College basketball preview: Balance gives Princeton the Ivy League edge
The crispness of the fall air, the orange hues that overtake the treetops, and the squeak of basketball sneakers in gymnasiums across the country.
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As much fun as Midnight Madness can be, the culmination of a long offseason is the tipoff of a team's first game. With the start of the 2016-17 season quickly approaching, NCAA.com is cracking the books and breaking things down in each of college basketball's 32 conferences.
Here’s our look at the Ivy League.
The 2015-16 Ivy League season featured one of the most intriguing two-team battles in the nation, with Yale and Princeton matching each other tit-for-tat throughout the season.
Heading into the month of March, each team had just one loss in conference play — a split of the two-game head-to-head battle, with each team holding down its home court.
This set up some very exciting circumstances, as the Ivy League was the last conference to not impose a conference tournament (that will change with the first-ever edition this season). That meant that if the teams finished with identical conference records, a one-game playoff would decide who is punching the ticket to the Big Dance.
But fortunately for Yale and unfortunately for fans of high-stakes basketball, Princeton was upset at Harvard in the third-to-last game, clearing the path for the Bulldogs to capture the Ivy League at 13-1.
Yale was not done there, however, as it earned a No. 12 seed and a meeting with Baylor in the first round of the NCAA tournament. There, the team impressed the nation with some clean, efficient basketball, shooting 53.1 percent from the field in a 79-75 upset win. Then-sophomore Makai Mason was the star, dropping a career-high 31 points.
That gave the Bulldogs a second-round matchup with fourth-seeded Duke in what would have been a massive upset. And with the Blue Devils up 23 points at the half, it looked like Yale would go down quietly.
But the Bulldogs came flying back in the second half, furiously cutting into the lead until it was down to three with under a minute left. Alas, Grayson Allen and Brandon Ingram made some big shots, sending Yale home just short of one of the tournament’s great comebacks.
Just about all of the talent that he was surrounded by last season is gone, but this year could be Mason’s time to shine after breaking out against Baylor in the tournament.
The Greenfield, Massachusetts native entered the NBA draft after becoming a household name but pulled out without hiring an agent, a new rule that allows players to return to school after testing the waters. He was impressive as a sophomore, averaging 16 points per game and almost four assists, though there are some red flags about him as the true go-to guy.
First, his field-goal percentage of 42.7 percent is going to have to improve if he’s going to be taking over 15 shots per game. Likewise, the 3.0 turnovers he averaged per game last year are concerning for someone who will have the ball in his hands all the time.
Still, the 6-foot-1 guard showed how great of a pure scorer he can be, and he is as good of a candidate to average 20 points per game as anyone in the country.
How he adjusts to the losses of Brandon Sherrod and 2015-16 Ivy League Player of the Year Justin Sears will be interesting to observe, as defenses will likely put a lot of extra attention on Mason. But that shouldn’t prevent him from getting plenty of buckets throughout the season.
Mason might be the best player in the conference, but Yale’s loss of talent is just too great, and as a result it dropped to third in the preseason media poll. Snagging the top spot was Princeton, which, in stark contrast to Yale, returns much of its top talent.
The Tigers have a trio of All-Ivy League selections back in Henry Caruso, Spencer Weisz and Steven Cook. For a team that only lost two games in conference play last season, having the same lineup plus an additional year of experience is a dangerous thought for the rest of the league.
Along with those three, Princeton should also get a boost from the return of Hans Brase, a big man who averaged double-digit scoring as a sophomore and junior. He missed all of last season with an injury, but he should immediately be plugged back in and give the Tigers a big weapon as a stretch big man who can also crash the boards.
Penn has been a middling program for years, as its 11 wins last year represented the most it has had in years. But, going along with the Princeton theme, experience is a very good thing, and as such the Quakers could make some noise in the Ivy League.
Penn returns four of its five starters, though that one loss is a pretty significant one in leading scorer and rebounder Darien Nelson-Henry. The Quakers might look to point guard Jackson Donahue to fill some of the scoring void with his outside shooting touch.
While not exactly a sleeper, Harvard should be right up there with Princeton and Yale. After dominating the league for a few years, the Crimson fell off last year in large part because of point guard Siyani Chambers suffering a torn ACL.
Well, now Chambers is back, and Harvard suddenly is looking very good again. Chambers is one of the best players in program history, not so much because of his individual numbers but because of how well he acts as a floor general and gets players in position to succeed. Harvard won the Ivy League in each of Chambers’ first three years as a starter, so he will look to cap off a perfect college career.
Freshman to watch
He might not log heavy minutes right away, but New Jersey native Bryce Aiken is a name that Ivy League viewers should get used to.
Aiken measures 6-foot if the scale is being generous, but he has a very smooth game when running the point. What’s better, he has about the best mentor a point guard could ask for in Chambers.
Aiken is part of a three-headed monster of impressive freshmen for the Crimson that also includes Seth Towns and Robert Baker. Really, any of the three could get the nod here, with Towns’ volume scoring ability and Baker’s incredible athleticism.
That trio should make coach Tommy Amaker very happy for the next four years.