Ivy League ShootAround: Can the Big Red repeat?

Updated: August 7, 2008

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Possible violations at Harvard has overshadowed the rest of the Ivy.

Ivy scandal overshadows Big Red Dance

On March 1, Cornell blasted Harvard to became the first team to qualify for the NCAA tournament and the first Ivy League champion in 20 seasons not named Penn or Princeton. With a storyline that big, who could have known that the loser of that game, the Crimson, would be the Ivy team in the national spotlight?

Part of the Big Red's below-the-fold Championship Week treatment was a byproduct of playing in the only league without a conference tournament. As such, Cornell had half a month to polish its trophy before drawing Stanford in the first round of the NCAAs.

The majority of Cornell's indifferent treatment, though, was because of the buzz from reports that fingered Harvard (of all places) for possible recruiting improprieties. Crimson head coach Tommy Amaker's March Madness involved tamping down dual fires regarding top prospect Frank Ben-Eze's academic credentials (he ultimately wasn't admitted and ended up at Davidson) and whether assistant coach Kenny Blakeney violated NCAA rules by playing pickup ball with a couple of Harvard prospects during a dead period last summer but before he was officially hired at Harvard.

Did Harvard do anything wrong? It depends who you ask, and what you ask about.

Regarding Ben-Eze, there were lingering questions as to whether the 6-foot-10 center would meet the high minimum standard for the Ivy League's complex Academic Index, which helps govern admissibility for athletes. Recruiting prospects who are under the threshold is not unusual across the Ivy; coaches find players who they hope can improve their grades and scores and meet the mark before an admissions decision is made. Harvard's admissions requirements, though, traditionally were the strictest in the league, making the reach for Ben-Eze, the 26th-ranked center in the Class of 2008, a story.

Amaker, for his part, thinks the furor is unfounded.

"I really don't have anything to add to it because we didn't do anything that we haven't always done here, which is try to attract the kids that belong here at Harvard," he said.

The school maintains that it didn't adjust its standards from prior years, though two former Crimson assistant coaches contradicted that position in a New York Times story.

If Ben-Eze's case is a sign of increased institutional commitment, Blakeney's could be one that causes increased scrutiny. According to Harvard and the league office, the school is looking into Blakeney's interactions in the pickup game with incoming freshmen Max Kenyi and Keith Wright. Once the inquiry is complete, the league will review it and report to the NCAA. That report will include proposed penalties, if any are deemed necessary.

Whether something more comes of the Harvard situation or not, the spotlight on the court this fall will be back on Cornell, with good reason. The defending champs return nearly their entire core, including the standout perimeter trio of wing Ryan Wittman (15.1 ppg, 4.2 rpg), shooting guard Adam Gore (10.2 ppg, 41.5 percent 3s) and point guard Louis Dale (13.7 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 4.9 apg), the league's Player of the Year. While head coach Steve Donahue noted that his team wasn't ready to win an NCAA tournament game in its first attempt, he expects the subpar performance against Stanford will serve as ample motivation.

"There's so much growth that these guys can have, that that's a challenge in itself," Donahue said. "I see and I know where each guy can be individually, how much better we can be. And I expect us to be there."

Five Things To Watch in '08-09

Can anyone challenge Cornell?
On paper, the only team that looks equipped to do so is perennial power Penn, which struggled badly with youth and injuries last season after capturing seven of the league's previous nine NCAA bids. After a horrid nonconference run in which the Quakers were 5-12, they still managed an 8-6, third-place Ivy finish. How can Penn close that gap on the Big Red, which was perfect in Ivy play? The Quakers should get a big boost in the backcourt with the anticipated return of Darren Smith, who was expected to lead Penn in scoring but fractured a kneecap in the season opener last year, and the arrival of highly touted point guard Zach Rosen of Saint Benedict's (N.J.). If defensive stalwart David Whitehurst can regain his eligibility and his form after missing the last two seasons with academic issues, he also could be an X-factor. Despite numerous flaws, last season's Quakers gave Cornell two of its tougher games in league play, and this season's version should be considerably better. But if it's not Penn …

Can anyone else emerge as a threat?
It looks unlikely. Brown (second place last season), Yale and Columbia (tied for fourth) all lost a lot to graduation. Princeton and Dartmouth don't have enough talent. If you have to pick a (very) dark horse, it might have to be Harvard. Yes, the Crimson finished 3-11 in league play last season, but they return virtually every rotation player from a team that upset Michigan in nonleague play. Also, despite losing top recruit Frank Ben-Eze, Tommy Amaker still has a solid freshman class coming in, so the battle for minutes should be competitive. The league looks wide open after Cornell and maybe Penn, and having an experienced returning core and an influx of young talent could pay immediate dividends in Cambridge. Given the league's history, it's hard to believe any program can make the leap from three wins to league champ in one season, but the Crimson look best positioned for a significant jump.

Will the Ivy champ win an NCAA game for the first time since 1998?
The odds aren't great. By historical Ivy standards, neither a Cornell or Penn champion this season will match up favorably with the best of the Penn and Princeton teams from the past two decades, and those programs only combined for three NCAA wins in 19 trips. That said, Cornell has beefed up its nonconference schedule this season in part to try to improve upon what was a 14-seed and terrible draw against Stanford in the NCAAs. If the Big Red can win a couple games against name opponents and make a similar dash through the league, they could give themselves a shot against a 4- or 5-seed and a better matchup, like 13th-seeded Siena got last season against 4-seed Vanderbilt.

Princeton's decline: Short-term fluke or big-time trouble?
Princeton was the No. 40 team in ESPN.com's Prestige Rankings but has won only five Ivy games over the past two seasons. And this season looks like it won't be much better. The Tigers lose Noah Savage, Kyle Koncz and and Lincoln Gunn, three of the four leading scorers on a team that had the seventh-worst scoring offense in the nation (57.7 ppg), and there is a lack of quality depth on the returning roster. While this year's freshman class for second-year coach Sydney Johnson has some promise, the Tigers still likely will need to get more out of junior guard Marcus Schroeder, who found himself in the doghouse down the stretch of last season. Princeton remains the league's national name program, but with only two NCAA appearances since its top-10 season in 1997-98 and one season of more than 16 wins in the last eight, how much longer can this go on before its overall reputation is diminished?

What can he do for Brown?
A second-place finish in 2003 helped propel Glen Miller to the Penn job in 2006. A second-place finish last season helped Craig Robinson move to Oregon State. Now assistant coach Jesse Agel takes over as the Bears' third head coach in four seasons, but with a platform of success -- and expectations -- greater than any of his predecessors at the program. In the short run, overcoming the loss of leading scorers Damon Huffman (who scored 39 points in a career-ending CBI loss at Ohio) and Mark McAndrew will be difficult, but Agel, a former Vermont assistant, already is making strides to keep the winning vibes going by adding local product T.J. Sorrentine to his staff. It was Sorrentine who nailed the deep 3 that helped the Vermont deep-six Syracuse in the first round of the 2005 NCAA tournament.

If I Were Commish …

Scholarships. The commissioner doesn't have a say in scholarships. It's up to each institution, but the commissioner should do everything in his power to influence the presidents to give out scholarships. That would change the way the Ivy does business. It's getting harder for the coaches to recruit with so many more schools giving financial aid.

A conference tournament would also add more drama to the league's representative and ensure that in February, everyone had something to play for down the stretch.

The league should consider getting rid of the Friday-Saturday format, too. Friday-Sunday makes much more sense. The back-to-back format, especially with travel included, creates too much of a home-court advantage.



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2008-09 Team Capsules

Ivy League
The Bears' offense will look a good deal different this season, and that's not just because they have a new coach. The graduation of Damon Huffman and Mark McAndrew means Brown will be without two players who took a combined 338 3s last season and made them at a 43.8 percent clip. The rest of the team took a total of 218. The good news starts with the return of jack-of-all-trades senior forward Chris Skrelja (8.4 ppg, 6.7 rpg and 4.1 apg). Sophomores Peter Sullivan and Adrian Williams (son of former Super Bowl-winning QB Doug Williams) should see a lot more minutes this year after playing complementary roles as freshmen.

The Lions were one of the Ivy teams most hurt by graduation, as first-team All-Ivy forward John Baumann departed, along with physical center Ben Nwachukwu (now at Harvard Medical School) and guard Mack Montgomery. The exits leave this feeling like a transitional year in Morningside Heights. The best news for the Lions is that they should get point guard Patrick Foley back into the mix. He played only nine games last season, and Columbia sorely missed his on-ball leadership. With Baumann's 16.1 points a game to replace, more pressure will fall on guards like Niko Scott and K.J. Matsui. Head coach Joe Jones is encouraged by his incoming freshman class, but it will take some time before they are collectively ready to make an impact.

The Big Red's only significant loss is forward Jason Hartford. While the competent Alex Tyler and others will step into the void, a team that already struggled at times on the glass may miss the physical Hartford's presence inside. On the perimeter, look for more of the same as Ryan Wittman, Adam Gore and Louis Dale make up a sweet-shooting perimeter. Last season, the Big Red finished in the nation's top 10 in both 3-point shooting (40.2 percent) and free-throw shooting (76.1 percent). Fun question to ponder: Depending on how Indiana's walk-on-laden roster pans out, could Cornell actually be favored in Bloomington this fall?

Athletic wing Alex Barnett is back for his senior season, but he won't have classmate DeVon Mosley running the point after Mosley left the program in the offseason. That could be a problem because many of the Big Green returnees were already high-turnover guys, and now they'll have an inexperienced lead guard running the offense.

The Crimson have a wealth of returning talent from a team that beat Michigan, head coach Tommy Amaker's former program, last season. The headliners are guards Drew Housman and Jeremy Lin and forward Evan Harris. This is going to be an upperclassman-oriented team in what is going to be a young league, so the Crimson could be much better defensively this season. They'll have to be if they want to compete for upper-division status. Freshman wing Max Kenyi is the best of a promising recruiting class that should add quality depth and a platform for growth for 2009-10 and beyond.

The Quakers' only real loss is do-it-all wing Brian Grandieri, but an influx of perimeter talent should boost Penn's offensive firepower while helping fix what was a leaky team defense last season. Even if David Whitehurst doesn't come back, a rotation of freshman point guard Zach Rosen, junior 2-guard Darren Smith, sophomore wing Tyler Bernardini and sophomore combo guard Harrison Gaines is a good match for Cornell's dynamic trio. Penn's chances to contend likely will depend on its frontcourt, where hard-working Jack Eggleston and mercurial Andreas Schreiber likely will be aided by freshman Mike Howlett, who spent a second prep season last year after decommitting from Lehigh. Even with all the new faces, one thing seems nearly certain: The Quakers will need at least three games to get over the .500 mark. Why? Their season opener is at North Carolina.

The Tigers bring back their leading scorer from last season in center Zach Finley (10.2 ppg, 4.4 rpg), along with Marcus Schroeder in the backcourt, so there is talent returning. However, while second-year head coach Sydney Johnson's recruiting class has promise, poor recruiting efforts in Joe Scott's final couple of seasons at Old Nassau have left the roster devoid of quality depth. Princeton, which averaged just 57.7 points a game last season, needs to improve offensively.

The Bulldogs will have to overcome serious graduation hits, as guard Eric Flato (11.9 ppg), twins Caleb and Nick Holmes and center Matt Kyle are all gone. On the plus side, returnees Ross Morin and Travis Pinick are all-league types, and guard Alex Zampier is back as well. For a team that plays as physically as the Bulldogs, they are a surprisingly poor offensive rebounding team. Last season, that was exacerbated by their turning the ball over on 22 percent of their possessions, making the offense inconsistent.

2007-08 Ivy League Standings

Overall record Ivy record
Cornell* 22-5 14-0
Brown 19-9 11-3
Penn 13-8 8-6
Columbia 14-15 7-7
Yale 13-15 7-7
Dartmouth 10-18 3-11
Harvard 8-22 3-11
Princeton 6-23 3-11
*NCAA tournament

For all the Ivy news and notes, check out the league page.

Top Returning Scorers

Player PPG
Alex Barnett, Dartmouth, Sr. 15.6
Ryan Wittman, Cornell, Jr. 15.4
Louis Dale, Cornell, Jr. 13.8
Tyler Bernardini, Penn, So. 12.9
Jeremy Lin, Harvard, Jr. 12.6

Top Returning Rebounders

Player RPG
Alex Barnett, Dartmouth, Sr. 7.3
Travis Pinick, Yale, Sr. 6.3
Evan Harris, Harvard, Sr. 5.6
Ross Morin, Yale, Sr. 5.4
Jeremy Lin, Harvard, Jr. 4.8

Final Shot

Just where do Penn and Princeton rank in the top 50 in ESPN.com's Prestige Rankings, a ranking of every college basketball team since the 1984-85 season? What about the rest of the Ivy League? Prestige Rankings

Cornell ended the Penn/Princeton stranglehold on the league's championship last season. Will the Big Red represent the Ivy in the 2009 NCAA tournament? Bracketology

• Missed the other conference breakdowns? Click here to check out the ShootArounds archive.