A.J. Brodeur (above) is just one of a number of recent prospects who chose Ivy League over mid-major and high-major options. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
(Ed. Note: This article is part of our 2017-18 season coverage, which will run for the six weeks preceding the first official games of the year on Nov. 10. To access all of our high school and college preview content for this season, click here.)
When he was head coach at Cornell between 2000-10, Steve Donahue wouldn’t look twice at a player like Eddie Scott.
Back then, Donahue knew he’d never have a chance at landing anybody like Scott, a 6-foot-6, 195-pound small forward out of Gonzaga College (Md.) who played his travel ball on the Nike EYBL circuit. Not with schools like Rhode Island, Dayton, Saint Joseph’s and George Washington all in the mix for the athletic, talented and versatile wing.
Instead of recruiting at the Peach Jam with every other high-major program in the country, Donahue’s Big Red staff had to scour the country for under-the-radar talent that they could sneak away before anybody else caught on. Life wasn’t easy at a program that had just two NCAA Tournament appearances -- 1954 and 1988 -- and typically sat in the bottom half of a league that was known more for its academics than athletics.
“We never got anybody at Cornell, ever,” Donahue remarked dryly last Monday, before the third-year Penn head coach began his first practice of the 2017-18 preseason.
Aside from a four-year run at Boston College (2010-2014), Donahue has been in the Ivy League since 1990, when he began a 10-year run as a Penn assistant under head coach Fran Dunphy. The Quakers and archrival Princeton were the two Ivy League programs who had some moderate success on the recruiting trail, the two programs who seemingly traded the league title back and forth for most of the Ivy’s history.
It’s a far cry from what’s going on in the Ancient Eight these days.
Under the reign of head coach Tommy Amaker, Harvard has gone from an afterthought in the Ivy hoops world (2009-10 was its first-ever 20 win season) to a perennial contender, reeling in commitments from players like Chris Lewis, a four-star forward and ESPN’s No. 68 player in the 2016 class, and Bryce Aiken, a Patrick School (N.J.) product who picked the Crimson over Seton Hall and Miami (Fla.) in the fall of 2015. And they’re not the only ones.
Yale, which went from 1962 to 2016 between NCAA tournament appearances, has on its roster players like 6-10 freshman Paul Atkinson, who had Dayton, Richmond and more in pursuit. Sophomore Jordan Bruner chose the Bulldogs over Tennessee, Georgia and Clemson. Princeton already has a commitment from Virginia Episcopal (Va.) senior Jaelin Llewellyn, currently ranked No. 99 in the ESPN 100 and a consensus four-star prospect.
Penn, which had struggled on the recruiting trail for several seasons under Glenn Miller (2006-09) and then Jerome Allen (2009-15), started getting talented commitments of its own. A.J. Brodeur, who had pulled offers from the likes of Notre Dame, Davidson, St. Joe’s and more, was the first big haul for Donahue when he committed in August of 2015.
“I think the league in general has done a great job,” Donahue said. “The top teams in the last couple of years are recruiting kids that are ranked -- that’s something that probably didn’t exist the previous 20 years I was in the league. So that kind of motivates you to get out there, you’ve got to keep up with it and get better.
“Not just [getting] ranked kids, but kids that you really value, [kids] that are talented...talent is a huge part of winning, it’s critical, and I thought we’ve done a pretty good job over the last two classes.”
That the Ivy’s recruiting profile as a league has changed is itself an effect of schools like Harvard and Yale making their basketball programs a stronger priority in the financial aid department. Ivy League schools do not offer athletic scholarships, but the large endowments of the member institutions allow them to make up for much of that in grants and aid. Amaker led the recruiting charge when he came to Harvard in 2007 after six years at Michigan, and the rest of the league scrambled to catch up.
The change is clearly marked in the data. In the first nine seasons that college hoops statistician Ken Pomeroy’s website KenPom.com was active, between 2001-02 through 2009-10, his formulas had the Ivy League rated between the 21st and 28th-best Division I league in the country, with an average rating of 24.1 out of the 32 (or 33, depending on year) conferences.
Over the last seven seasons, the Ivy League hasn’t been worst than 19th and has gotten as high as 13th (in 2013-14), with an average ranking of 16.1 over that time. There isn’t another conference in the country that’s come anywhere close to making such a leap in a short period of time.
The success has continued into the postseason. Donahue’s Big Red made a Sweet 16 appearance in 2010, the furthest any Ivy member had gotten since Penn’s Final Four run in 1979. Harvard won its first-round games in 2013 and 2014, before Yale knocked off No. 5 seed Baylor in 2016 to become the seventh of eight Ivy teams with an NCAA Tournament victory under its belt. Only Brown (0-2) hasn’t tasted the sweet side of March Madness.
“It’s definitely getting more and more respect that it deserves, and I think it’s starting to get it as people are starting to realize how valuable the academics are here,” Brodeur said. “More and more kids are starting to realize today that basketball, inevitably, is going to end at some point for these kids.
“It’s still not bad to have dreams of playing higher, obviously I want to play after college when it’s all said and done,” he continued, “but being able to set yourself up for success no matter what, you don’t want to put all your eggs in one basket, you know?”
Brodeur and Eddie Scott certainly represent the future of Penn basketball specifically, and the future of the Ivy League generally.
Scott comes to University City by way of a Gonzaga program that captured the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference (WCAC) championship last year, winning one of the toughest high school hoops leagues in the country. Gonzaga also won the District of Columbia tournament and then captured the Alhambra Invitational championship with a win over Mt. St. Joseph (Md.).
Now he’s hoping to bring that level of success to a Penn program that has just one winning season since 2006-07.
“I learned that it took a lot, you have to persevere through different things,” he said. “There will be ups and downs in terms of games against other people, you’ll have conflicts with coaches and also you’ll have problems with your team, but that’ll all make you stronger in the end."