Ivy League Season Preview: Princeton, Harvard and Yale headline as league makes major changes

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Beginning in September and running up through November 11th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2016-2017 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Ivy League.

MORE: 2016-17 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

There will be a major change in the Ivy League that we saw last season and the one that will on display this season: No longer will the conference’s automatic bid be given to the regular season champion. The Ivy was the last conference to hold out, but starting this year, the league will be holding a four-team conference tournament at the Palestra in Philly, an event that should be terrific for college basketball junkies while, at the same time, eliminating the main quirk of the Ivy that made it so unique.

That said, there is some benefit here, as the conference may not be a true contender to get a second team into the dance. Without a conference tournament, the second place team would have to put together a good enough résumé to earn a bid, and that’s not an easy thing to do in a mid-major conference.

That would be significant for the conference, because it has had as much success in the NCAA tournament as any mid-major league in recent years. The league has five wins in the last seven tournaments, all as double-digit seeds, the most recent being Yale‘s upset win over No. 5 Baylor in the first round last year. The Elis lose Justin Sears and Brandon Sherrod, but they bring back Makai Mason, the league’s Preseason Player of the Year and one of the best point guards in college basketball at any level. The 6-foot-1 junior averaged 16.0 points and 3.8 assists last season, has been working out with the German national team and made his name nationally with a 31-point performance in the win over Baylor.

Mason is going to need some help to step up this season, and there are options. Seniors Sam Downey and Anthony Dallier should be ready for bigger roles, while James Jones has added a slew of young talent in the last two recruiting classes. Those youngsters will have to step up if Yale is going to beat out Princeton and Harvard for a second straight league title.

BALTIMORE, MD - DECEMBER 19: Henry Caruso #21 of the Princeton Tigers dribbles past Melo Trimble #2 of the Maryland Terrapins during the second half at Royal Farms Arena on December 19, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. The Maryland Terrapins won, 82-61.(Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Henry Caruso of the Princeton Tigers (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Last season, Princeton was probably good enough to win the league. They finished 12-2 in the regular season, which, in most years, would have been enough to at least earn a shot at a playoff. Not so last year, but the good news is that the Tigers return essentially everyone from last season: Henry Caruso, Devin Cannady, Spencer Qeisz, Steven Cook, Amir Bell. They also get Hans Brase, a double-figure scorer in 2014-15, back from a torn ACL and return a myriad of young talent for depth. To me, Princeton is probably the favorite to win the Ivy this year.

But Harvard isn’t all that far behind, assuming that Siyani Chambers returns from his torn ACL at 100 percent. Chambers has been a star in the league since his freshman season and led the Crimson to a pair of NCAA tournament wins, but as a senior, he sat out following the injury. Tommy McCarthy had his moments in a promising freshman year starting in Chambers’ place, and that duo, combined with Zena Edosomwan in the middle, perhaps the best inside-outside punch in the league. The key for Edosomwan is consistency, and if he shows up to play every night, Tommy Amaker has enough talent around that trio to win any game on any floor in the league.

After those three, the Ivy is fairly open, which makes things interesting. Remember, that fourth-place finisher gets the last bid to the Ivy League tournament and a shot at the NCAA tourney.

With former Cornell coach Steve Donahue leading the way, Penn was much better late in the year than they were early in the season. And keep in mind, Penn would be playing home games at the Palestra. A team with 11 freshmen and sophomores returns four starters and may be the best of the rest. Dartmouth‘s Evan Boudreaux, who averaged better than 20 points and 10 boards in league play as a freshman, should at least keep the Big Green relevant, and the same could be said of Cornell‘s Matt Morgan, a sophomore that averaged 22.6 points in league play last year.

Both Cornell and Dartmouth underwent coaching changes this offseason, as did Columbia, who saw Jim Engles replace Kyle Smith. The Lions are in a bit of a rebuilding stage with the graduation of Maodo Lo and Alex Rosenberg. Brown brings back four starters, but they do so from a team that finished tied for last in the conference.

 

PRESEASON IVY PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Makai Mason, Yale

The performance that he had in last year’s NCAA tournament not withstanding, Mason averaged 16.0 points and 3.8 assists for the Elis last season. I think Yale is going to remain relevant in the Ivy League title race, and for them to be able to do that with Sears and Sherrod gone, Mason is going to have to go nuts this year.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON ALL-IVY TEAM:

  • Siyani Chambers, Harvard: The ACL worries me, but with his track record, he’s on this list until it’s clear he’s not himself.
  • Henry Caruso, Princeton: Caruso’s numbers won’t jump off the stat sheet like some of the other guys in the league, but he’s a major reason the Tigers are as good as they’ve been.
  • Matt Morgan, Cornell: His numbers will likely take a hit with the new coaching staff and style of play, but this kid, as a freshman, averaged 22.6 points in Ivy League play. That’s nuts.
  • Zena Edosomwan, Harvard: He’s the most talented big man in the conference. The question is whether or not he proves as much on a nightly basis.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @ivybball

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Princeton
2. Harvard
3. Yale
4. Penn
5. Cornell
6. Columbia
7. Dartmouth
8. Brown