Last season was one of the best years the Ivy League has seen in recent memory. It featured an incredibly competitive one through seven in the league, was chock-full of stars, and even saw a Cinderella run to the Sweet 16.
However, it has seen a lot of last year's talent leave the conference ahead of this upcoming season. Of the ten players selected to All-Conference teams, only three remain at their school this season — Matt Knowling (Yale), Kino Lilly Jr. (Brown), and Matt Allocco (Princeton).
For my money, the Ivy League was genuinely on the short list of best mid-major conferences a season ago. Tosan Evbuomwan (Princeton) finds himself now on an NBA roster, and a few Ivy transfers look to provide an immediate impact at Power 6 schools as well.
But, the conference still should be plenty competitive this next year — especially at the top.
Without further adieu, let's break down the Ivy League schools and provide a ceiling and a floor for them. Teams are listed in the order predicted them to finish.
1. Yale Bulldogs
Coach: James Jones
Last Season: 21-9, 10-4
Ceiling: 1st in the Ivy Floor: 2nd in the Ivy
Key Departures: EJ JARVIS (11.3 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 1.5 bpg), ISAIAH KELLY (6.3 ppg, 3.7 rpg)
Without Question, James Jones' team should be the frontrunner this season for the Ivy crown. The Bulldogs return essentially everyone outside of Isaiah Kelly and EJ Jarvis. It tallies up to be 75% of their points and minutes from last year are returning. All-Ivy selection Matt Knowling is back (13.6 ppg, 4.8 rpg) who shot well over 60% from the floor a season ago.
Knowling is one of the few players in the Ivy this year with the ability to truly take over a game. His speed and athleticism when guarded by a big makes him sensationally tough to guard. Put a smaller body on him and Knowling will comfortably play back to the basket. But what really makes Knowling special is his lower mid-range ability. Matt shot 55.6% from between four and ten feet (per CBB Analytics), which marks him as potentially the most lethal non-at-the-rim finisher in the sport.
However, Knowling wasn't exactly the poster child for consistency last season. Despite being the highest-scoring Bulldog on the season on a per-game basis, in three of Yale's last four games, Knowling tallied just six or fewer points. Now, he was fighting through an injury during the second half of last season, which surely had an impact. If he's able to provide a little more consistency, there are not many people stopping Matt Knowling from becoming the Ivy League Player of the Year.
The reigning Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year is also back, Bez Mbeng. Mbeng scored over 10 points per contest, however on only moderate efficiency (43% from the floor). If he's able to provide a little more steady offensive play, Mbeng has an opportunity to break out as one of the best players in the conference. Mbeng's defensive prowess tends to make opposing guards quite uncomfortable getting into the offense.
Mbeng is joined in the backcourt by a pair of upperclass sharpshooters in John Poulakidas (12.0 ppg) and August Mahoney (10.9 ppg). Both shot over 40% from beyond the arc a season ago on 289 combined attempts. The three of them will shoulder the vast majority of the backcourt minutes, but expect sophomore Casey Simmons to contribute a bit as well. Simmons, a Northwestern transfer, provides another solid wing defender. When he and Mbeng are on the court together, opposing teams are going to have a tough go of things. James Jones calls Simmons "one of the fastest players we've ever had at Yale."
Now, Isaiah Kelly and EJ Jarvis aren't the easiest guys to replace. Those two combined for 17.6 ppg and 9.3 rpg, but those things are replaceable. The real thing they'll miss without Jarvis is an elite rim protector and true toughness down low. They'll have to rely on the 6'6, 205-pound Matt Knowling for a lot of the dirty work down low. They'll also bank on sophomore Danny Wolf growing into a rim protector. Wolf was a non-factor last season for the Bulldogs, but had an excellent showing in the FIBA U20 event this summer playing for Israel. He'll likely be slotted into the starting role at the 5 to begin the year.
All in all, I'd be shocked if this team didn't win the Ivy and have a top 50-ish KenPom team this season.
Non-Conference games to watch: Nov. 10 @Gonzaga, Dec. 22 @Kansas
2. Cornell Big Red
Coach: Brian Earl
Last Season: 17-11, 7-7
Ceiling: 1st in the Ivy Floor: 4th in the Ivy
Key Departures: GREG DOLAN (13.3 ppg, 3.5 apg)
Brian Earl has quietly been building something at Cornell. In his first five seasons with the Big Red, he amounted a 42-73 record. In his last two years, Cornell has been 32-22 and have been much more competitive in the league. This year, the Big Red have the roster to be right in the mix atop the conference.
Coach Earl returns six players who averaged 20 minutes per game last season — while Greg Dolan (13.3 ppg) was the only departure of note. There was real buzz in Ithaca last year after a 15-5 start, but Cornell ran out of gas late - losing 6 of their last 8 games. Cornell runs a very up-tempo system, especially for the Ivy League. So, having the depth and legs to run that system for 30+ games is exceptionally important. The tail end of last year saw the whole starting lineup just wear down.
This time around they are older, deeper, and have the looks of a team that will compete all season long. They'll star four seniors and a junior, with the backcourt carrying much of the production load. Nazir Williams (12.9 ppg) and Isaiah Gray (8.8 ppg) make a neat one-two punch in the backcourt. Williams shot the three at a 41% clip last year and will have to pick up some of the production in the wake of Dolan's departure.
Isaiah Gray is a solid two-way player, but he along with Chris Manon on the wing will have to shoot the ball with more efficiency. Manon led the country in steal rate, and Gray was in the top 250 as well. They'll create some opportunities on the defensive end for sure. But, the duo only shot 30% from deep on right around 100 attempts. That'll need to change.
The interior will also see three upperclassmen vying for the majority of the minutes. Senior Sean Hansen highlights the group, scoring 8.7 ppg and collecting 4.4 rpg a season ago.
3. Princeton Tigers
Coach: Mitch Henderson
Last Season: 23-9, 10-4
Ceiling: 2nd in the Ivy Floor: 4th in the Ivy
Key Departures: TOSAN EVBUOMWAN (15.1 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 4.9 apg), RYAN LANGBORG (12.7 ppg), KEESHAWN KELLMAN (7.9 ppg, 4.5 rpg)
Tiger fans will remember last March for a long, long time. Tosan Evbuomwan led Princeton to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament, after knocking off both Arizona and Missouri. It was truly a special ride, but one that seems infinitely less likely this season.
Head coach Mitch Henderson has a lot of work ahead of him, heading into a season without both Tosan nor offensive creator Ryan Langborg. Fortunately, Henderson has been incredibly reliable, having only one sub-.500 season at the helm in eleven seasons.
This year for Princeton, it all starts with senior guard Matt Allocco. Allocco averaged just over 10 points per game, but he's about to see a much higher usage rate. Allocco is a sure-handed guard with some size and shooting ability. He'll have a trio of partners in the backcourt, all of which have a little less experience.
Blake Peters and Xaivian Lee both have a little less size. However, Lee showed well in the FIBA U19 tournament this year, representing Canada. Deven Austin is the other true ball handler to know. Austin has a little more size at 6'6, and shot the ball quite well on small volume a season ago.
Caden Pierce also returns this season. Pierce, a sophomore forward, averaged 8.2 points and 7.3 rebounds per contest. He could be a break out candidate as a sophomore, especially with the ball being in his hands more this year. The only problem is he and Zach Martini will likely be the starting frontcourt. Both are fine pieces, but they are 6'6 and 6'7. Bigger interiors could be successful pounding the ball inside. Henderson will have to be crafty to mitigate the damage done on the blocks.
All in all, they bring back enough to contend among the top four of the league, but I don't think they have the juice to challenge Yale for the championship. Spots two through five or six will be murky in the Ivy this year — and in cases like that, you look for coaching advantages. Mitch Henderson is among the best.
4. Pennsylvania Quakers
Coach: Steve Donahue
Last Season: 17-13, 9-5
Ceiling: 4th in the Ivy Floor: 6th in the Ivy
Key Departures: JORDAN DINGLE (23.4 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 2.3 apg), MAX MARTZ (10.8 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 1.1 apg), LUCAS MONROE (4.9 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 2.1 apg), JONAH CHARLES (4.0 ppg, 1.7 rpg, 0.7 apg)
Steve Donahue enters year one post-Jordan Dingle. This Quakers team has probably more questions than any other team in the conference. A lot of the pieces coming back are easy to fall in love with — but replacing what they lost is no easy feat. I ended up putting them second because I love the ceiling. However, if we looked up in February and Penn was in 6th in the Ivy, I wouldn't be all that dumbfounded.
The lead is certainly the loss of Dingle (23.4 ppg), who transferred to St. John's. Essentially everything Penn did offensively a season ago either ran through Dingle, or action was created because of the attention he drew from the defense. They also lost the likes of Jonah Charles and Lucas Monroe, who were consistent rotation pieces.
It got even worse late this summer when Max Martz declared he was stepping away from basketball and entering 'medical retirement' from the game. Martz was a 40% three-point shooter that also won't be easily replaced.
But not all is doom and gloom for Donahue's bunch. Clark Slajchert is back, who averaged nearly 14 points per game playing second-fiddle to Dingle. In an expanded on-the-ball roll, Slajchert has the skill set to be an All-Ivy guy, and could potentially lead the league in points. He's joined in the backcourt by a couple of program veterans in Andrew Laczkowski (2.3 ppg, 2.2 rpg) and George Smith (5.6 ppg, 46.3% from three).
Laczkowski, a 6'6 senior, provides some defensive length and although last year's numbers don't show it, is a competent shooter. George Smith is a guy who has to reach another level for Penn to succeed. If he can maintain his shooting efficiency while vastly increasing the volume, that changes the equation for Donahue.
Fortunately for the Quakers, Nick Spinoso also returns on the interior. Spinoso is a craft finisher around the rim and a solid post defender. His spin move to clear space down low is perhaps my favorite 'signature move' in college basketball. (And it shouldn't have been called a foul down the stretch in the Ivy League Tournament, and yes, I'm definitely over it). He's good enough down low to mitigate the inexperience of whoever ends up being his starting frontcourt mate. It could be Johnnie Walter, a 6'10 CSUN transfer. Or, Donahue could insert Eddie Holland, a program veteran, into a starting role. Holland averaged just 3.5 points per game last year.
Spinoso and Slajchert are adults in the room that have enough skill to keep Penn afloat post-Dingle. But the role players will have to really improve for Penn to get back to Ivy Madness. I think they do it.
5. Brown Bears
Coach: Mike Martin
Last Season: 14-17, 7-7
Ceiling: 3rd in the Ivy Floor: 6th in the Ivy
Key Departures: PAXSON WOJCIK (14.9 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 3.2 apg), DAN FRIDAY (7.7 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 2.7 apg)
If it won't be Matt Knowling of Yale, my money is on Kino Lilly Jr. to win Ivy Player of the Year. Lilly averaged 17 points per game while shooting 40% from three a season ago while also being a feisty perimeter defender, averaging over one steal a game. Two years ago, Lilly won Freshman of the Year, and he parlayed that to a First Team All-Ivy last season. He could take another leap and become one of the best mid-major guards in the entire country.
With that being said, Brown doesn't really bring in any needle-movers to a team that was just 7-7 in conference play a season ago. Oh, and that was with Paxson Wojcik, who was second on the team in scoring, at 14.9 ppg. Wojcik transferred to North Carolina where he should see an extended role off the bench due to his offensive production.
Brown was a quality defensive team last year, boasting a top-100 KenPom defense. They also cleaned up the glass quite well, with the best defensive rebounding rate in the conference. Neither of those things will get worse with the departure of Wojcik or Dan Friday.
Nana Owusu-Anane forms a solid P&R connection will Kino Lilly; anticipate him to be an even bigger part of the offense this season. Anane averaged 10 points and 8 rebounds, while also collecting a pair of assists per game. It helps the cause having him and a fully healthy Kalu Anya both back for Mike Martin's group. Anya was hurt the back half of the season, but when he was healthy made a tangible difference on the defensive end.
The deciding factor for how Brown's season goes will be shooting. The starting wings, Kimo Ferrari and Aaron Cooley aren't proven shooters. Without Wojcik, those will have to be the guys that knock down the open triples provided by Lilly off the bounce. The opportunities will arise frequently, with how potent the P&R game is with Lilly and Anane. Will they improve their shooting and get back to Ivy Madness? Only time will tell.
6. Dartmouth Big Green
Coach: Dave McLaughlin
Last Season: 10-18, 6-8
Ceiling: 4th in the Ivy Floor: 7th in the Ivy
Key Departures: DAME ADELEKUN (13.8 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 2.5 apg), CAM KRYSTKOWIAK (4.9 ppg, 3.2 rpg)
Dave McLaughlin enters his eighth year having never been particularly close to a season finishing at or above .500. This season it's put up or shut up for McLaughlin. He has a lot of returning experience and enough shot-making to end up in the top five of the league.
Ryan Cornish will likely be the focal point offensively. The do-it-all junior guard averaged 12.5 points per game last season and showed flashes of true brilliance. On a night in late January, Cornish hung 31 points on Princeton. He can score it all three levels, and McLaughlin was not shy to praise his leadership at the Ivy League media day.
The real question is in the frontcourt. Dame Adelekun led the team by a wide margin on the boards. When Adelekun wasn't on the floor, Dartmouth was the worst offensive rebounding team in the conference. The inability to generate any sort of second opportunities hurt them in conference play.
Sophomores Jackson Munro and Brandon Mitchell-Day will have to play expanded roles down low this season. Both are 6'8 and have the ability to step out and hit the occasional three. Unfortunately, outside of the two 6'8 sophomores, the tallest rotation player on the roster will be 6'6. It'll be hard for the Big Green to compete with bigger teams.
Shooting will be a strength of the team. The Big Green had eight rotation players shoot higher than 30% from three a season ago. Yet they still finished near 300th in offensive efficiency on KenPom. The reason? Turnovers. Last season, they turned the ball over on higher than 20% of their offensive possessions. If they're near that number this year, it'll be more of the same - despite welcoming shooting splits.
7. Columbia Lions
Coach: Jim Engles
Last Season: 7-22, 2-12
Ceiling: 6th in the Ivy Floor: 8th in the Ivy
Key Departures: CAMERON SHOCKLEY-OKEKE (5.3 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 1.3 apg)
That's right, you heard me. Columbia is making it out of the cellar this year. They've been really young the past couple of years, and now they have the experience and hopefully a more effective offense this season to make the jump.
They return their seven top scorers on a per game basis from last season. A sophomore (Geronimo Rubio De La Rosa) led the team in scoring, and four true freshman averaged 18 or more minutes per game. This core will look to build on the experiences they had last year and get Jim Engles is first top six Ivy finish.
It's really hard to win with freshman, especially when they aren't heralded as top recruits. This season, Engles will profit on what this group endured last season. But, just because you have more experience doesn't mean you 'll catapult all of your metrics. Columbia was one of the worst twenty teams in college basketball last season, per KenPom. Brown was 6th at 175th, Columbia was 341st. That's a steep climb, assuming conference metrics stood stagnant.
Zine Eddine Bedri is the guy down low I look toward to make a jump in his second year. At a lanky 6'10, he has the wingspan and ability to challenge a lot of shots at the rim. Last year, he felt lost in space a lot of times defensively and other teams actually worked the offense to target him in the post. If he can be the rim protector that he ought to be, that would help a ton.
Rubio De La Rosa (13.6 ppg) and Avery Brown (9.7 ppg) will both need to bump up their efficiency and scoring output. With less scoring ability on the wings, it puts more pressure on the backcourt tandem that shot a combined 35% from three a season ago. I'd like to see De La Rosa be more aggressive with the ball in his hands.
The experience is finally at a competitive level, but Columbia will had to have had an excellent offseason to see anything higher than 7th in the conference.
8. Harvard Crimson
Coach: Tommy Amaker
Last Season: 14-14, 5-9
Ceiling: 7th in the Ivy Floor: 8th in the Ivy
Key Departures: CHRIS LEDLUM (18.8 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 1.5 apg), DAN TRETOUT (9.7 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 2.1 apg), SAMUEL SILVERSTEIN (7.2 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 1.6 apg), LUKA SAKOTA (7.1 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 1.7 apg)
Harvard has been in a bit of a funk since the pandemic. In ten of Amaker's thirteen pre-pandemic seasons at Harvard, the Crimson had ten winning seasons. Post-pandemic, Harvard is a paltry 27-27. His schemes haven't been quite as efficacious and this season the talent turnover is simply going to be too much to overcome.
Including Evan Nelson, who is out for the year due to injury, Harvard loses five of its six leading scorers from just a 5-9 conference team to begin with. The biggest loss is Chris Ledlum (18.8 ppg), who transferred to St. John's to play for Rick Pitino.
What's left of the roster isn't all that appetizing. Louis Lesmond is the only player returning who played over 20 minutes per contest, and he wasn't all that efficient with that playing time. Down low, they should be alright defensively, with Justice Ajogbar at the rim. He's a long 6'10 that will probably be up at the top of the Ivy in blocks per game.
They also return zero proven shooting. Zero. Their starting backcourt of Pigge and Wojcik are a combined 7/55 from deep in college. 12%! As a starting backcourt! Maybe a few of the freshman work out and they find themselves in 6th in the Ivy. But I don't see it. This team is going to really struggle.
We'll leave it at that with the Crimson.