Is it just me, or is men’s basketball in the Ivy League turning into men’s hockey in the ECAC?
We’ve all gotten used to upset final scores like Union 2, Clarkson 1 on the ice, but Cornell and Columbia taking three of four games from Princeton and Penn on the hardwood? Are you serious, baby?
Maybe, just maybe, the mystique of Princeton and Pennsylvania is starting to wear off. For years, teams went into that weekend hoping to win but expecting to lose. From a historical perspective, there is good reason for such sentiment — since 1956, both the Tigers and Quakers have each won over 70 percent of their league games. No other school has a winning conference record.
Not only that, but since 1969, Princeton or Penn has won or shared the league title every year except 1986 (Brown) and 1988 (Cornell). Now that’s domination.
But all of a sudden, both teams are beatable — Princeton losing to Cornell? (First time since 1992-93.) Columbia sweeping Princeton and Penn in a single weekend? (First time since 1986.)
And not only are the two perennial powers suddenly mortal, but Yale is right at the top with them, checking in at 6-3 after finishing off a season sweep of Harvard and Dartmouth (first time since 1982-83). By the way, this will be the first time since 1989-90 that the Ivy champ will have at least three losses.
Okay, so things are happening this year that almost never happen. Just what in the name of Emerson Whitley is going on here?
From the Yale standpoint, James Jones deserves a lot of the credit. For years under former head coach Dick Kuchen, the Bulldogs seemed to have the talent to compete in the Ivy League, but players never developed. In fact, many regressed (see: Hunterton, Gabe).
But things have been different under Jones. While I can’t comment on Jones’s coaching style during practices, I can say he and Kuchen are polar opposites during games. The former coach used to expend all of his energy screaming at the officials, and he offered little in the way of in-game advice to his players.
Jones, on the other hand, recognizes his energy is better spent on coaching. Sure, he’ll get on the officials if he thinks they blew a call; any coach would. But Jones is more measured in his comments to players and officials — when he speaks, people listen.
Jones has also assembled a versatile team of interchangeable parts that do almost everything well. When was the last time you saw a group of Yale players having the confidence to take and make big perimeter jumpers like Chris Leanza ’03, Isaiah Cavaco ’01, Scott Gaffield ’04, Paul Vitelli ’04 and Matt Minoff ’04?
With Ime Archibong ’03, the Bulldogs have a player who can create his own shot, while Neil Yanke ’01 and Tom Kritzer ’01 have found a winning low-post, high-post combination.
But getting back to the improvement of players, two guys in particular have made great leaps this season. Their contributions have helped to make this such a well-rounded team. As a freshman, Cavaco was an absolutely hopeless shooter. He got good minutes and played in 21 games that year but made less than a quarter of his shots — including just 3-for-25 from beyond the arc.
He showed improvement as a sophomore, then missed most of last year with a knee injury. This year, he’s shooting better than 40 percent and knocked down a couple of important shots in the win over Harvard Saturday. He has made himself into a reliable outside shooter, something the Bulldogs need on nights when Leanza can’t get free.
Archibong has made a similar transformation after a freshman season in which he scored a total of 21 points. This year, he has made himself into an offensive threat, in addition to becoming one of the best rebounding swingmen in the Ivy League.
The increased contributions of Cavaco and Archibong, as well as the play of the steady freshmen, have made life a lot easier on Leanza. Every night, he has to be the hardest working player on the floor just to get the ball in the backcourt. Opponents routinely deny him the ball in an attempt to disrupt the flow of Yale’s offense.
But now that other Elis are holding themselves accountable offensively, Leanza doesn’t have to score 30 for the team to have a chance to win. And when Yanke is making his shots in the low post — as he was all weekend long — that loosens up Yale’s perimeter game even more.
As for the rest of the league, we found out this weekend in particular that anything is possible.
Princeton, which lost its two best players in the off-season — center Chris Young to professional baseball, Spencer Gloger to UCLA — is having trouble figuring out ways to score. In addition, former head coach Bill Carmody left for Northwestern after last season, leaving John Thompson III to take the reins. So, it’s understandable the Tigers are going through some growing pains this year.
Penn, on the other hand, is the big enigma in the league. Some observers thought the Quakers could go 14-0 just by showing up, and they have shown flashes of those expectations in taking both Seton Hall and Maryland down to the wire. But now, they also have a loss to Columbia and a last-second win against seemingly over-matched Cornell.
Brown (5-4), Harvard (5-5) and Columbia (5-5) are also in the thick of things, while Cornell and Dartmouth have proven that they can come up with upset victories as well.
All of which means that over the next 16 days, we will have an Ivy League race in men’s basketball that will touch not just central New Jersey and Philadelphia, but also Manhattan, Providence, and yes, even New Haven.