Ivy League alums play key roles on four top NCAA Tournament teams
Although the Ancient Eight canceled its season this winter, four of the conference's recent alumni are playing crucial roles on some of the tournaments’ highest-seeded teams: Columbia’s Mike Smith at No. 1 Michigan, Harvard’s Katie Benzan with No. 2 Maryland, Harvard’s Seth Towns with No. 2 Ohio State and Yale’s Jordan Bruner with No. 2 Alabama.
Courtesy of Michigan Athletics and Maryland Athletics
With the round of 64 in the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament set to begin on Friday and the women’s tournament kicking off on Sunday, four Ivy League graduate transfers will help lead their new schools into first-round matchups.
After a year with no tournament, the 2021 installment of March Madness began Thursday night with the First Four, and fans have until midday Friday to lock in their brackets. A few of the most excited players, however, are Ivy League graduate transfers seeking NCAA championships alongside new teammates. Although the Ancient Eight canceled its season this winter, four of the conference’s recent alums are playing key roles on some of the tournament’s highest-seeded teams and are taking advantage of extra years of eligibility.
Columbia graduate Mike Smith has lead No. 1 Michigan at point guard all season; Harvard’s Katie Benzan is an Honorable Mention AP All-American with the No. 2 Maryland women; the Crimson’s Seth Towns is completing the first of his two seasons with No. 2 Ohio State; and Yale grad Jordan Bruner ’20 is a starter for No. 2 Alabama.
Columbia: Guard Mike Smith, No. 1 Michigan
Smith has started all 24 games in which he appeared for the Wolverines, averaging 9.1 points and a Big Ten-best 5.4 assists a game. The 5-foot-11-inch guard helped Michigan to a Big Ten regular-season championship this season, embracing a senior role as the program’s only second-ever graduate transfer and earning praise for his court awareness and passing.
Ranked the 11th-best graduate transfer by ESPN last spring, Smith committed to the University of Michigan in early April over Gonzaga University, the University of Arizona and Seton Hall University. Michigan, coached by Juwan Howard, is only a state away from his home in Chicago.
“Watching him, it’s almost like he’s become a key to that team in one year,” Columbia men’s basketball head coach Jim Engles told the New York Post this week. “That gives you an idea of how good of a player he is.”
During his career at Columbia, the point guard scored 1,653 career points, which ranks fourth all-time at the school, and started 91 of his 92 career games. As a junior, he tore his meniscus seven games into the season, which ended his play during the 2018-2019 season and gave him an extra season of eligibility.
Though he led the Ivy League in scoring last year as a senior and ranked sixth in all of men’s college basketball with 22.8 points a game, Smith never danced in the tournament with the Lions. He and Michigan face No. 16 Texas Southern Saturday at 3 p.m.
Harvard: Guard Katie Benzan, No. 2 Maryland
Harvard graduate Katie Benzan will compete in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament this year alongside the No. 2 Maryland Terps. As a master’s student this year, Benzan has averaged 13.3 points and 3.2 assists a game, scoring a season-high 29 points on 9-of-10 shooting from behind the three-point line during a win over Iowa last month.
Benzan helped the Terps secure the Big Ten regular season title. Earlier this month, she received recognition as an AP All-American Honorable Mention and also earned a spot on the All-Big Ten Second Team.
During her three years at Harvard, Benzan was a three-time All-Ivy League First Team honoree, averaging 13.7 points with 3.3 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 34 minutes per game. By the end of her career playing for the Crimson, she ranked No. 20 on their all-time scoring list with 1,223 career points and owned the school record of 287 three-pointers made in three years. She sat out her senior season at Harvard to preserve a season of NCAA eligibility and had originally committed to Texas before deciding to finish her career at Maryland.
The Terps will play No. 15 Mount St. Mary’s University in the first round on Monday, March 29 at 4 p.m.
Harvard: Forward Seth Towns, No. 2 Ohio State
When former Harvard senior Seth Towns committed to Ohio State University live on SportsCenter last spring, he told ESPN he was “expecting nothing less than a Final Four run and a national championship.”
“I’m a winner first and a basketball player second,” Towns said. “We’re going for it all.”
Representing the Buckeyes from his hometown of Columbus, Ohio, the 6-foot-8-inch forward is closer than ever to making that statement a reality. Driven to return home, he picked Ohio State off a final list that also included Duke, the University of Kansas, the University of Virginia, Michigan, Maryland and Syracuse.
With Ohio State this season, Towns — whom ESPN named “the best graduate transfer on the market” upon his commitment last spring — is averaging 10.9 minutes a game in 24 appearances off the bench.
Knee injuries plagued him during his career at Harvard, leaving him with two seasons of remaining eligibility upon his graduation. Named the Ivy League Player of the Year as a sophomore, he did not play a game during both junior or senior years with the Crimson.
Although he was unable to immediately start the season because he had arthroscopic surgery, he made his first appearance with the Buckeyes in December in a win over UCLA — it was his first game since Ivy Madness in March 2018.
“I can’t tell you how happy I was to see that young man on the floor again,” Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann said after the game. “He has come such a long way, such a long way.”
In addition to getting back on the court with the Buckeyes, Towns has stood up as an activist and advocate over the last year. During peaceful protests in May 2020 after the killing of George Floyd, he was detained by local police officers in Columbus. More recently, he expressed support for the #NotNCAAProperty movement on Twitter.
Towns and No. 2 Ohio State take on No. 15 Oral Roberts Friday at 3 p.m.
Yale: Forward Jordan Bruner ’20, No. 2 Alabama
Although he missed some of the conference season after having knee surgery in January, Yale graduate Jordan Bruner ’20 will be back on the hardwood in March Madness this spring — two years after competing in the tournament with the Bulldogs. Bruner has started all 21 games he has played this season, averaging 6.1 points and 4.2 rebounds a game and establishing himself as a defensive block alongside Southeastern Conference Player of the Year Herb Jones.
“We take pride in how we play defense,” Bruner told the News from his Indianapolis hotel this week. “And you know, just like everybody says: defense wins championships.”
Before his April 2020 commitment to Alabama, Bruner played three full seasons for Yale, missing the 2017-2018 season due to a knee injury suffered in a preseason scrimmage. As a Bulldog, Bruner was honored as a first-team All-Ivy selection in 2020 after averaging 10.9 points a game and leading the conference with 9.2 rebounds per game.
In 2020, Bruner also made the Academic All-Ivy Team and recorded the first-ever triple-double in Yale history with 14 points, 11 rebound and 10 assists against Cornell. He remains ranked fourth in Yale men’s basketball history with 149 blocked shots.
The Crimson Tide will play No. 15 Iona in the first round on Saturday, March 20 at 4 p.m.
Bennie Anderson contributed reporting.
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