Yale and Justin Sears (above) were picked atop the Ivy League's preseason poll for the first time ever. (Photo: Sam Rubin/Yale Athletics)
Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
(Ed. Note: This article is part of CoBL's 2015-16 College Season Preview, which will run from October 2-November 13, the first day of games. For the complete rundown, click here)
The Ivy League’s 2015-16 season is shaping up to be one for the ages.
Need proof? Just take a look at the league’s preseason media poll.
For the first time since the poll’s inception in 1985, Yale was selected as the preseason Ivy League favorites. But it was far from a runaway selection -- the 2015-16 poll was also the first time where the preseason favorite did not receive the most first-place votes.
While Yale got five first-place votes and 117 points, Columbia and Princeton each received six first-place votes. Columbia’s 114 points made for the closest preseason poll since 1998-99, with Princeton’s 108 points in the poll leaving them just a hair behind.
And the team that won it all the last four years, Harvard, is sitting behind all three of them.
“Certainly the league is wide-open,” Yale coach James Jones said during last week’s league preseason media teleconference. “I don’t know that we’re going to be a target on anybody’s back as much as anybody else, but I certainly feel good about where our team is and it’s nice that other people recognize it.”
Last year, Harvard and Yale tied with identical 11-3 records in the only league whose regular season champion usually determines its NCAA Tournament representative; the Crimson (22-8 overall) needed a 53-51 win over the Bulldogs (22-10) in a playoff in Philadelphia to keep its dancing streak going.
Princeton finished at 16-14 overall with a 9-5 league record, while Columbia was tied for fifth with a 5-9 mark (13-15 overall).
Despite being the four-time defending champions, Harvard has the most to replace of any of the other top-tier teams. On top of the graduations of guard Wesley Saunders (16.6 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 4.3 apg) and big man Steve Moundou-Missi (9.6 ppg, 7.3 rpg), starting point guard Siyani Chambers (9.9 ppg, 4.3 apg) tore his ACL over the summer and will have to leave school to preserve his final year of eligibility.
So perhaps it’s Yale--who hasn't been dancing since 1962--who should be playing frontrunner, considering the Bulldogs have back the league’s Player of the Year, forward Justin Sears (14.3 ppg, 7.5 rpg). But Yale does have to replace starting point guard Javier Duren (14.0 ppg, 3.9 apg) and its starting frontcourt of Matt Townsend and Armani Cotton.
Or Princeton, who returns all five starters, including All-Ivy junior Spencer Weisz (11.6 ppg, 4.6 rpg) and senior forward Hans Brase (11.5 ppg, 7.5 rpg). They're trying to get back to the NCAAs for the first time in five seasons, and the first under Henderson.
“We’re excited,” Princeton coach Mitch Henderson said. “We’ve got a large amount of our returners back from last season and we feel that a lot of the pieces we have returning can do a lot of different things.”
Despite finishing with the worst mark of the four a year ago, the Lions have maybe the best 1-2 combination in the league in seniors Maodo Lo and Alex Rosenberg. Lo, a 6-3 guard, led the league in scoring a year ago at 18.4 ppg and is considered to be the best pro prospect in the Ivy. Rosenberg, who sat out last year with a foot injury, is a 6-7 forward who was fifth in the league at 16.0 ppg when he last played two years ago.
Add in another senior who missed last season due to injury, Grant Mullins--who averaged 11.7 ppg in 2013-14--and there’s plenty of reasons that Columbia will be right in the mix as they hope to make the tournament for the first time since 1968.
“We have seven guys in our program who have started games,” Columbia coach Kyle Smith said. “Expectations are high. We were expected to do well last year and didn’t do as well as we’d like, and we were picked eighth a few years ago and had one of our best years...so we’ll see what happens.”
By objective measures, the whole Ivy League does appear to be getting stronger. College hoops statistician Ken Pomeroy’s formulas had the conference as the 21st-strongest in Division I when his site debuted in 2002, and the league’s rating bottom out at 28th out of 32 for the 2005-06 season.
Harvard’s resurgence helped the Ivy League break into the top half as the 15th-best conference in 2010-11--and it hasn’t dropped below 17th since, finishing as high as 14th two years ago and 15th again last year.
The level of talent in the top half of the conference and a few decent programs beyond that means this could be another banner year for the Ancient Eight.
“I don’t know if we’ll have a Sweet 16 team or a team that’ll make it to the Elite 8 or anything like that but I do know from top to bottom all our teams are better,” Jones said. “All our teams have (the) opportunity to win outside our conference, our conference is continually getting better-rated every year, and I think that’ll be the case this year.”