.) the only player averaging more than five rebounds. Senior guard Drew Ferry is the only Cornell player scoring in double-digits at 13.8 ppg., and he, along with point guard and classmate Chris Wroblewski, will be asked to lead a talented but young crop of guards that includes freshman Devin Cherry and Galal Cancer.

A step behind the rest are Brown (5-10) and Dartmouth (3-13, 0-1 Ivy League), both young squads looking to rebuild after difficult 2010-11 Ivy campaigns. Neither team has won two straight this season, and Dartmouth has lost six in a row and 10 of its last 11 going into a home contest against Longwood this Saturday. Brown, with just one senior on its roster, is scoring just 62.5 points per game and has lost games by 21, 26 and 31 points already this season.

The Big Green, which hosts Harvard on Jan. 21, only scores 57.9 points per game while handing out just 10.8 assists per game as a team.

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