Friday, January 13, 2012

The Trentonian: "Ivy League Tougher than Ever"

Paul Cormier is in his second stint as head coach of the Dartmouth College men’s basketball team.

His first tenure lasted from 1984-1991, when the landscape of the Ivy League was much different than it is now as he begins his second season in his second stint as Big Green head coach.

“It was the Penn-Princeton show when I was here the first time,” Cormier said. “When you see what Cornell did a couple years ago and to see now with Harvard as a true top 25 team the talent is there. Two years ago as an NBA scout, I spent the year scouring the country tor players and they are a legit top 25 team. It shows a lot for the league. Yale is having an excellent season. Watching Penn and Princeton, now that Princeton is getting acclimated to (its) new coach, watch out.”

The Ivy League is no longer the Penn-Princeton show these days. Cornell won the title and went to the Sweet 16 two years ago. Princeton and Harvard tied for the top of the league a year ago. And this year Harvard is the favorite, but there are plenty of teams that feel they have a shot at winning the title this year.

The Ivy League schedule kicks off in earnest this weekend, with Princeton opening the season with a swing through Cornell and Columbia. Harvard, which owns a win over Dartmouth, is at the top of the league at 1-0 at the moment.

“Our league is outstanding and no doubt it will be a bear from beginning to the end,” said Harvard coach Tommy Amaker, whose Crimson are ranked 25th in the nation and own a 14-2 record. “I think with all the things that are said and talked about we try as much as we can to not pay attention to those things. We had trouble at Monmouth, so we have to stay focused on each practice and getting healthy with the players that are out right now.”

Harvard has battled some injuries, but has three players scoring in double figures this season – Keith Wright, Kyle Casey and Laurent Rivard.

“We have preached balance and been fortunate the last few seasons to have it,” Amaker said. “We’ve been lucky to have players who embrace that and talk about the go-to guy is the open guy. It has worked well for us having different players who can step forward in different moments.”

Princeton tied the Crimson for the league title last year and won a playoff game to go to the NCAA tournament. After a 1-5 start, the Tigers have won eight of their last 10 to head into Ivy play at 9-7 under first-year head coach Mitch Henderson.

“I feel like we’re in a better position now than a month ago,” Henderson said. “We had a rough start. Part of that was trying to find the lineup that works best for us. We’re getting more balance on offense and good production from Ian (Hummer) and Doug (Davis). But I also like where we are with the other guys.”

Yale went 10-4 in the pre-Ivy portion of its schedule and opens Saturday against Brown with some confidence.

“We are off to a pretty good start so far,” Yale coach James Jones said. “We have played well in our non-conference schedule. Guys are playing a little better than last year and guys are contributing off the bench. We are looking forward to getting the games started this weekend.”

Jones, like Cormier, knows the overall depth in the Ivy League has improved.

“I’m nervous because I think everybody is pretty good,” Jones said. “I watch the scores and see we have very good teams. I look at Dartmouth, who has struggled with wins and losses, but if you look at the scores of their games, they have had an opportunity to win every game. I think every game will be a dogfight in the league this year. We’re capable of beating every team but every team is capable of beating us as well.”

Columbia also had a strong run in non-league play, going 11-5 led by guard Brian Barbour, who is averaging 14 points per game and helped ease the loss of Noruwa Agho to a season-ending injury.

“We’re pleased to be 11-5,” Columbia coach Kyle Smith said. “We had a rough start when we lost Agho in the second game. But guys picked up the slack of us being a gritty, defensive team. Hopefully we can build on our confidence and get ready for Ivy League play.”

The Lions open against a Penn team that played the league’s toughest non-league schedule. The Quakers, who are 7-9, have lost games to Temple, Pittsburgh, Villanova, UCLA and Duke this season.

“The beauty of it for us is we have an opportunity to play for one of the things we set out for at the beginning of the year, which is to be Ivy League champs,” Penn coach Jerome Allen said. “For us having lost eight out of our last 12, we have been trying to slowly build the principals it will take to be victorious in league play. We have a nice combination of new guys and veterans.”

Allen hopes the tough schedule has his team prepared for the Ivy season.

“It depends on if you look at it as glass half full or half empty,” Allen said. “We could have a record of 14-2 and not play anyone who gets us ready. Or we could have a record where we are at having played at Pitt, Villanova, UCLA and Duke and say that is the company we see ourselves in. That’s the standard for Penn basketball.”

Cornell, Brown and Dartmouth have struggled early in the season. But in the Ivy League, no weekend is a safe weekend.

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