A look at the Ivy League

As the non-conference schedule comes to a close, the Syracuse Orange seem to be the real deal after withstanding a big test from Michigan State at the Garden and taking care of business in a dominant performance against the lowly Colgate Raiders.

On November 30, the Orange beat up on the Cornell Big Red in a 78-58 thrashing. As it stands now, Cornell sits at 2-6, having lost one more game already this year than they did in the entire season last year.

Of course, everyone remembers the Big Red’s thrilling run, which came to a noble end against Kentucky’s NBA squad at the Carrier Dome last March. So what has happened over in Ithaca since then, and what does it mean for the wide-open Ivy League race?

That Cornell basketball team was led by the talented Big Three of Ryan Wittman, Jeff Foote, and Louis Dale—all seniors last year. Their departure has left a gaping hole for the Big Red to fill, bringing a measure of parity to the league they dominated for the past three years.

With the first month of play now in the books, let’s take a look at this year’s frontrunners for the Ivy League crown.

Last year, Princeton finished second behind Cornell. This year, they’ve already knocked off Rutgers, Siena, St. Joe’s, and Tulsa. Senior Kareem Maddox, who has eclipsed the 30 point mark on two occasions already this season, is coming on strong to complement sophomore forward and leading scorer Ian Hummer.

Princeton fans have to be encouraged by what they’ve seen from this team, as Head Coach Sydney Johnson has revived the program in only three years, going from three league wins in his inaugural season, to eight in his second year, and eleven last season in his third year. With Cornell rebuilding and seemingly out of the championship picture, the Tigers look like they have a good shot at winning their first Ancient Eight title since ’04.

The top contender right now is Harvard, though the program has never won a conference title in its history. Given that the Ivy League, in its nascent state, was a five-team league back in 1902, it is truly a remarkable feat of mediocrity that the Crimson have never captured a league championship.

Thanks to the talent that Head Coach Tommy Amaker has assembled in Cambridge, Harvard has a great chance to erase 108 years of failure and capture that first elusive title. Even better news for Harvard is that this team’s incredible youth sets up the Crimson for success beyond this year, as the roster consists of six freshmen, six sophomores, and two juniors.

Thus far, the Crimson has routed Colorado and neighbor Boston University, while dropping a close one in Ann Arbor to Michigan, 65-62. The Crimson is led by the sophomore attack of guard Christian Webster’s 16.6 ppg on 40 percent shooting from 3-point range, and the interior efficiency of 6-foot-8 forward Keith Wright.

More firepower is on the way as well, as reigning Ivy League Rookie of the Year Kyle Casey recovers from a broken foot that he suffered in the preseason. He should be healthy by the beginning of conference play when Harvard’s athleticism and defensive intensity could propel them to the top of the standings.

Aside from what many perceive to be a two-team race at the top, a few dark horses lurk as sleeper picks in this year’s Ivy League.

Pennsylvania, another program trying to recapture its glory days, has won 21 outright Ivy League titles since 1960, but none since 2007.

Nevertheless, the Quakers boast the consensus preseason pick for conference Player of the Year in junior Zach Rosen, along with an experienced supporting cast. Already, Penn looks dangerous with wins over Davidson and Army, and a respectable 12 point loss to Villanova.

Penn also has the benefit of the best home-court advantage in the conference, playing at the Mecca of Ivy League basketball, the Palestra. If the Quakers can steal a game in Cambridge or Princeton and protect their home court, they could be dancing again in March.

One last sleeper possibility that warrants mentioning is the Yale Bulldogs. A team that lost their prolific high scoring guard, Alex Zampier, to graduation and their second high scorer, Mike Sands, to personal leave from school usually doesn’t inspire confidence.

For this team, though, those departures have allowed sophomore guard Austin Morgan to morph into one of the league’s most deadly shooters, while junior 6-foot-10 center Greg Mangano has dominated down low. Yale’s signature victory, perhaps the biggest in the history of the program, came in Chestnut Hill against Boston College, when Morgan went for a career high 25 points in a game that was not as close as the final eight point margin might suggest.

While the old saying goes, “Live by the three and die by the three,” these Bulldogs are certainly living it up so far this season, shooting the trey at a 41.5 percent clip. If they continue to shoot like that, who’s to say Yale can’t bring their first conference title back to New Haven since 1962?

The Ivy League, unlike every other conference in the country, awards their automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament to the regular season champion, not the winner of a conference tournament. This has led some to call the Ivy League conference season the 14-game tournament, as a single loss can damage a team’s hopes of making the tournament.

That kind of urgency lends itself to a unique level of intensity over the course of the Friday-Saturday, back-to-back weekend games that make up the conference schedule for the eight teams. Whichever team is able to make it out alive will be awarded the nation’s first invite to the NCAA Tournament.

Ian Halpern is the basketball editor for The Juice Online.