By Kevin Sweeney
National discussion of the Ivy League these days tends to focus on the recruiting. Ivys have become consistent darkhorse contenders for clear high-major recruits, stealing key recruits ranked as high as the top 100 in the last several classes. This talent influx has led to a lot of young but absurdly talented mid-major teams playing Friday/Saturday back-to-back in college towns across the northeast, and the next several years should be incredibly exciting as a result. Based on early 2019 returns, the Ivy’s recruiting hot streak is showing no signs of slowing down.
After a semi-disastrous 5-9 start to last season, the Crimson really found their stride and had the talent to make a high seed uncomfortable in the NCAA Tournament. Even more talent joins the roster this year in addition to bringing everyone back, and Tommy Amaker has a team that some are even suggesting could crack the top 25 at times this season. Bryce Aiken should be back and healthy as a dynamic scoring force in the backcourt to compliment 3-level scoring wing Seth Towns and bruising post presence Chris Towns. Add in an outstanding freshman class that features pure passer Spencer Freedman, multi-talented wing Noah Kirkwood, and high-upside forward Mason Forbes, and it’s no secret why there’s so much buzz in Cambridge about Harvard hoops.
Several key pieces are back for the Quakers after an Ivy title in 2017-18, headlined by leading scorer Ryan Betley and high-level big man AJ Brodeur, and Steve Donahue continues to recruit well. I have some lingering concerns about how they’ll create offense without a pair of initiators in Darnell Foreman and Caleb Wood, but the overall talent level is high and the Quakers do an outstanding job of running efficient offense under Donahue.
Yale probably has a higher ceiling and a lower floor than Penn. Few mid-major clubs feature multiple potential NBA players, something that the Bulldogs feature in shooting wing Miye Oni and athletic combo forward Jordan Bruner. However, while both prospects have sky-high potential, both have concerns to address this season, with Oni needing to improve as a jump shooter after a sophomore shooting slimp and Bruner needing to prove he can stay healthy. Shooting as a whole was a bit of a concern with this club last season, but Trey Phills and highly-touted freshman Matt Cotton have a chance to help improve that area for James Jones.
It was definitely a down year for Mitch Henderson’s club in 2017-18, but optimism should be high this season thanks to the return of a pair of dynamic scorers in Myles Stephens and Devin Cannady and the addition of top-100 recruit Jaelin Llewellyn. They’ll space the floor in lots of 4-out, 1-in and even 5-out halfcourt offenses similar to what Loyola-Chicago ran this past season, allowing space for Cannady and Llewellyn to attack off the bounce and for Stephens to take advantage of his strength posting up despite being a wing by nature. That trio will have to be more aggressive in attacking and drawing fouls, as just 2 teams shot fewer free throws in all of Division 1 last season.
Mike Martin’s Bears were incredibly young last season, and while it didn’t always translate to wins, his unit showed a lot of promise. They virtually run it back in 2018-19, bringing back their explosive backcourt combo of Desmond Cambridge and Brandon Anderson, and the idea of 2 more years of that duo playing together has to scare Ivy League coaches. Martin has generally combatted his teams’ lacks of size with playing an extremely fast tempo, and while that allowed teams to score at will against them last season, Brown actually won the rebounding battle and getting a year older in the backcourt should lead to incremental jumps. However, with Martin never having finished better than 7-7 in Ivy play during his tenure, it seems necessary that they show signs of improvement after consecutive 4-10 marks.
Jim Engles has collected some talented guards with the ability to create offense from nothing since arriving from NJIT, but those guard-heavy looks led to a disastrous defense thanks to a lack of size in the backcourt and general apathy on the perimeter. They are embodied in many ways by their star in Mike Smith, a diminutive dynamo from the Chicago area who averaged over 17 points and 4.5 assists last season. Smith’s archetype of low-efficiency shot-making point guard who is a net negative is hard to build a title contender around, and that task is almost impossible when going up against programs recruiting as well as the Ivy’s elite are.
Brian Earl brings in a pair of JUCO imports, an increasingly common though still rare sight in the Ivy League, to help buoy a frontcourt that loses a star in Stone Gettings to grad transfer. Chaz Mack, who put up huge numbers at Cochise College, should see a ton of time at both the 4 and 5 from the get-go, possibly as the second scoring option next to scoring guard Matt Morgan. Morgan remains appointment television as one of the nation’s most consistent scorers, but it doesn’t look like he’ll get the help he needs to turn this program around before he departs Ithaca for good in the spring.
Like some rebuilding high-major teams that myself and Brad Cavallaro have discussed on our podcast, it becomes impossible to rebuild a program when the rest of its conference is getting better too. That’s the predicament that Dartmouth faces right now. It’s a constant race to assemble talent, but it’s hard to catch up to the top dogs when even your best classes are less talented than the top’s mediocre groups. They’ve assembled some strong recruiting classes, though losing Evan Boudreaux early was a massive blow to their rebuilding efforts. With a core of Brendan Barry, Chris Knight, and Will Emery all back in 2019-20 on paper, David McLaughlin will have to hope his 2018 incoming group lives up to the hype and gives them a chance to move up in 2019-20.
All-Conference First Team:
- Matt Morgan– Cornell (22.5 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 3.2 apg, .492/.369/.817)
- Miye Oni– Yale (15.1 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 3.6 apg, .405/.310/.750)
- Myles Stephens– Princeton (15.3 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 1.4 apg, .520/.412/.685)
- Seth Towns– Harvard (16.0 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 1.8 apg, .419/.441/.805)
- AJ Brodeur– Penn (13.1 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 2.5 apg, .538/.286/.611)
Player of the Year: Seth Towns (Harvard)
Towns won the honor last season over a host of deserving candidates, and so he gets the preseason nod despite all the talent around him. He’s an elite shooter who is still improving as he puts muscle on his lean 6-7 frame, which should help him finish better at the rim. Towns has a legit chance to crack it in the NBA at some point, but for now will be tasked with getting the Crimson back to the Big Dance.
Breakout Player: Jordan Bruner (Yale)
Bruner’s name has been around in the basketball community for a few years now, and as such doesn’t fit the mold of a true breakout player. A former high-level recruit, Bruner showed flashes in 2016-17 with his freak athleticism but missed all of last year with an injury. Huge things are expected of him this season, but I expect him to live up to the hype.
Newcomer of the Year: Jaelin Llewellyn (Princeton)
When you land a recruit over Virginia, Clemson, Ohio State, and Purdue, you know you’ve done something right. At #99 in the 247Sports composite, Llewellyn would be a blue-chip recruit at any level, let alone the Ivy League. He’s shifty in transition and should provided a needed ballhandler next to Devin Cannady in Princeton’s offense.