The old phrase “What a difference a year makes” normally has positive connotations. For the Ivy League following the 2014-15 season, however, the opposite would be true. At a time when the league appeared to be in a big up cycle, the rise didn’t quite continue this season.
There was very good basketball in the Ivy League, to be sure. Harvard and Yale set the pace with good non-league showings, with the Bulldogs pulling out the league’s signature victory at UConn in December. The middle of the pack was pretty good – perhaps better than one might have expected given the adversity some teams faced. But there’s no two ways about it: the league went from five postseason teams in 2013-14 to just two this time around. And while postseason bids is a very imperfect way to measure a league, it’s certainly one way to do it.
In fact, the Ivy League has had a great run of postseason play, as this was the fifth time in six years that multiple teams made it to postseason play. Getting five in postseason play last season – more than half of the league’s teams – was a feather in the league’s cap.
Perhaps no one better epitomized this change than Yale, though some of the end result was out of their control. The Bulldogs had the regular season title right there, needing only a win at Dartmouth to take it home. They had the lead for over 36 minutes, including the entire second half, until Dartmouth tied the game with 13 seconds left. Yale regained the lead on a free throw with 2.5 seconds left, then deflected a length-of-the-court pass out of bounds with 1.9 seconds left. The Big Green then converted a layup and foul, then intentionally missed the free throw to hand the Bulldogs a heart-breaking loss.
Then the Bulldogs lost in the one-game playoff and were left out of postseason play entirely, a shocking development. In part, they were a victim of timing with regard to even the CIT, as many teams accepted bids in the week leading up to the playoff and a number of matchups were set by the time the playoff game tipped. You would think the NIT would have taken them, but no such luck.
The team on the other end of the game-changing outcome, Dartmouth, was the other postseason team in the league. The Big Green have put together some good recruiting classes of late to boost their talent base, and have had fits and starts in terms of the win-loss column in Paul Cormier’s second tenure. This season, they may have made a nice step forward. Getting to postseason play for the first time since 1959 is certainly a plus, as is having the Rookie of the Year.
With the end of the season came the end of Jerome Allen’s tenure at Penn. One of the all-time great Quakers, Allen was never able to get untracked as the head coach there despite having good talent. Injuries were a constant and that never helped, but at the end of the day the Quakers were basically never better than the sum of their parts. Steve Donahue, a one-time assistant at Penn who led Cornell to three straight titles before going to Boston College, was hired to replace Allen a year after being let go in Chestnut Hill.
Normally, of course, the Ivy League does not have a tournament. But when Harvard and Yale ended up tied after 14 games, the running joke was that the Ivy League was having a tournament. Of course, it was a simple one-game playoff, the ninth in league history and the first one to not involve Princeton. This time, it was held at the Palestra the day before Selection Sunday. It was a close game for much of the afternoon, and it took a Steve Moundou-Missi jumper with 7.2 seconds left to lift Harvard to a 53-51 win over the Bulldogs to take the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Player of the Year: Justin Sears, Yale
Rookie of the Year: Miles Wright, Dartmouth
Coach of the Year: James Jones, Yale
Defensive Player of the Year: Steve Moundou-Missi, Harvard
Javier Duren, Sr. G, Yale
Maodo Lo, Jr. G, Columbia
Shonn Miller, Jr. F, Cornell
Wesley Saunders, Sr. G, Harvard
Justin Sears, Jr. F, Yale
- The league posted its best non-league record since the 2011-12 season, and had a .500 or better non-league record for the fourth time in five seasons.
- Yale went to UConn and beat the Huskies in Storrs, an exceedingly rare occurrence.
- Yale finished in the top four in the Ivy League for the 15th straight season – every year under James Jones.
- Yale senior forward Matt Townsend was named a Rhodes Scholar.
- Brown big man Cedric Kuakumensah became the program’s all-time leader in blocked shots, and will start next season just 18 shy of the league’s all-time record.
What we expected, and it happened: Harvard and Yale battled it out for the top spot. They looked like the two best teams coming into the season and lived up to it.
What we expected, and it didn’t happen: Columbia was thought to be a dark horse contender, but never quite recovered from a season-ending injury to Alex Rosenberg. Maodo Lo had a terrific season, but the Lions, who gave Kentucky all they could handle for a while, were fighting uphill all along.
What we didn’t expect, and it happened: Dartmouth was a tough team to project. They had shown both signs of progress and things to be concerned about. The Big Green played spoiler and also finished alone in fourth place at 7-7, a positive step forward.
Team(s) on the rise: Columbia. The Lions fought valiantly without Rosenberg, and they get him back to go with Lo to form what should be the best one-two punch in the league. Isaac Cohen has quietly become a steady floor leader as well, and Kyle Castlin showed promise as a freshman.
Team(s) on the decline: Harvard. Okay, this isn’t a prediction that the Crimson are about to slip back into irrelevance or even out of contention. They will probably still be most people’s favorite heading into next season. But if we’re honest, we recognize how much the seniors in the last two classes have meant to this program. Kyle Casey, Brandyn Curry, Wesley Saunders and Steve Moundou-Missi are going to be incredibly tough to replace, no matter how talented this team is as a whole. It’s time for the likes of Agunwa Okolie, Evan Cummins and Zena Edosomwan, who have patiently waited their turn and contributed as role players, to become key players.
2015-16 Ivy League Outlook
Do you pick against Harvard at this point? Despite heavy personnel losses the past two seasons, the Crimson still have the best point guard in the league in Siyani Chambers returning, and they play arguably the best kind of team basketball in the country. That, and the winning experience of this team means no matter how tempting it might be to pick someone else to win the league, you do so at your own peril. However, the Crimson will be far from prohibitive favorites if picked to win.
The same goes for Yale. All James Jones does is finish in the top half of the league and contend for a title a good amount of the time. The Bulldogs will greatly miss Javier Duren, as well as Matt Townsend and Armani Cotton, but return the reigning Player of the Year and a solid cast around him.
Elsewhere, Princeton will be Princeton, which means the Tigers should still be a team to be reckoned with. Columbia has potential with Rosenberg returning around a solid supporting cast. Brown could be the sleeper, as the Bears had a lot of growing pains this season but should have a team full of players more ready for the roles they will have to play. Losing rebounding machine Rafael Maia will hurt, so they will need someone to step up as a presence alongside Kuakumensah.
Looking further, Dartmouth already lost Gabas Maldunas to graduation and then watched Alex Mitola graduate early and transfer to George Washington, which will sting. That makes the Big Green a tougher team to project. Cornell loses Shonn Miller, and Penn could be the wild card with new head coach Steve Donahue inheriting a cast that is not lacking talent.
The Ivy League has had a good run the last few years, though going from five to two postseason teams wasn’t what the doctor ordered. Still, the league heads into next year in a good place, and with the look of a highly competitive race for the title as well.