Sunday, November 13, 2005

SportsProf's Ivy League Hoops Predictions

As most of you know, there isn't a lot of scientific reasoning behind my Ivy League hoops prognostications. I read media websites, I read blogs, I read newspaper articles, I read the Blue Ribbon Guide, I read The Sporting News' guide, I talked to some cognoscenti and here I am. Part of me likes to go on past history, on precedent, and I take a general view that unless presented with some reasonable evidence to the contrary, I will tend to pick last year's champion to repeat. My basic premise is that they're the defending champions, and someone has to take the crown away from them. (Of course, I'm not that daffy, such that if they had five senior starters and graduated all of them, I'd probably pick someone else). There's also one more theory that bears watching. Penn has won eight of the past thirteen Ivy titles, and its coach, Fran Dunphy, is the dean of Ivy coaches. Put another way, it's hard to go against the team that has controlled the conversation in the Ivies for that period of time.

I also think that Fran Dunphy of Penn did his best coaching last year in his 16 years at Penn. Until last year, Dunphy won his titles with an established point guard running his show. Jerome Allen, Michael Jordan and Andrew Toole all fit that bill, and last year Penn ran its offense with three two guards, one small forward and one big forward. Despite that limitation (for Dunphy, historically, at least), Penn dominated the Ivies. Pre-season favorite, Princeton, with two returning first-team all-Ivy players and one of the nation's hot coaches, fell to sixth. It was a great year for the Penn Quakers.

Part of the reason for the Quakers' success, though, is gone. Four year-starter Tim Begley, a two guard/small forward who could run the offense, graduated. Now, most of the time teams like Penn find other Begleys and re-load, but he was a very special player. He could hit the three with consistency, he could pass the ball amazingly well, and he blended in to make his teammates better. I thought he was the best Princeton-type player I'd seen in the Ivies for years, and as Princeton's luck has been of late, he spent his past four seasons playing his home games not at Jadwin Gym, but at the Palestra. One thing I particularly admired about Penn's offense during the Begley years was its crisp passing. Begley always knew where the ball should be going, he didn't hold the ball for too long, and his court IQ seemed to rub off on his teammates. That type of player doesn't come around too often, even at Penn and Princeton.

Most of the time people default to Penn and Princeton or Princeton and Penn, for a few reasons. First, they've dominated the Ivies since the league's inception, and only Yale (tied with Princeton and Penn in 2001), Cornell (1988) and Brown (1986) have won the Ivy men's hoops crown other than Penn and Princeton in the past 35+ years. Second, Penn and Princeton form a formidable tag-team pair. For those of you unfamiliar with the Ivies, they play their league games on back-to-back nights, which means that if you're going to beat Penn and Princeton, you have to beat them on consecutive nights. The Ivies might not be as tough as other leagues, but the back-to-back games can be grueling. In order to challenge the titans, you have to hope your tag-team partner -- your travel pairing -- is formidable enough to give Penn and Princeton fits so that they'll be a little worn out before they play you. That, too, isn't as easy as it sounds.

Can it happen this year? Or will it be Penn and Princeton again?

Here are my picks.

1. Cornell. I thought that last year was a watershed year for Steve Donahue, formerly Fran Dunphy's top assistant, in this fifth year at Cornell. It was time for the Big Red to make a move, and I honestly (and wrongly) thought that his job was in danger if Cornell didn't make it into the top four in the Ivies. Donahue has gotten less hype than other newer Ivy coaches, but he's a good coach who has recruited reasonably well in Ithaca. In frontcourter Ryan Rourke and swingman Lenny Collins, he has about an able a 1-2 punch as any team in the Ivies. The Big Red can shoot and rebound a bit. The big question is their backcourt. It has some health and experience issues, and it's hard to win in any league without solid guard play. If the Big Red can get decent guard play, I think they'll win the Ivies. This, of course, is a stretch prediction, but I think that it's one worth making. The 1-2 punch is an excellent one.

2. Penn. Most of the pundits are picking either Penn or Harvard, and it was hard for me not to give Penn the nod. They are the defending champions, and while they lost three key players from their seven-person rotation (G David Whitehurst didn't figure into the picture until the very end of the season), they do have four back. Besides losing Begley, they lost two frontcourters, 6'10" Jan Fikiel (who relaxes and had his best season last year, even if his overall career was a disappointment) and 6'9" Ryan Pettinella, who was a huge recruit three years ago (and who now is playing community college ball in upstate New York after an aborted transfer to Cincinnati). Pettinella loved to go inside, was good on defense, and without him and Fikiel Penn is thin inside this year.

Penn does have a good nucleus returning. In 6'2" two guard Ibby Jaaber, they have one of the best players in the Ivies. Jaaber is an excellent defender and decent penetrator, but he's an iffy outside shooter. Begley's ability to hit the three consistently emboldened Penn's other players and caused defenses to give other Penn players more room to maneuver. Without both Begley and enough depth inside, teams be able to player close perimeter defense on Penn, and that could make points harder to come by (Danley did keep opponents honest last year, but Penn will need to establish more inside depth to help take the heat off the guards). Probable PG Eric Osmundsen got healthy and out of Dunphy's doghouse last year, and he played with some confidence that was sorely lacking in his earlier seasons at Penn. He's a good outside shooter, but he's not a creating-type of PG. He'll need another offensive threat from the wings to help bring out the best in him. SF Mark Zoller was a surprise rookie star two years ago, when he got off to a great start and faded a bit down the stretch. He had a good year last year, although he played at times with too much emotion and sometimes disappeared, perhaps because Ivy coaches learned that he is a stealthy type of player who you can't leave unguarded anymore. Zoller's a winner, and Dunphy always seems to unearth players like him.

The most improved player for Penn last year was center Steve Danley (as I'll submit that neither Jaaber nor Zoller improved as much as I thought they would have last season). Danley was a stiff offensive player as a freshman who became more fluid last season, and his very consistent play helped lead Penn to the title. Penn has a host of returning bench players, the best of which is Whitehurst, who, along with Zoller and Jaaber, has been nursing an ankle injury. Whitehurst is an outstanding athlete whose game still needs some refining. The Quakes also have five freshmen in what was a highly touted recruiting class (and much more highly touted than the prior year's class). For the Quakers to repeat, they'll need some help from among Gs Aron Cohen and Kevin Egee and forwards Cameron Lewis, Brennan Votel and Tommy McMahon. Lewis is the top recruit.

Top to bottom, Penn has the most talent in the Ivies. Fran Dunphy is a master tinkerer, and he'll relish the challenge of cobbling together enough offense with what should be a pretty stellar defense to win the Ivy title.

3. Harvard. Heresy, you say? Where are your Princeton Tigers, you ask? Read further, and you'll get there. In 7' C Brian Cusworth and 6'8" F Matt Stehle, the Cantabs have the best frontcourt in the Ivies. A good enough frontcourt to have many pundits predict them for second in the Ivies, and perhaps there's a first thrown in here and there. Both are outstanding players, and, as Blue Ribbon is quick to point out, no Ivy coach has won more games over the past ten years (outside of Penn and Princeton) than Frank Sullivan. He's a solid coach; he just doesn't always get enough players. Harvard's backcourt questions going into the season are bigger than Cornell's, and two players doesn't a team make. Opposing defenses will pack it in on Harvard until someone in the backcourt or on the wings can hit the three with consistency. If that can happen, the Crimson might make a serious challenge for the Ivy title. But if you make that bet, get some good odds. Frosh G Andrew Pusar out of the outstanding Seton Hall Prep program in NJ could be the answer Sullivan needs at the guard position.

4. Princeton. Before last season, Tiger fans relished the thought of combining two returning first-team all-Ivy players, 2G Will Venable and C Judson Wallace, with the disciplined approach of Princeton alum and former Air Force coach Joe Scott, who pulled off one of the all-time coaching feats two seasons ago when he led Air Force to an NCAA tournament bid. The problem was, the Tiger insiders were a little worried. Scott coaches an ultra-orthodox version of the Princeton offense, whereas his former teammate and predecessor, John Thompson III, coached a more liberal one. In Venable, he had a somewhat undisciplined 2G who couldn't shoot too well, and in Wallace he had a center who was on okay defender but a mediocre passer (and who also liked to put the ball on the floor too much). Both were suited for the liberal version of the Princeton Offense, but a conversion to orthodoxy in their senior seasons was a bit too much to ask for.

Unable to meld this unit into a punishing defense team, the Tigers (who shot the ball very well), fell to sixth in the Ivies. It was a very frustrating season.

What will happen this year will depend in large part on the performance of returning big man Harrison Schaen and frosh inside players Noah Levine and Michael Stritmatter. Schaen took last year off, and the press has reported that his frosh season was a disappointment, especially for a Top-150 recruit out of a nationally ranked HS program (Mater Dei in Orange County, California). Having watched many of the Tigers' games down the stretch two seasons ago, I thought that Schaen changed the game in a way that numbers always can't reflect. When he was in the game, opponents' offenses frequently wilted. He was a dominating defensive presence who could control the glass, and two years ago Princeton outrebounded its opponents for the first time in memory.

His offense, though, is raw, and it's an open question whether he can grasp the Princeton offense and pass well enough within it. At times he's looked lost in practice, but he also has shown flashes of talent. If he can play well at both ends, look to the Tigers to stalk the other favorites and perhaps run them down. Levine might figure into the rotation; he has a big body (relatively speaking) and is an older frosh after having spent a post-graduate year at The Hill School last year. It also looks like he can hit the open jumper. Still, he's a freshman, and the center position in the Princeton Offense is a tough one to learn.

The starting forwards are the Tigers' strength. One of the team leaders is 6'6" Luke Owings, a wing player who is a very intelligent basketball player and an outstanding shooter. He's asserted himself in practice, and he is primed to have a good year for the Tigers. Princeton's most aggressive player is the other starting forward, 6'5" Noah Savage, a good shooter who can handle the ball reasonably well and who plays tough defense. Savage, though, is foul-prone, and he'll need to stay on the floor more for the Tigers to contend. Alex Okafor, a 6'5" frosh from California, looks very athletic, looks to be a potentially very able defender and might figure into the rotation. 6'6" soph Kyle Koncz also could see some time.

Returning at point guard is the team's captain, 5'9" guard Scott Greenman, a gritty player who's a better shooter than he looks, an able passer and a clutch player. Greenman captained the U.S. team at the Maccabiah Games in Israel this past summer, and Scott's looking to him to show his teammates the way. He's an able guard, but he'll need help, and the 2G position remains a mystery for the Tigers. Among those who will contend for playing time are juniors Max Schafer (who almost didn't make the team this fall, despite having been a first-team all-state player in NJ two years ago out of HS) and Edwin Buffmire, who keeps on hanging in there and looks worthy of more playing time, soph Matt Sargeant (who started a bunch of games last year), and freshmen Geoff Kestler and Jason Briggs. Kestler has been running with the first team in practice, and it looks like he'll start. Schafer has the most athletic body, and Buffmire, when given the chance, has made things happen. Whoever gets the nod will need to establish himself -- and in a hurry.

The Tigers have a bunch of talent on their roster, but the question remains who will step up and help complement Savage, Owings and Greenman. They particularly need help on the inside, and, if they don't get it, they'll be in the first division, but not contending for the title. If Harrison Schaen lives up to his prior billings, it could be an exciting time in the last two weeks of the Ivy season for Tiger fans.

5. Columbia. Joe Jones might have more talent on Morningside Heights than his brother James has in New Haven, and despite suffering some recruting losses he has another good recruiting class (his second). The Lions should benefit from last season's great turnaround (from the year before), and Columbia should build upon last year's success.

6. Yale. This is James Jones' seventh year at Yale, and the rhetoric about how good Yale is and how they're primed to challenge Penn and Princeton year-in and year-out has dimmed significantly from what it was four years ago, when the Bulldogs won 21 games and tied Princeton and Penn for the Ivy title. While Yale has won in double digits the past three years, they've not contended, and they've had some decent talent, albeit talent that didn't fulfill its potential the way Coach Jones thought it would have. Jones substitutes a lot, prides himself on having well-conditioned teams, and, I think, coaches on emotion a bit too much. That formula worked in the short-term when he first arrived in New Haven, but it hasn't worked well as of late. In C Dominick Martin and Fs Sam Kaplan (now healthy) and Casey Hughes, Jones might have one of the best frontcourts in the Ivies, and his guards aren't half-bad either. It could be that this team is the surprise of the Ivies, or it could well be that Yale plays this year the way it has played the past 3 seasons and finishes in the middle of the pack if not the second division. Part of it is that Yale isn't that deep, and part of it is that I think other Ivy coaches have figured out how to play Yale.

7. Brown. Last year Brown had returning first-team all-Ivy player PG Jason Forte, SG Luke Ruscoe and a few other players who were perimeter players who could shoot and who could play hard, but Brown had to rely upon a lot of freshmen and never developed any chemistry. Now Forte is gone. Ruscoe and G Damon Huffman, among others, return, and there is a promising recruiting class. Still, Brown has to establish its froncourt players, and while Miller has worked magic before, he'll be rebuilding at least this season. Look for Brown to improve, as the league is better top to bottom this year, but it's still a rebuilding year for the Bruins.

8. Dartmouth. I actually don't think that Brown and Dartmouth are traditional Ivy doormats. I think both will give teams fits. Dartmouth made some good strides last year and has some good players, but Coach Terry Dunn only has been there a year and needs more time to get his type of players. G Mike Lang and swingman Jonathan Ball are the best returning players, while frosh G Marlon Saunders has received some significant advanced hype. If Dunn can develop a few more players, the Big Green might be able to climb out of the cellar.

Predictions for first-team all-Ivy

Ryan Rourke, Cornell (Player of the Year)
Ibby Jaaber, Penn
Matt Stehle, Harvard
Noah Savage, Princeton
Lenny Collins, Cornell.

Those are my thoughts, and, as always, all typographical errors are mine.

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