Joe Murphy

Ivy League men’s basketball is off to a wild — and wildly successful — start.

As league play begins and a successful nonconference slate concludes, the Ivy League has ascended to its highest-ever standing in rating percentage index — some models consider it the 10th strongest of all 32 NCAA Division I conferences. With wins over programs like then-No. 16 Villanova, then-No. 17 Arizona State and Miami, Ancient Eight squads stand a combined 70–49, and all but two teams — Harvard (6–7, 0–1 Ivy) and Columbia (5–9, 0–0) — claim winning records. Though the casual college basketball fan may pay more attention after the Princeton bench rushes the court in Tempe or Penn students storm the floor of the Palestra following the Quakers’ first win over Villanova since 2002, players aren’t too surprised.

“We have so many guys that have a lot of experience in the Ivy League,” guard Alex Copeland ’19 said. “It’s not a new concept for us to realize that the league is really, really good and that every single team is going to be a battle, whether you’re playing a team in the bottom half or the defending Ivy League champions.”

While the historically dominant duo of Penn and Princeton may have captured the season’s most signature wins, nearly all eight teams have found success. After dropping its first two contests of the 2018–19 campaign, Brown has won 12 of its last 14, including a resounding road win at San Diego State, and finished nonconference play with the program’s most non-league wins in history. Dartmouth, meanwhile, matched its record with nine nonconference wins, as well as the program’s highest non-league winning percentage in 22 years.

Playing without 2018 Ivy League Player of the Year and forward Seth Towns and guard Bryce Aiken, Harvard beat Saint Mary’s on the West Coast. Cornell guard Matt Morgan ranks 12th in the country with 23.6 points per game. And Yale, of course, easily handled Pac-12 opponent California to open the season, dropped a double-overtime matchup at Memphis and took down Miami behind 29 points from guard Miye Oni ’20.

Oni, Morgan and three other Ivy players — Penn forward AJ Brodeur, Brown guard Desmond Cambridge and Princeton guard Devin Cannady — were recently selected to the 2018–19 Midseason Watch for the Lou Henson Award, an honor which recognizes the best mid-major player in Division I men’s basketball. Alongside the Southern Conference and the Sun Belt Conference, the Ancient Eight led all leagues with five selections to the list.

“Miye came into the Ivy League as one of the better players in the league since day one, but the other thing about Miye is he’s an extremely hard worker and one of the most competitive people I’ve ever met in my life,” Copeland said. “I’ve seen his improvement — I know that over the summers, he gets in the lab and works on his game, and it showed a lot.”

Even with only three league games completed, surprising results have upturned initial projections. Princeton, who fell to Fairleigh Dickinson by a dozen points in November, swept its season series against Penn with an overtime win at home and a nine-point victory in Philadelphia last weekend.

The Quakers — last season’s Ivy Madness champion and runner-up in the 2018–19 Men’s Basketball Preseason Poll — now find their postseason aspirations in jeopardy, and their loss illustrates the relative parity across Division I’s smallest conference.

“Brown is the hottest team in the conference right now, having improved its rating from four points worse than the average NCAA team to four points better,” said Luke Benz ’19, president of the Yale Undergraduate Sports Analytics Group. “Princeton [+3] and Dartmouth [+2] have managed to improve since the start of conference play while defending co-champions Harvard [-2.5] and Penn [-5] have seen their ratings decline.”

Last Saturday in Hanover, Harvard lost its Ivy opener for the first time in 12 years. The Crimson, picked first in the preseason poll, fell to a Dartmouth squad, picked last, that has not finished the season with a win percentage over .500 since the 1998–99 season. The Big Green shot 68.1 percent from the field to win by a comfortable margin of 81 to 63.

This hot shooting has not been confined to one win. Dartmouth ranks seventh in the country with a 40.8 three-point field goal percentage, and its junior guard Brendan Barry leads all of D1 basketball with a 51.8 percent clip from beyond the arc.

“It’s interesting to see the league games,” guard Trey Phills ’19 said. “It proves on any given night you can lose if you don’t come to play. [The Harvard-Dartmouth game] was really surprising to be honest. … If a team can come out and play and hit shots, they can beat anybody in the country.”

Conference play will kick off for the remainder of the Ivy League on Saturday afternoon. Yale visits Brown, while Columbia plays Cornell in Ithaca.

William McCormack | william.mccormack@yale.edu