Friday, November 12, 2010

Previewing The 2010-2011 14-Game Tournament

It's not so easy this year, is it?

After two years of a reigning champion with a stocked, returning roster, the Ivy League is finally up for grabs again. Cornell not only lost four of five starters, but also lost a couple more pieces of its rotation, making the race for the league's automatic bid as muddled as it's been since the Big Red won its first of three straight championships in 2008.

While the league pundits have stratified the contenders into pairs (the favorites - Princeton and Harvard; the enigmas - Cornell and Penn; the darkhorses - Yale and Brown), there is no one seemingly infallible squad that strikes fear into all the rest and couldn't fall victim to a stroke of luck, either through the bounce of a ball or a spate of crushing injuries.

No team in league is without its lingering questions, even though some do have more than others. The Tigers must replace a point guard with no obvious veteran candidates and a deceptively high number of frontcourt minutes. If the Ivies are truly a guard-dominated league, Harvard should be a huge favorite (even with the loss of combo guard Jeremy Lin to the NBA), but a threadbare frontcourt - a weakness further exacerbated by a foot injury to the Crimson's best player and PF Kyle Casey - has folks wondering how small is too small to compete.

Cornell lost the most possessions (71.6%) of any Ivy team since the 2003-2004 Harvard squad (73.0%) that went 4-23 overall and 3-11 in Ivy play. The Big Red still has a budding star in PG Chris Wroblewski and several good complementary pieces, but it's incredibly difficult to gauge exactly how large the dropoff will be as  those players hop from limited reserve roles into the starting lineup. While the Quakers return the most possessions of any league team, they'll be relying on freshmen and returning injured veterans to increase the team's efficiency on both ends of the floor in order to improve on a disastrous 6-22 campaign a year ago.

The Bears and Bulldogs each have to deal with the loss of an All-Ivy category player with a specialty that each was ill-equipped to lose. Matt Mullery was an anchor in the post for Brown and teamed up with two combo forwards, Scott Friske and Chris Skrelja, to make the Bears the 10th best defensive rebounding team in the nation in 2008-2009. Then, Friske and Skrelja graduated, and Mullery's solid work on the glass wasn't even enough to keep Brown in the top 200. Now, with Mullery gone and only sophomore Andrew McCarthy showing any proficiency in the rebounding department, the Bears could be in a world of trouble.

Yale's losses came in the backcourt in the form of All-Ivy Second Team member Alex Zampier and fellow starter Jordan Gibson. While starting point guard Porter Braswell returns for the Bulldogs, that may not be incredibly comforting to those who watched Braswell turn the ball over on 23 percent of his possessions, while using half as many as Zampier while on the floor and taking only two-fifths as many shots.

The final pair of Ivy squads don't merit much discussion. While Columbia has All-Ivy guard Noruwa Agho, it merely has a grab bag of projects, busts and potential with which to surround him. And Dartmouth is struggling to find enough Division I-ready players to field a decent team.

So, where does that leave this year's edition of the 14-Game Tournament?

For now, the safest bet is Princeton, primarily because the Tigers have been there before, coming within three of eventual champion Cornell twice with substantially the same personnel. No team short of the Big Red closed last season harder than Princeton, which went 16-5 after New Years. The plodding pace can introduce dangerous variance to games in which the Tigers are clearly the better team, but at the same time, Princeton is often more equipped to deal with the late game pressure, because its style induces it so often.

For that reason, it's hard to picture the Tigers getting through the league slate unscathed - there just isn't enough pure talent there to make one think 13-1 or 14-0 is possible. And if your presumed champion is going to go 12-2 at best, that opens the door for the first 14-Game Tournament Overtime since 2001-2002, when Penn, Princeton and Yale all tied for the Ivy crown at 11-3.

Harvard, the number one contender, is probably the only team with 13-1 or 14-0 potential. That potential rests on a full recovery by Casey and a healthy Keith Wright, who has missed nine games in two years and hasn't been at 100 percent for many more. Having those two frontcourt cogs at 100 percent for all 14 Ivy games would help mask the lack of depth upfront, which has caused many to be wary of picking Harvard to win its first league title. Betting on full health from Harvard bigs has been a risky proposition dating back to the Brian Cusworth era.

Beyond Harvard and Princeton, you quickly encounter a bunch of teams with 10-win potential if everything breaks just right, but clubs whose title hopes rely upon the Crimson and Tigers falling back to the pack rather than an innate ability to hang with and chase those two teams down. The basis for this estimation is simple. Early simulations have there being a roughly 20% chance of a tie for the title, with a vast majority being two-team ties between Harvard and Princeton at 11-3 or 12-2. Almost all of the paltry few three-way ties happened at 9- or 10-wins, hinting that for Cornell, Penn, Yale and Brown to have a chance, they need to root for more chaos.

14-Game Tournament Pre-Season Prediction


*Princeton defeats Harvard in one-game playoff

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