It may already be the middle of January, but around the country the most important college basketball is just beginning — conference play.

The Ivy League schedule began with a home-and-home split between Dartmouth and Harvard two weeks ago, and leading up to this weekend, the rest of the Ancient Eight men’s basketball teams are finishing up non-conference play and preparing for the grueling 14-game Ivy schedule. Without the usual favorites of years past, all eight teams head into league action with legitimate hopes of ultimately being crowned Ivy champs and receiving an automatic bid for the NCAA tournament.

Perennial Powers Struggling

Heading into the 2008 Ivy League season, things seem a little different.

This year marks the first time since the 1988-’89 season that neither Princeton (2-12) nor Penn (5-10) has been named as Ivy League favorite in the preseason media poll. The two schools actually have the fewest victories in non-conference action among the eight clubs.

Penn heads into the season needing to replace playmaker Ibrahim Jabber — the Ivy League and Philadelphia Big 5 Player of the Year — and bruiser Mark Zoller — an All-Ivy First Teamer. The two led Penn to the conference title last season and gave Texas A&M a scare in the first round of the NCAA Tournament before the Quakers ultimately fell, 68-52.

Senior guard Brian Granderi, who paces the squad with 13.6 points and 5.4 rebounds per game, will be the team’s only healthy returning starter. The inexperience, coupled with a stiff non-conference schedule that included No. 1 North Carolina, No. 25 Villanova and Miami (Fla.), may mean the Quakers’ 5-9 record is misleading.

City opponents St. Joseph’s and Temple remain on tap in the next week to round out Penn’s non-conference play, and the team will jump into the Ivy slate on Feb. 1 against Harvard at its historic home court, the Palestra.

Princeton, loser of 12 of in a row, has not found much success this season after beginning the campaign with wins over Central Connecticut State and Iona. The Tigers have lost to teams ranging from perennial national contender No. 7 Duke to Division II Chaminade.

Sophomore center Zach Finley’s 11.1 points and 5.6 rebounds per game leads the Tigers. Sophomore guard Lincoln Gunn is second on the team in scoring with 9.4 points and leads the team with 2.9 assists a contest.

Princeton looks to start fresh beginning Feb. 1, when it takes on Dartmouth in New Jersey.

Preseason Favorites

Cornell (8-5), picked to finish first in the conference by the preseason media poll and winner of four of its last five — the lone loss being a close affair at Duke — looks to ride the momentum into league play. After finishing with a 9-5 conference mark last season — good enough for third behind the Quakers and Bulldogs — the Big Red are looking to reach the NCAA tournament for the third time in the school’s history, and the first time since 1988.

This season, Cornell is equipped with three returning starters, eight upperclassmen and the arguably the best backcourt in the Ancient Eight — the team’s top four scorers play on the perimeter.

Two Ivy League Player of the Year candidates, and the team’s top returning scorers, pilot the Big Red. Sophomore guard/forward and reigning Ivy League Rookie of the Year Ryan Wittman leads the squad, averaging 15.2 points per game, while sophomore point guard Louis Dale leads the team in assists, with 5.3, and is second in scoring, with 13.8 points per contest. In addition, the Big Red boast a third double-digit scorer out of the backcourt — junior point guard Collin Robinson chips in with 11 a contest.

The boys from Ithaca had their final non-conference tune-up last night against New Jersey Institute of Technology and begin Ivy play Jan. 19 in Ithaca.

Yale (6-8) was selected to finish second in the preseason media poll and thus far has endured easily the toughest schedule in the Ivy League — one that ranks in the top third in the country. The schedule has included losses to No. 3 Kansas, No. 4 UCLA, Stanford and UMass, all of which have been on the road. The Bulldogs have won three of their last four, and five of their eight losses have been against teams that went to the postseason last year.

The Elis are an experience-laden team. All five regular starters are upperclassmen, four of them seniors. Off-the-bench junior Travis Pinick and sophomore Alex Zampier provide scoring and versatility for head coach James Jones.

Yale is led by conference Player of the Year candidate and captain Eric Flato ’08, who leads the team in scoring and assists, averaging 12.9 and 2.5, respectively. Senior guard Caleb Holmes ’08 is second on the team in scoring, with 11 a contest, and is averaging 2.5 assists per game.

Yale begins Ivy play this Saturday at home against Brown.

Coaches Making Impacts

Brown (8-6), picked to finish fifth in the preseason, has emerged as a contender for the Ivy League title. Entering conference play, the Bears have the most wins in the league, several of which have come against stiff competition. They boast victories over Northwestern and American, and have had tough losses against the likes of Rhode Island and Notre Dame.

Second-year head coach Craig Robinson — Illinois Senator Barack Obama’s brother-in-law — has had an immediate impact after being named Ivy League Coach of the Year in his debut campaign last season. Robinson, a Princeton graduate, is considered to be one of the greatest players in Ivy history.

Robinson’s Bears are led by a couple more conference Player of the Year candidates — senior guards Mark McAndrew and Damon Huffman. McAndrew is averaging 16 points and 5.5 rebounds per game. Huffman is second on the team in scoring, with 15.8 points per contest.

Tommy Amaker has been around the block. A former Duke star and assistant coach as well as a Seton Hall and Michigan head coach, Amaker is in his first year as the head man at Harvard (6-12, 1-1 Ivy). Amaker has already made noise on the recruiting circuit, getting a commitment from one of the top centers in the high-school class of 2008, as well as several other highly rated players.

On the court the Crimson have shown glimpses of promise, handing Amaker’s former squad — Michigan — a loss in Cambridge. But at other times they have failed to show up — during a 111-56 loss to Stanford and losses to Long Island and UC Santa Barbara, among others. The Crimson have already opened Ivy League play with a home-and-home series split with Dartmouth.

Harvard boasts four players averaging double figures, led by sophomore guard Jeremy Lin, who has 13.2 points per game.

Flying Under the Radar

The Columbia Lions (7-8) — who are led by head coach Joe Jones, the brother of Yale head coach James Jones — enters its Ivy League schedule with the third-best record in the conference. But that record has not come against opposition as tough as that other squads have faced, playing only two opponents from a major conference. The Lions’ best win may have come on the road against Wagner, a team against which both Yale and Brown stumbled.

Senior forward John Baumann, a 2007 All-Ivy First Teamer and Ivy League Player of the Year candidate, is the go-to man for Columbia. Baumann leads the Lions in points, with 14.6 per game, and rebounds, with 6.3 per game.

Columbia opens Ivy League play Saturday in Ithaca against Cornell.

Dartmouth (7-8, 1-1 Ivy) kicked off its conference schedule with a split against Harvard, each game of which was a blowout. The Big Green have one non-league games left — at home versus UMES. All in all, Dartmouth had a weak non-conference schedule. Their lone game against a major conference team was a loss at Rutgers on Nov. 20.

The Big Green sports two double-digit scorers — junior forward Alex Barnett, who averages 16.6 points per game, and junior guard DeVon Mosley, who averages 12.4. Barnett also leads the squad in rebounds, averaging 6.6 per game.