Great Expectations: Harvard / Ivy League Preview

This is the first part of Beanpot Hoops’ preview series. Stay tuned later this week for Boston University, Northeastern and Boston College.

kmcdonald_wsaunders
Left, Penn sophomore Keven McDonald led the 1975-76 Penn Quakers, the last Ivy League team ranked in a preseason poll, in scoring. Right, Harvard junior Wesley Saunders may do the same for Harvard this year. Photos via the Penn basketball media guide and IvyLeagueSports.com.

The last time an Ivy League team was ranked in the preseason AP poll, the college basketball landscape was a lot different. When Penn debuted at No. 20 in the 1975-76 rankings, in a world without shot clocks and three-point lines, the Ivy League produced top teams on a regular basis. Three Ancient Eight teams in the previous decade had reached the final eight of the NCAA tournament, and the freshmen on that 1975-76 team went on to make the Final Four as seniors — or at least they would have, if not for the fact that there were no freshmen on the squad, due to the Ivy’s eligibility rules of the time.

Suffice to say, a lot has happened over the intervening 38 years — and in that span, perhaps no team has entered a season with higher expectations than Harvard does this week. The Crimson is not ranked in the top 25, but with a good start, it could get there soon: Harvard would have been 31st in the AP poll and 28th in the coaches’ rankings. With last year’s Round of 32 team returning most key players (and adding a few more), and with question marks surrounding the other Ivy contenders, Harvard has the pieces in place for a special season.

If you’ve seen a word written about Harvard this fall, you know the dominant storyline entering the season is the return of seniors Brandyn Curry and Kyle Casey, who withdrew from school last fall to preserve their athletic eligibility after being two of the roughly 120 students caught in an academic scandal. Curry broke out in his sophomore season as a lightning-fast point guard, twice ranking in the nation’s top 40 in assist rate, while Casey contributed stat-stuffing performances and highlight-reel dunks.

And yet, just two years after leading Harvard to its first-ever outright Ivy League title, Casey and Curry could become secondary players on their own team. Junior Wesley Saunders, a do-everything wing player, is the consensus favorite for Ivy League Player of the Year, while point guard Siyani Chambers shot 42 percent from three-point range with a 33% assist rate in his debut season. Canadian senior Laurent Rivard is an ace shooter, Kenyatta Smith posted a terrifying 15.3% block rate last year — and we haven’t even gotten to Zena Edosomwan, Yahoo’s No. 82 recruit in the Class of 2013.

One thing is for sure: head coach Tommy Amaker won’t have to ride his starters as hard as he did in 2012-13, when Chambers and Saunders both finished among the top ten nationally in percent of possible minutes played. Instead, Amaker’s challenge will be finding the right rotations from a plethora of options. He’s said Chambers and Curry will play together at guard, with Saunders presumably starting at the three and lots of possibilities in the frontcourt.

“We certainly believe that we can go 10 deep,” Amaker told CBS Sports’ Jon Rothstein. “Will we end up doing that all the time? I don’t know. If we’re healthy and kids are able to embrace roles and fitting in the way we want them to fit in, there’s an opportunity we think to have 10 players play in the game for us.”

Even with most of the same players, the 2013-14 Harvard team will have a much different feel — after being a bit of an underdog last season, this year’s squad will sneak up on exactly nobody. And with some people already looking ahead to March, it’s worth remembering — no matter how cliché — that high expectations guarantee nothing. After all, that nationally ranked Penn team of 1975-76? It was swept by Princeton and finished Ivy play 11-3, three games out of first place.

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Ivy League outlook:

There’s no debate as to who enters the season as the Ivy League favorite; a loaded Harvard is the class of the conference and could enter league play with a national ranking. It’s much harder to tell who will be the Crimson’s top challenger, with Princeton reloading after key losses, Penn bringing back nearly everyone and Yale always looming as a threat. If you’re feeling déjà vu from this paragraph, you’re not alone — the Ivy League shapes up almost exactly as it did in 2011-12, down to the contenders and many of their strengths. Of course, that season didn’t quite go to plan, as Penn was neck-and-neck with Harvard down the stretch until the final game.

There’s a bit of a divide between humans and computers as to who’s most likely to knock off Harvard. Most observers, including the voters in the Ivy preseason poll, have Penn and Yale second and third, usually in that order. But the computer projections of Ken Pomeroy, Dan Hanner and TeamRankings.com have Princeton #2, often by a wide margin. I think the humans are overrating the importance of continuity for a Penn team that went 3-9 last year even when Fran Dougherty was healthy, and underrating Princeton’s ability to always fill holes with at least serviceable production — but I also think the computers are missing the full impact of Ian Hummer, the Tigers’ departed Player of the Year (they were awful with Hummer on the bench last year), and also that three of Princeton’s five starters have an injury history. (I’d take Yale #2 right now, but without much conviction.)

Harvard, Princeton, Penn and Yale have been the clear top tier of the Ivy League for the past four seasons, and it will probably stay that way this year. Brown is probably the best of the remaining quartet, but the most likely to leap up to the top four might actually be Columbia — after two years of terrible close-game luck and a startlingly disappointing conference season in 2013, the three-point-happy Lions are the hardest team to predict.

So, will we see a repeat of 2012, with someone coming out of nowhere to challenge the Crimson for 14 games? Don’t bet on it. This year’s Harvard squad is more talented, and its competitors don’t look as strong — Princeton finished 2012 as a top-100 Pomeroy team, a level no second-tier Ivy contender is likely to reach this season, and Penn (135) and Yale (156) weren’t far behind. Right now, between Harvard’s hegemony and the lack of a conference tournament, Harvard might be the true mid-major most likely to reach the NCAA tournament.

Who’s returning?

The chart below shows the percentage of returning possession minutes for each Ivy League team in 2013-14. Introduced (I think) by John Templon of Big Apple Buckets, returning possession minutes is a statistic that weights a team’s returning players by both the number of minutes they played and the number of possessions they used when on the court, representing the amount of continuity on its roster. Teams listed in order of 2013 finish. (Note that Cornell’s already low RPM would be even worse without Shonn Miller, who is on the Big Red roster but might miss the full season due to injury.)

Ivy_League_Returning_Possession_Minutes_2013-14

Polling the polls

The composite Ivy League prediction, including polls and rankings from all corners of the Internet:

  1. Harvard, 103 pts (12 first-place)
  2. Yale, 80
  3. Princeton, 76 (1 — take a bow, Sporting News!)
  4. Penn, 73
  5. Brown, 51
  6. Dartmouth, 30.5
  7. Columbia, 29
  8. Cornell, 25.5

All-Ivy selections:

  • Wesley Saunders, Harvard (8 votes)
  • Siyani Chambers, Harvard (7)
  • Shonn Miller, Cornell (6) (presumably posted pre-injury news)
  • Sean McGonagill (6)
  • Fran Dougherty (4)

Ivy Player of the Year:

  • Wesley Saunders (6 votes)

Rankings and/or All-Ivy selections from: Ivy League media poll, College Basketball Talk, ESPN, The 14-Game Tournament, Athlon Sports, Blue Ribbon, College Sports Madness, Lindy’s, The Sporting News, City of Basketball Love/Big Apple Buckets, Dan Hanner, Ken Pomeroy, College Chalk Talk, TeamRankings.com.

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