Columbia starts strong, but Penn is title favorite

The class of Ivy League basketball — Princeton and Penn — have started to separate themselves from the pack. But a former doormat has joined them as one of the only Ancient Eight squads to start the season above .500.

Columbia (4-1) won its first three against Longwood, Morehead State and Long Island University before falling to Stony Brook. Forward Matt Preston has been huge for the Lions. Preston is scoring more than twice as much as any other Columbia player, and also grabbing twice as many rebounds as any other Lion.

Coach Joe Jones has certainly gotten rid of the losing attitude in Columbia, but I don’t think this team is a legitimate title contender (thanks, I know I’m really going out on a limb with that one). Maybe I should say something a little stronger: I’ll be surprised if they finish higher than fourth in the Ancient Eight.

Princeton (3-2) and Penn (4-2) confirmed what everyone already knew: both will be in the title hunt this season. The Tigers’ only losses came at the hands of No. 3 Syracuse and Wyoming (who required two overtimes to dispense of Princeton). Wyoming’s only defeat came at the hands of Arizona.

Princeton beat Bucknell — which defeated the Elis in overtime Dec. 4 — by 13 points. First-team All-Ivy returnees Judson Wallace and Will Venable are both averaging double digits for the Tigers. Wallace is not off to the stunning start he had last year, but Venable is leading the team in scoring, field goal percentage and rebounds. Venable, not known for his outside shot, is even shooting an intimidating 46 percent from beyond the arc.

Penn (4-2) has only suffered defeat at the hands of Providence and Wisconsin, which is not really any reason to be ashamed. The Quakers, like Princeton, bested Bucknell by 13 points.

Second-team All-Ivy Tim Begley is leading the way for the Quakers with 17 points a game, mostly off of a ridiculous 55 percent from beyond the arc. Begley has almost twice as many assists as any of his teammates. Sophomore forward Mark Zoller is the team’s best rebounder.

Harvard has (here’s a real shocker) gotten off to a poor start at 1-4. But you could make a case for Matt Stehle and Brian Cusworth as one of the top two or three big men duos in the Ivy League. Stehle, who was an honorable mention All-Ivy player last season, is averaging 13 points per game and 10 rebounds. Cusworth, who sat out last season with an injury, is recording 16 and nine for his part. Cusworth has 13 blocks and Stehle six. Even more impressive — Stehle is a junior and Cusworth is a year behind him.

Though I’ll normally pick the best five from the past week’s action, this time I’ll include all action since the start of the season. Consider this the pre-Christmas All-Ivy:

F Tim Begley, Pennsylvania — Begley has been hot from beyond the arc, hitting almost four trifectas per game. But what’s more impressive is that he’s keeping his teammates involved — Begley leads the conference in assists per contest.

F Matt Preston, Columbia — Preston is a hustler, and it’s paying off. He’s third in the Ivy League in scoring, seventh in rebounds, and seventh in blocks.

C Brian Cusworth, Harvard — It’s real hard to leave out Yale’s Dominick Martin ’06 who is, along with Princeton’s Judson Wallace, the best center in the league. Martin is averaging 14.5 points on an unreal 64 percent from the field and grabbing almost eight boards a game. But Cusworth has had a really terrific start to the year, especially on a team that’s 1-4. Cusworth has led the Crimson in scoring every game so far, and though that’s far from impressive, he’s also fifth in the Ivy League in scoring. He is second in rebounds, is shooting 54 percent from the field, and has made an incredible 93 percent of his 15 free throws.

G Edwin Draughan, Yale — As usual, Draughan ’05 is leading the Bulldogs in scoring with 16 a game. But Draughan has also been a presence on the boards, trailing only Martin and Casey Hughes ’07. He is also third in the Ancient Eight in assists, and fifth in steals.

G Jason Forte, Brown — I would love to leave him off this list for conflicts with teammates, a poor practice attitude, and the like that caused Brown head coach Glen Miller to suspend last year’s Ivy Player of the Year indefinitely at the beginning of the season (he has since been reinstated). And this guy is a co-captain?! (Maybe that’s because he’s the only senior on the team.)

But I can’t do it. He’s leading the league in scoring, is fourth in assists, and is shooting 49 percent from deep and making over 3.5 per game. Forte is also second on the team in rebounds — but I’d still rather root for Yale captain Alex Gamboa ’05 than this guy.

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