Friday, November 11, 2011

Opening Weekend Preview

It's finally here.

All eight Ivy League basketball teams will open their seasons this weekend with actual games that count in the actual NCAA record books. (Rumor has it that a lot of these teams have already "played" a couple of "games" against other Division I "schools" over the past 10 days or so).

That's the good news. The bad news is that the grand re-opening of college basketball in the Ivy League could be a bit of a letdown.

Harvard and Brown kick things off on Friday night with MIT and Johnson & Wales, respectively, which both hail from outside the Division I ranks. Columbia and Dartmouth have the exact opposite problem, as each take to the road to visit a Big East school - Connecticut and Rutgers, respectively. The Big Green has the best projected winning percentage for any of the underdogs in those four games at a mere four percent.

The matchups get more competitive from there, but not all that significantly. Cornell is a 10-point underdog on Friday night with a 20 percent chance of winning at St. Bonaventure, which boasts standout senior and NBA Draft prospect Andrew Nicholson, a 6'9 forward.

In the remaining three contests, the Ivies are solid favorites, as Penn, Princeton and Yale are each roughly 65-75 percent to win their openers against UMBC, Wagner and Central Connecticut State, respectively.

At least that's what the odds would be for squads which were basically at full strength. The Big Red and Quakers have had their injury reports public for some weeks now, and the news is pretty bleak for both. Counting up the names, it seems as if at least half of the roster for both teams has been suffered injuries ranging along the spectrum from minor to serious in the offseason and since the start of practice. For both teams, the injuries haven't spared the frontcourt - the position where Cornell and Penn were already the weakest.

The Quakers frontcourt issues have been made public after the debacle in the exhibition against Carleton. While it's a sample size of only one game, across a sample size of 35 rebounds on the defensive end, Penn only managed to grab 15 (43%), which would have been the second-worst defensive rebounding performance last season (41% of defensive boards vs. Kentucky). With a 12-for-29 shooting performance from inside the arc on offense, it's hard to argue that the Quakers looked much better on that end of the court either.

Now, Penn isn't necessarily stuck with a starting frontcourt of Fran Dougherty and Cameron Gunter for the entire season. Freshmen Greg Louis and Henry Brooks and oft-injured senior Mike Howlett are all expected to play at some point and could help the Quakers on both ends of the court. Also, UMBC doesn't have a ton of experienced height, so Penn might survive the opener on the road even at half strength.

But the next 10 games before the exam break include Temple, Pitt, Villanova and UCLA as well as tough mid-majors Rider, Robert Morris and James Madison. At full strength the Quakers might have seen 5-6 as a positive outcome heading into fall finals, but with the current personnel, things could get ugly fast.

Cornell's situation is quite the same as Penn's, but without a shockingly bad public display, we're left a little more in the dark about how dire things are in Ithaca. The Big Red graduated three of the top four defensive rebounders off a team that was already weak inside. Josh Figini brings his 19.0 percent defensive rebounding rate back for Cornell, but ESPN1160's Brian Delaney had Figini as questionable for the opener with an ankle injury. With Anthony Gatlin still recovering from offseason knee surgery, that leaves combo-forward Errick Peck, who may also miss a little time, and a bunch of incredibly raw options to man the 4/5.

The expectations aren't very high for the Big Red's frontcourt to begin with, so having a full arsenal of options at its disposal is incredibly important. As mentioned previously, going up against the Bonnies' Andrew Nicholson in the opener would be difficult regardless, but stopping him with a skeleton crew in the paint could be nearly impossible.

Moving from the teams with questions to those for whom we might soon find answers, Yale's early schedule should provide a decent look at whether the Bulldogs truly are the league's number one contender. The neutral site opener against Central Connecticut and a visit to Quinnipiac are games which Yale can win and after a visit from non-D-I Lyndon State, the Bulldogs head to New Jersey to take on Seton Hall. From there, the only really interesting tests on the schedule will be Vermont, Rhode Island and Wake Forest.

If there was ever a team that properly challenged itself, it would be Princeton. With just four easy Division I games on the schedule (hosting Wagner, Elon and Lafayette, as well as a trip to Florida A&M) and only one somewhat impossible one (at Florida State), the Tigers are left with nine contests in the 50-200 sweet spot that provides a nice balance of reasonable difficulty and reasonable opportunity.

For being labeled an "easy" win, the Seahawks might provide a decent test. Wagner returns all five starters from a team that held a dominant advantage in eFG% - the most important of the four factors. However, the Seahawks got killed on the boards and sent teams to the free throw line at the highest rate of any team in the nation last year.  Unsurprisingly, Wagner's results were decently high variance, meaning that while on average Princeton should have no problem, the Seahawks do have better upside than most teams who are on the outside looking in at the Top 200.

Of the four teams whose games should be relatively one-sided on opening night, each faces more competitive contests next week. Harvard takes to the road to play Holy Cross on Tuesday and Loyola Marymount on Saturday, before opening up the Battle 4 Atlantis against Utah on Thanksgiving Eve. The Crimson should be 75-80 percent to win each of those contests, and with a win over the Utes would likely become an underdog for the first time this season in a semifinal meeting with Florida St.

Next Monday, Brown gets thrown directly into a 50/50 battle versus Albany in Syracuse for the right to advance and play the host Orange. A couple more of the Bears' opponents are up in the air from the opening month (Brown will be sent to a pod to play a couple more NIT Season Tip-Off games against opponents TBD), but the trip to Sacred Heart and the visit by Rhode Island should help us learn a little more about the Bears in the early going.

Aside from the trip to Stony Brook, Columbia follows up its opening night date at Connecticut with an incredibly soft schedule full of winnable games. Much like last year, that will give the Lions a decent shot at an above-.500 non-conference campaign, but will do very little to signal whether this year's Columbia squad is a contender.

The combination of Dartmouth's talent and schedule probably won't lead to many wins, but at least the non-conference slate is interesting. The Big Green starts in New Jersey against Rutgers, then heads to Alaska for the Great Alaska Shootout later in the month, before following its exam break with a trip to Indiana to take on  IPFW and Notre Dame. Some of Dartmouth's best chances for wins are right off the bat with visits from Vermont and Bryant and a potential second-round matchup in the Shootout with host (and Division II) Alaska-Anchorage. If the Big Green is poised to leave the cellar this year, it should post at least a 3-4, if not 4-3 record heading into its winter exams.

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