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Mike Lopresti | | December 15, 2022

Uncovering the surprising early success stories in Ivy League men's basketball

Purdue remains No. 1, Alabama slides into top 10 of Power 36 college basketball rankings

You have to love the Ivy League this season. It’s not just cramming for the economics finals, though that’s been going on lately, too.

“Before the games I’ve got guys studying (in the locker room),” Yale coach James Jones was saying the other day. “So their focus and concentration has shifted because they have to do both.”

But while the Ivy League books are demanding attention, so is the basketball. Been that way since the pre-season poll that was so close you could throw a polo shirt over the favorites. Penn first, Princeton second, Yale third — all of them separated by just five voting points.

Next thing we knew, Yale was off to its best start since 1945 and Princeton was winning eight in a row and a Penn Quaker named Jordan Dingle was running up scoring numbers not seen in more than half a century. Also, Brown was busing 30 miles down the road for a victory at the University of Rhode Island, where the Bears had lost 19 times in a row going back 40 years.

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So what exhilarating feat might happen next?

That takes us to this coming Saturday in the JMA Wireless Dome at Syracuse. Cornell will be in town. Care to guess the last time the Big Red beat the Orange in this colorful mix of nicknames?

Gas was 34 cents a gallon. NASA was planning to land a man on the moon. The New York Jets, with dashing young quarterback Joe Namath, were looking like contenders to play in the third AFL-NFL World Championship Game, although someone had come up with a cute new name for the event. The Super Bowl.

In other words, December 1968. Eleven US presidents and 41 Cornell losses ago. The day that Big Red victory happened, the Scranton Miners of the Eastern Professional Basketball League had a guard named Jim Boeheim, though he was thinking about getting into coaching.

Saturday, Cornell will be facing his 47th Syracuse team.

The Big Red are 7-2 and a fascinating bunch that nearly beat Boston College and Miami on their own floors. The 12th highest scoring offense in the nation, though their leading point producer is tied for 329th. They’ll arrive in the Dome 0-41 against the Orange since 1968 and 0-39 against the ACC the past 60 years, and maybe this is the day all that will end. The coach, Brian Earl, was nine years away from being born the last time Cornell beat Syracuse.

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“We haven’t talked about it much. I know it’s been a while,” he said over the phone this week. “We haven’t thought about what will happen if there’s a win, we’re just trying to figure out how we can.”

It’d be the year for it because the Ivy League has been full of unusual doings.

Take the scoring machine who is Jordan Dingle. When he hasn’t been taking classes in Penn’s prestigious Wharton School of Business, he turned Philadelphia’s Big 5 into his own personal highlight show. In an 11-day scoring spree, he had, in order, 28 points against Saint Joseph’s, 37 against La Salle, 25 against Villanova and 30 against Temple. During an eight-minute stretch in the second half of the Villanova game, he outscored the Wildcats by himself 18-15. The 120 total points set a Big 5 record that had stood since 1967. His overall 24.1 scoring average is currently third in the nation and close to the lead. The last Ivy League national scoring champion was Yale’s Tony Lavelli in 1949.

P.S. Dingle’s father Dana started for John Calipari’s 1996 Final Four team at Massachusetts.

Or take Princeton, where the Tigers reeled off eight wins in a row before losing at Iona. But the Ivy League is still the Ivy League. It was during a first-half timeout that the Iona announcer reminded the crowd that Princeton was ranked the No. 1 school in the nation by U.S. News and World Report.

Or take Yale, where the 8-1 start was the best in 77 years. Then the Bulldogs headed off to dangerous places. First, Butler, where the Bulldogs were 69-2 in their previous 71 non-conference home games, and then Kentucky’s Rupp Arena, where John Calipari was 211-17.

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They lost 71-61 to Butler and 69-59 at Kentucky — they’re now 9-3 — though they led the Wildcats in the second half despite injured leading scorer Matt Knowling missing. Besides, this is all about getting ready for conference play. Going into the 2015-16 season, Yale had not been in the NCAA tournament since 1962. Now Jones, the dean of the Ivy League in his 24th season, has gotten them qualified four times in seven years. Not bad for a guy who started out in the business world as an executive account manager.

“I remember when I used to work out in the morning and I’d be at the gym at 6 o’clock by myself, and the only light that was on was to exercise,” he said. “I remember getting chills, I was envisioning winning and going into the NCAA tournament. Now that you’ve done it, it’s like all the hard work and effort that you put in paid off. It doesn’t always happen. A lot of people work hard and never get to the point they want to get to. Yale gave me time to build it and make it happen.

“I didn’t know what I was meant to do in life. But I found it. And I got lucky. I’m the luckiest man you’re ever going to meet.”

And with Saturday coming, take Cornell. The Big Red have already endured agonizing ACC near-misses, losing to Boston College 79-77 and Miami in a 107-105 shootout after rallying from 21 points behind. This is the same highly combustible offense that was behind Delaware by 11 points with 4:10 left and went on a 20-2 tear, then trailed Lafayette by six with 3:10 remaining and closed the game 11-0.

“It’s like trying to catch a runaway train,” Miami coach Jim Larranaga said of slowing down Cornell. “We’re not used to defending a team that can score that well in the open court.”

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The Big Red put up more than 85 points a game, but you’d never know looking at individual averages. Greg Dolan’s 13.9 is the highest, but seven more chip in at least 7.6. This offense by committee leads the nation in 3-point attempts and is second in 3-pointers scored and assists per game, No one in the nine-man rotation has more turnovers than assists.

“If shots go in, we’re a dangerous team,” Earl said. “Our guys at this point know that we’re not sure where the points are going to come from. We’ve had a lot of guys just over double figures and sort of win as a team. They’re catching on that that’s important for us.”

And they’ve come so close. Boston College beat them at the buzzer. Miami had to frantically hold them back. Where’s that leave a team?

“Pretty hungry,” Earl said. “We’re not saying, `hey we gave it a good college try.’ We’re still not over losing the BC game. One of these days we’ve got to stop learning the lesson and take a win away from something if we want to be a very good team.”

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Maybe this weekend, though it’s been a challenge preparing for such a task during an Ivy League finals week. Earl has had players missing practice for exams and extra reading. “It’s probably harder than other places but that’s why they’re here,” Earl said. “We make sure to let them know that not a lot of people can do what they do, but you’ve got to get through it.

“It’s difficult but there’s a lot more in life that can be more difficult.”

Speaking of difficult, is it time for them at last against Syracuse? “We haven’t been able to get across that hump,” Earl said of two ACC losses this season by four points. Maybe now. Or maybe not, The Orange are 7-4 and have won four in a row. But unusual forces have been at work in the Ivy League. Syracuse has been duly warned.

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