With only Brown in their rearview mirror, the Bulldogs still have six more teams to face in order to earn a second consecutive conference title. Two weeks into the 14-game tournament and with three teams still undefeated in conference play, the Ivy League men’s basketball title is very much up for grabs.
The first two weekends of Ivy League action have not disappointed basketball fans, providing excitement in several different forms, including Dartmouth’s surprise win over Harvard, Cornell’s gritty performance in a narrow loss to Columbia and even Brown’s tough play at Yale to open the season. There are several key takeaways from the first seven games of conference play.
MORE PARITY THAN EXPECTED
The preseason rankings seemed to agree on one thing: There was separation between the top and bottom half of the Ivy League. The top four teams in the Preseason Media Poll — Yale, Columbia, Princeton and Harvard, in that order — were separated by a total of 21 points, according to the poll’s voting method. An additional 42 points separated Harvard from Brown, the fifth-place finisher in the poll.
Still, in the preseason media teleconference, Yale head coach James Jones and his fellow Ivy coaches all stressed the parity inherent in the league, and it is easy to see why. Last-place Cornell took Columbia to the final seconds in New York City two weeks ago, and a surprisingly scrappy Brown team stuck around John Lee Amphitheatre long enough to give Yale fans a scare that same weekend. And most notably, Dartmouth — selected to finish sixth in the Ivy League — toppled the defending co-champion Crimson on Saturday night in a 63–50 upset.
“From top to bottom, we just keep getting better and better every year,” Jones said in the preseason Ivy teleconference in August. “Top to bottom, all our teams are better and much improved. Everyone has opportunities to win outside our conference … I suspect that we have four teams that can win 20 games.”
FREE THROWS DECIDE GAMES
It might seem obvious, given the nature of the game, but several conference matchups have already been won or lost at the foul line. Harvard’s abysmal performance from the charity stripe essentially handed the Big Green its first win in Cambridge since 2009. The Crimson shot 6–20 from the line, enabling a double-digit lead to erode into a 13-point loss.
“We got an 11-point lead and then they just kind of flipped the switch and we made silly fouls,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker told The Crimson after the game. “Looking at those two stats — free-throw shooting and rebounding — really poor on our end and really outstanding by them.”
With only Columbia, Dartmouth and Brown converting more than 70 percent of its attempts from the line, Ivy League teams have been leaving easy points behind in bunches.
While the Bulldogs have not had to worry about clutch free throws in its wins this season — the team’s average margin of victory currently sits at 22.8 points — the team does not have to be reminded of its effort at the charity stripe in a one-point loss to Dartmouth to end the 2014–15 season. Yale made just nine of its 17 attempts from the free-throw line in the loss that prevented an automatic trip to the NCAA Tournament.
“Free throws are huge for a lot of teams this year,” captain and guard Jack Montague ’16 said. “I wouldn’t say we’re shooting a great percentage, but in most games we’ve had, we have not really needed to shoot well from the free-throw line. In the Ivy League, that’s going to be important because a lot of games will be coming down to the wire. Coach [Jones] gets it, and he’s been having us shoot more free throws at the end of practice.”
Yale is shooting 65.8 percent from the foul line this season, which ranks fifth in the Ivy League.
THE IMPORTANCE OF DEPTH
In each of the three Ivy League games played this past weekend, the victorious team outscored its opposition in bench points. Though bench production can be skewed by blowouts and lopsided contests, these three games highlight the game-changing effects of a productive crop of bench players.
Forward Sam Downey ’17 catalyzed the Bulldog attack on Friday evening, coming off the bench to score 18 points to go along with five rebounds, while guard Anthony Dallier ’17 contributed six points and forward Blake Reynolds ’19 added eight points. The Yale bench outscored the Bears bench 38–29.
“Obviously, it’s really important because we have played two games back-to-back and you can’t expect all of our starters to play well, number one, and then to have great legs and energy on the second night of a Friday-Saturday,” Jones said of the bench production moving forward. “Guys are going to get dinged up, bruised and sore, so it is important to have the bench step up and provide some positive play for us.”
Columbia also received substantial production from its reserves on Saturday, as guard CJ Davis scored 11 points and senior forward Alex Rosenberg, a former starter coming back from injury, contributed nine points, four assists and three rebounds. The Columbia bench outscored its Big Red counterparts 27–12, which made all the difference in the Lions’ 11-point victory.
Likewise, bench play played a large role in this past weekend’s Harvard-Dartmouth matchup. The Big Green bench contributed 33 points compared to just 13 from Harvard. For much of the season, Dartmouth has employed a deep rotation and it utilized 13 players against the Crimson, with 11 of those logging at least five minutes of action.