There’s nothing like a good old study in contrasts to remind us of the crucial roles various factors can play in the NCAA basketball postseason.
For instance, compare the March Madness prospects of 2 upstart-slash-underdog conferences at the national level, the American Athletic Conference and the Ivy League.
I was researching the AAC for another article when it felt like I must have looked up the wrong set of teams – I don’t mean that as a knock against the American, a truly underrated league in multiple sports, but you just don’t normally see so much postseason hype about cagers who are not competing in the ACC or the Big Ten or the Big 12. The American is really good, and should have a contingent of at least 4 schools in the Big Dance.
What’s the secret to the AAC’s success? Injuries. Or, more precisely, a lack of them. I am struck by how little the injury bug has struck the conference. The Jalen Adams tale is sad for UConn, especially since the school (not the team) is hosting the event this week. But almost all of the major players at contending programs at least went into the AAC Postseason Tournament healthy.
Not so for the Ivy League. The proud old conference is missing some of its brightest stars for this weekend’s Ivy League Tournament on the Yale campus. Harvard’s Seth Towns has been out for ages after winning the league’s Player of the Year award such a short time ago. Princeton’s Devin Cannady has left school under a cloud and isn’t coming back any time soon.
The Bulldogs are still the Las Vegas futures favorites to win the short 4-team tourney at (-150). Penn, the defending champion, is a 3-to-1 underdog bet. Can the Quakers, the Crimson, or the Princeton Tigers punch a ticket to March Madness with an upset triumph?
Yale is hosting the tourney at Lee Amphitheater this Saturday and Sunday. Enjoy a bracket and a capsule-briefing on each squad, complete with the Vegas odds.
All odds courtesy of MyBookie.
#1 Seed: Harvard ((+320) Odds-to-Win Ivy League Tournament)
Since Cornell sealed an automatic March Madness bid for the league with a terrific run to the Sweet Sixteen in 2010, Harvard has reached the NCAA Tournament 4 times. The problem is that each of those appearances came in a row between 2012-15, and students wish dearly for a return.
Harvard got off to a sluggish 6-6 start in non-conference play but picked up a solid 74-68 victory against NCAA tourney hopeful Saint Mary’s. Wins in 4 of the last 5 games to close the season propelled the Crimson in a #1 seed. Harvard has been effective on the glass, and owns one of the top rebounding margins in the league at +4.6.
Ready for bad news? The Crimson have been brutally prone to turnovers. Their average of 16.1 giveaways ranks 342nd nationally and last in the Ivy.
At least a lone Harvard superstar is healthy. Bryce Aiken is truly one of the most dynamic backcourt performers in Division 1, averaging 21.8 points and 2.8 assists. 6’9” junior forward Chris Lewis has been excellent down low with 10.7 points and 4.8 rebounds.
I like the Crimson, but it may not be wise to make a 3-to-1 futures wager on a squad that can’t hold on to the rock.
#2 Seed: Yale (-150)
Even legendary sportswriters should learn not talk smack about Yale. In the football movie Paper Lion, the author-turned-QB George Plimpton takes several of the Detroit Lions out to dinner. Having attended the Ivy League, Plimpton thinks he can teach the NFL athletes something about competition.
“You know what our coach did to get the boys up for the Yale game?” Plimpton (played by Alan Alda) chirps while leaning aggressively out over the table. “He took a bulldog and he strangled it! Arrrgh! Just like this, Arrrgh! Arrrgh!” The players break apart giggling at the tasteless tall tale just as the drunk writer’s tie falls smack in the beer.
In 2016, the Yale Bulldogs embarrassed the pundits in similar fashion, stunning Butler before making a 2nd-half charge at the Duke Blue Devils in the NCAA Tournament. There may not have been a lot of ties soaked in beer, but there was a lot of egg on faces.
Coach James Jones has guided the Bulldogs to a 20-win season for the first time since that magical moon-shot. The Bulldogs got off to a hot 8-2 start in league play, but couldn’t get past a bugaboo against Harvard.
Devastating defeats (including one to #4-seed Penn) over the last few games would cost Yale the #1 seed this weekend despite having the conference’s best overall record.
6’6” junior guard Miye Oni has been the top performer, flashing double-double ability in big games. His partner-in-crime upperclassman Alex Copeland has been superb, averaging 13.3 points and 3.2 assists. The Bulldogs move the ball around the floor with precision and rank 9th nationally with an average of 17.3 assists.
Team defense has been stubborn, and Yale leads the league in opposing field-goal percentage. But it’s strange to see a minus-odds futures favorite who doesn’t always remember to box-out on the defensive glass.
Harvard didn’t shoot well enough to beat them, but poor rebounding by the 2018-19 Bulldogs has led to sour results in the ancient rivalry scrap.
#3 Seed: Princeton (+750)
The Princeton Tigers were in the thick of the race for the Ivy League crown, but 3 consecutive losses sent them plunging. The Tigers went a disappointing 0-4 against Harvard and Yale. But in non-conference play, the team pulled off one of one the Ivy League’s coolest wins of the season with a 67-66 upset of Arizona State.
A battle from the charity stripe would serve Princeton well. The Tigers top the league at 73.9 percent from the foul line. The excellent free throw shooting has not gone along with an electric offense, though, as the team is 269th nationally in scoring at 69.3 points.
Senior guard Myles Stephens, a versatile and chippy player in the backcourt, has helped pick up some of the slack for the key missing cog. But Cannady’s absence is being felt now more than ever.
What is Princeton without Devin Cannady? We’re about to find out: pic.twitter.com/nIXNtYvkjV
— Kevin Whitaker (@whitakk) February 2, 2019
#4 Seed: Penn (+300)
Pennsylvania snuck into the Ivy bracket by winning a 3-way tiebreaker with Brown and Cornell. The Quakers bravely fought the titans of the league over the past few weeks, winning 4 out of 5 games to qualify for the postseason.
In 2 games recent against Yale and Harvard, the Quakers went 1-1 and “won” by an aggregate 5 points.
The defending postseason champions should not be undervalued now that they’ve managed to make it this far. In the squad’s 78-75 win over Villanova on 12/11, guard Antonio Woods was money from the field, and big Michael Wang was 1 of 2 players with 6 boards. Villanova is rebuilding, but it’s still the biggest name-brand hoops opponent that the Ivy has knocked off in a while.
6’8” junior forward A.J. Brodeur is an emotional leader for the Quakers, averaging 17.4 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 3.7 assists. Devon Goodman has also been steady in the backcourt with a 14-point average. The pair gives the school the kind of dynamic, healthy attack that could be the ticket to a 2-0 weekend and an automatic NCAA Tournament berth.
Steve Donahue’s squad boasts a stifling defense, holding opponents to an average of 68.4 points. The Quakers must improve from the foul line, however, or any Ivy League glory could turn into a quick stumble and fall in the Big Dance.
Predicting the Ivy League Tournament
Looking at the bracket again, I’m really liking how things shape up for the Penn Quakers.
While Yale is the only other squad that’s reasonably healthy like it hoped to be, Penn won’t have to play Yale until the final and maybe not at all. Harvard’s shaky handling of the basketball is likely to finish-off the Crimson by the 35:00 mark unless the Quakers miss every free throw and play lax defense.
Meanwhile, I’m not touching a (-150) favorite’s line in a league with so much parity. Would you prefer a 3-to-1 bet on a strong #4 seed or a “virtual parlay” at 2/3 payoff odds on Yale to win twice in a row against bitter rivals who travel well? The choice should be obvious.
Take the Penn Quakers to win the Ivy League Tournament and reach next week’s gala.
Kurt has authored close to 1000 stories covering football, soccer, basketball, baseball, ice hockey, prize-fighting and the Olympic Games. Kurt posted a 61% win rate on 200+ college and NFL gridiron picks last season. He muses about High School football on social media as The Gridiron Geek.