2015-16 Ivy League Preview

4 Nov

Five Ivy League story lines to watch…

1) Ivy League basketball has been dominated by dynasties. There was the long running Penn/Princeton dynasty, then Steve Donahue’s Cornell dynasty, and now Tommy Amaker’s Harvard dynasty. The Crimson are attempting to win outright or share their sixth straight title, but they’re starting the season behind the 8 ball after injuries and graduation losses.

2) Mitch Henderson has his best shot at getting Princeton back on top of the Ivy, as the Tigers are loaded with lengthy sharp shooters.

3) Steve Donahue makes his return to the Ivy League, as well as to Penn, where he served as an assistant for Fran Dunphy for 10 years.

4) Columbia and Yale have arguably the two best players in the league in Maodo Lo and Justin Sears respectively, is that enough to end the Harvard dynasty or keep Princeton at bay?

5) Can Dartmouth build on a 7-7 year and once again play the spoiler role and crash the expected Princeton/Harvard/Yale/Columbia quartet at the top of the Ivy standings?

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH

1) Princeton– Princeton returns nearly every piece from last year’s most efficient Ivy offense, and Mitch Henderson is counting on major production from a few sparingly used sophomores from last season and a talented freshmen class. The two things that stand out about the Tigers is their perimeter length and ability to shoot the three. There are six players 6’5+ on this year’s roster who are all capable of shooting the three consistently. That troupe is led by do everything wing Spencer Weisz, who was the most consistent performer on an extremely well balanced team. Weisz hit at 40% from three last year and is one of the better perimeter defenders on a defense that limited Ivy opponents to the lowest three point attempt rate and assist rate in the league. Steven Cook joins Weisz on the perimeter as another lethal 6’5 three point threat and defensive menace, producing the third highest steal rate in Ivy play. Cook and Weisz both featured an increase in free throw rate, which, combined with PG Amir Bell’s rim attacking sensibilities, allowed the Tigers’ offense to jump from 246th in FT rate as a team nationally to 16th last year. That extra dimension of rim attacking within the offense, led by Bell, is something we haven’t seen from a Mitch Henderson team, and with the shooters surrounding him, it’s always going to be there. Back to the perimeter threats, 6’6 Jackson Forbes is another versatile threat who is healthy this year. I expect an under the radar season from him on the glass and defensively because of his versatility. 6’4 Myles Stephens is a polished FR who should contribute immediately, as should highly touted combo guard Devin Cannady out of Mishawaka. Aaron Young and Mike LeBlanc are two more spot shooters off the bench, while SR leader Mike Washington returns as well. Henry Caruso is another option on the wing as a solid defender and capable shooter. Think of him as the hustle guy who’s willing to guard 1-4. The frontcourt is led by Hans Brase, a 34% three point shooter who quietly became a solid force around the rim late in the year during Princeton’s four game winning streak. Brase is the prototypical three point shooting big man in the Princeton offense, but he’s turned into a legit scorer in the paint (shot 49% from 2 in Ivy play two years ago, compared to 59% last year), drawing a lot of contact and dominating the defensive glass, a necessity for this Princeton team. He’s joined by Pete Miller, the only rim protector on the front line, and 6’11 Alec Brennan, who could be poised to take over the Brase “big man perimeter threat” role in his SO year. The Tigers have all the pieces offensively, it’s just a matter of defending at the rim against Harvard and Yale.

2) Harvard- A lot people are down on the five time defending champs, mostly due to the Siyani Chambers injury, and I do agree that an offense that can struggle generating points consistently will struggle to run Amaker’s rigid motion with an extremely young backcourt. However, the frontcourt talent level is so much higher and athletic than anyone else in the league, that the lack of scoring will be mitigated, and hopefully the young backcourt eventually gels. Harvard is of course really going to miss Wes Saunders, who generated so much offense on his own, especially late in the shot clock. That simply can’t be replaced, and the 20+ second APL has to decrease this year, especially with the 30 second clock. So the onus falls on talented FR Tommy McCarthy, who finds himself in the same role Chambers was three years ago after Brandyn Curry scandal. McCarthy is a pure PG out of California who can score and distribute, but he’ll need help from his wings, namely Corbin Miller and Corey Johnson. Miller is a proven shooter, but struggled down the stretch last year, while Johnson is a FR who impressed during the summer with his pure shooting stroke and length on the perimeter. Johnson could eventually develop into a Saunders-lite type of player. A now healthy Andre Chatfield will be key on the perimeter defensively and in transition, an area where Harvard has to put an increased emphasis on. SR Agunwa Okolie is a terror defending the perimeter because of his 6’8 frame and long wingspan. He doesn’t provide much offensively, but if he has the skills to start the break off his defense. As you can tell, I think Harvard needs to press and run more, because finding the offense/defense combos with his personnel has been something Amaker has struggled with even with his best teams in Cambridge. The frontcourt is led by Zena Edosomwan, who is healthy and in shape, and should be the focal point of the offense. Edosomwan has the potential to surpass Justin Sears as the best big in the conference, especially if he learns to handle double teams. Edosomwan is going to be fed A LOT this year, and Harvard’s season will hinge on his ability to pass out of the inevitable double teams (an area he was pretty miserable at last year) he’s going to see, and find the open shooters. Edosomwan is joined by 6’8 Evan Cummins, who should have an increased role this year, and 6’10 FR Balsa Dragovic, who brings a typical Euro stretch game to the table. The two big question marks in the frontcourt is the health of Chris Egi and Hunter Myers. Egi is a whirlwind in the frontcourt who can dominate a game with his athleticism, while Myers is a 6’7 stretch shooter. If Egi is healthy, Harvard’s interior defense will once again be the most dominant force in the Ivy (best 2PT%D in Ivy again, 16th nationally in FG% at the rim). Egi has been battling a foot issue, while I haven’t heard anything all summer from Myers, but he’s still listed on the roster. Harvard has some things to figure out offensively (even more so than usual with the Crimson returning the fewest possession minutes in the league), and it might require Amaker loosening the reigns a bit (ie a lot), but the talent level is so high that I have a hard time believing Harvard won’t be at or near the top of the Ivy once again.

3) Columbia- The Lions are the opposite of Harvard in that they have a dominant backcourt, and a coach who has already openly embraced the idea of playing faster. The Lions were 333rd in adjusted tempo last year, and had a 21 second APL offensively, but the innovative Kyle Smith has stated repeatedly that the Lions are going to surprise everyone and play much more up tempo this year. The Lions are a prolific three point offense (38% as a team while shooting them at the 8th highest rate in the country) but they have little to no offense or defense on the interior, the opposite of the Crimson. In fact, the only defense worse than the Lions in the Ivy on a ppp basis was Penn. The Lions are led in every regard by the best player in the league, PG Maodo Lo. Lo shot 45% from 3, was 10th in the Ivy in assist rate, and 16th in steal rate. He played with the German national team this summer, and has only improved, which is scary. Lo also has a full arsenal surrounding him in the backcourt this year, as Alex Rosenberg and Grant Mullins have both returned from season ending injuries. Rosenberg is a 6’7 sharp shooter who hit at 43% from 3 two years ago. His length causes problems on the perimeter defensively and he’s a good weak side offensive rebounder, while Mullins is a versatile, physical defender and a capable scorer/shooter. That’s in addition to the return of SO Kyle Castlin, who really shined when being thrust into a starting role because of the injuries. Castlin was the most athletic player on the team last year and can guard 1-4, and hit the three at 38%. The Lo/Rosenberg/Mullins/Castlin quartet in the backcourt is lethal, especially if Smith is able to get them in open/spread court situations. SR Isaac Cohen is an underrated piece in the backcourt as well. He was sixth in assist rate in Ivy play, and allows Lo to work off the ball in the half court. The frontcourt however, is something of an issue. That unit was hit by injuries as well, but when they were matched up against bruisers like Harvard, they weren’t able to compete, as the Crimson went for 1.24 and 1.29ppp in their two meetings last year. Luke Petrasek is back after battling mono last year. He’s the most capable rim protector and can hit the three and is useful in the pick and pop game with Lo. He’s joined by Chris McComber, a stretch guy who doesn’t provide much on the glass or defensively, and FR Lukas Meisner, a 6’8 German who could surprise in his first year. There’s no question the backcourt is the best in the league, but can Smith increasing the tempo mitigate the lack of a frontcourt? Levien Gym hasn’t exactly been a safe haven for the Lions either under Smith, as they were just 2-5 at home in Ivy play, and 15-18 overall under Smith.

4) Yale- I love Justin Sears, and I think James Jones is underrated as a coach on a national level, but I think we’re underselling how valuable Javier Duren was to this team. Duren was a 6’4 PG who could pass, shoot, attack off the dribble, and defend, and was Ivy first team caliber at all four of those aspects. I think Yale’s season likely hinges on whether 5’11 Makai Mason can do what Duren did at at least half the level. Otherwise, I think Yale falls back to a team that really struggles to score efficiently, but defends and rebounds at an ultra high level. He’s joined in the backcourt by sharpshooter and team leader Jack Montague. Montague shot a blistering 41% from 3 last year, and was a key to Yale making a significant leap in ppp from the previous year. Jones does have some goods news in that Nick Victor and Brandon Sherrod are returning to the Bulldogs. Victor is the best perimeter defender on the team when healthy, and Sherrod is a force around the rim and on the glass, and forms a frontcourt with Sears rivaled only by Harvard. The return of Sherrod from the Whiffenpoofs and Victor from injury really offsets the graduations of Matt Townsend and Armani Cotton, and should allow Yale to maintain the best defense in the Ivy, which held opponents to .93ppp last year. Speaking of Sears, he’s a monster who was 4th in block rate, 1st in offensive rebounding rate, 2nd in FT rate, and a 56% shooter from 2. He’s also determined to erase the final few seconds of Yale’s loss to Dartmouth that cost them a trip to the NCAA Tournament. 6’9 Sam Downey also returns to the front line, and was a capable fill in for Townsend at times last year, and Jones will be happy with whatever he can get from 6’10 Sem Kroon, the biggest player on the team, but is recovering from a series of concussions. The backcourt of Montague, Mason, and Victor is rounded out by potential shooter Landon Russell, 6’6 Anthony Dallier who arguably has the highest ceiling on the team, and 6’7 Blake Reynolds, an athletic wing who can shoot the lights out and rebound out of the backcourt. Reynolds is the athletic hybrid wing that has become a more and more common sight in the Ivy. Overall, Yale’s defense will perhaps be the best in the Ivy, but I think the offense drops off enough without Duren to keep them slightly out of the top tier of Princeton/Harvard/Columbia.

5) Dartmouth- Big Green is looking to build on their first postseason appearance in over half a century and their first non losing Ivy season in 16 years. Dartmouth won their last 5 Ivy games and defeated both Harvard and Yale, so Paul Cormier has a lot of momentum going his way heading into this season. Unfortunately, that momentum was tempered a bit with the loss of PG Alex Mitola, who used his grad transfer privilege to head to George Washington. The quotes from Cormier regarding Mitola’s decision were less than pleasant, to put it mildly. The loss of Mitola will hinder an offense that generally struggled last year (.97ppp in Ivy play) but Cormier’s defense, especially from the backcourt, could keep DC on the right side of the W/L ledger. Malik Gill leads harassing backcourt that generated a 23.2 defensive turnover rate in Ivy play and a 13.2 steal rate, both tops in the league. Gill alone was third nationally in steal rate, while 6’4 SO running mate Miles Wright was 14th. Wright also hit the three at 43% in Ivy play, and will be relied on for the bulk of the offense this year. Kevin Crescenzi is a potential shooter in the backcourt this year, but profiles mainly as a spot up guy. He’s a solid on ball defender too. The backcourt is rounded out by Cam Smith, Gill’s PG backup, Quinten Payne, a Ball State transfer and the first at DC under Cormier, and do everything FR combo guard Guilien Smith, while another FR, 6’2 Michael Stones, probably has the highest talent ceiling of anyone on the Big Green roster. Cormier needs a major lift in production offensively from his wings. 6’4 Taylor Johnson offers some versatility defensively, but needs to find some offense. Eli Harrison and Brandon McDonnell return from suspensions, and of the two, Harrison will have the biggest impact because of his shooting stroke. The frontcourt is led by 6’7 Connor Boehm, a good perimeter shooter who has to step up his interior presence in the absence of Maldunas. Boehm is joined by 6’7 glue guy Tommy Carpenter, oft injured 6’11 Cole Harrison, oft injured Ike Ngwudo, and 6’8 Evan Boudreaux, who has by far the most talent in a murky frontcourt. Defensively, I think Big Green is going to be fine, as Gill has the quickest hands in the Ivy and Wright will only improve. Will what they scrape up in transition be enough to mask the worst interior defense in the league and a questionable wing core?

6) Penn- Steve Donahue makes his return to the Ivy League and the Palestra, and he has the highest talent level this side of Harvard to work with. Unfortunately he was dealt a blow with Tony Hicks unexpectedly leaving the team and the rest of the roster isn’t at all built for Donahue’s prolific three point system. The Quakers actually shot the ball from three well as a team, it just wasn’t a part of the offense, and certainly nowhere near where Donahue wants it, as his last five teams have all been top 50 in 3PTA rate. Penn was 225th last year, and that was with Hicks, who attempted 116 himself. While Hicks provided a lot of offense, he also provided a lot of turnovers, fouls, and generally poor decisions. Hicks was a big reason why the Quakers had a TO rate of 24%, the 342nd worst rate in the country. The door is now wide open for talented FR Jake Silpe. Silpe is a high scoring combo guard who should take over immediately at PG, and will likely be the Ivy Freshman of the Year. This will move Antonio Woods off the ball and allow his efficiency, especially from behind the arc, to improve. That leaves wings Sam Jones and Matt Howard to fill out Donahue’s 4 out 1 in system. Jones is likely to flourish under Donahue. The SO hit 45% from 3 in Ivy play as FR, and he’s going to have every opportunity to lead this team in scoring. Howard is a capable shooter who will also see an increase in attempts, and he’s a plus defender on the perimeter with his length. The one in the middle is Darien Nelson-Henry, who enters the season healthy and in shape for the first time in his career at Penn. DNH is the best rebounder and rim protector on the team, and Donahue claims that he’s developed a perimeter shot. I’ll believe it when I see it since he hasn’t even attempted a three in three years at Penn. The rest of the rotation is rounded out by Darnell Foreman, an excellent on ball defender, and two guys returning from injuries/illness, Mike Auger in the frontcourt and Jamal Lewis in the backcourt. There’s definitely not a dearth of talent for Donahue in his first year at Penn, but the big question is if this is a roster capable of playing his efficient, three point bombing, turnover free basketball, as Penn has been the opposite of all three of those qualifiers for the last several years.

7) Brown- Brown beat Providence, Harvard, and Yale last year. They also finished 4-10 in the Ivy and got throttled by a dreadful Austin Peay team. Then Leland King left the team and things just generally fell apart. The Bears played fast (35th in adjusted tempo) but were sloppy. They were 315th in offensive TO rate, and didn’t mitigate it on the other end, as they were 317th in defensive TO rate. Martin’s strategy this year, with King and Rafael Maia gone, is likely to play even faster and surround big man Cedric Kuakumensah (2nd in block rate, 3rd in def reb %) with four guards. The up tempo offense will be led by Tavon Blackmon, who was 4th in assist rate in Ivy play and a fearless attacker in transition. He’ll be surrounded by sharp shooter JR Hobbie, who hit at 41% from three, versatile 6’6 wing Steven Spieth, and FAU transfer Justin Massey, another sharp shooter who is the twin brother of Jason Massey, a solid interior piece for the Bears. The frontcourt was a dealt a blow with offseason loss of Blake Wilkinson to an ACL tear, but Martin has an underrated freshmen class coming in. Obi Okolie (brother of Harvard’s Agunwa Okolie) is a do everything 6’5 wing, Travis Fuller will provide immediately help and will likely be the best offensive player on the frontline. Corey Daugherty is the big get for Martin. He’s a local kid who can fill it up from outside. Brown has a lot of youth and a lot of talent, but they’re going to at least be more cohesive this year. Okolie, Spieth, and Daugherty are all battling relatively minor injuries, but might not be ready for the first game or two.

8) Cornell- Big Red lost Miller, Cancer, and Cherry, their three best offensive players from on offense that was the worst in the Ivy last year. I have no idea how this team is going to score. The defense will be top half again, but the offense and rebounding will be nonexistent. Cornell has been snake bit, as they’ve dealt with all sorts of injuries, and they’ve been hit the hardest by the Ivy’s eligibility code. So where does the offense come from? I guess Robert Hatter? Hatter’s strength is undoubtedly his on ball defense, and if that can spur Cornell in transition, that would be ideal. Unfortunately, his weaknesses are decision making and shot selection. Ideally, FR Matt Morgan could take over ball handling duties, as he’s the most capable of creating offense for Bill Courtney. 6’4 Troy Whiteside should see plenty of opportunities in the backcourt as well because of his ball skills and size. Pat Smith was going to be relied upon on the wing, but he’s already battling a hip injury, something that plagued him his FR year. Rim attacker Wil Bathurst showed some promise at the end of last season, and Jordan Abdur-Ra’oof is a potential defense stretcher. JoJo Fallas is a streaky shooter, but is at least a legit option from outside. The interior is led by David Onuorah, a freak athlete who led the Ivy in block rate and is key to the Cornell defense, along with Hatter wreaking havoc up top. If Onuorah’s offense improves, he’ll certainly be one of the best all around bigs in the Ivy. Courtney will take whatever he can get out of oft injured 6’ll Braxston Bunce. The defense will once again be there, but this is an offense that shot the three at a putrid 27.5% as a team in Ivy play, yet they had the third highest attempt rate in the league. Without an experienced point guard and a lack of proven options in the backcourt, this is a team that has to thrive on getting in transition off Onuorah blocks and Hatter steals. Otherwise, they simply won’t be able to score.

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