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Ivy League Men’s Basketball Season Preview: Can someone challenge the duopoly?

Yale and Princeton look like the favorites in the Ancient Eight.

Princeton v Creighton Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

The Ancient Eight will once again do battle in gyms across the northeast this winter building up to Ivy Madness in March. This year, the four-team tournament will be in New York City (hosted by Columbia).

There’s a solid chance that this Ivy League season will end the same way the previous two did, with Yale and Princeton squaring off in the final. However, a few teams will have plenty to say about that. Both Cornell and Brown return major pieces from teams that were just a few tweaks away from breaking through, and the two stand as the top challengers to the duopoly.

Preseason Poll

No. 1. Yale – 124 (14)

  • Yale returns four of five starters from the team that won the Ivy League regular season title last year, including reigning defensive player of the year Bez Mbeng. The Bulldogs’ top scorer, Matt Knowling, also returns to the fray for head coach James Jones. Knowling is an elite mid-range scorer, with Jones saying that his “feathery” touch is “unlike anybody I’ve ever coached.” Danny Wolf will have to step up at the center spot in the wake of EJ Jarvis’ graduation. Wolf played for Team Israel in the U20 European Championships this summer, leading the competition in rebounding, and finishing second in scoring.

No. 2. Princeton – 110 (2)

  • Princeton has the impossible task of replacing Tosan Evbuomwan, the do-it-all center who was the key cog in their offense. However, the Tigers return a sophomore class that helped put the team over the top last year — remember this is the team that knocked off Arizona in the Round of 64, and made it all the way to the Sweet 16. Mitch Henderson called Caden Pierce “the best rebounder I’ve ever coached,” and he’s looking to grow his offensive game as well. Xaivian Lee and Deven Austin also had really strong freshman seasons, while Matt Allocco is the senior leader of this group.

No. 3. Cornell – 80

  • Brian Earl returns most of the key pieces from the fast-paced Big Red team that lost in the Ivy Madness semifinals to Yale last year. Nazir Williams is expected to take another step forward as this team’s primary facilitator and scorer at all three levels. Earl is also looking to Sean Hansen to be more assertive as a scorer, saying that “His unselfishness fits our style too much. Sometimes I have to remind him that he has a 6-foot-1 guy on him, and to just lay it in.”

No. 4. Brown – 77

  • The Ivy League doesn’t vote for a preseason player of the year, but if it did, I’d imagine that Kino Lilly would be honored with it. Lilly is a talented scorer who can create off the dribble at a higher level than anybody else in the conference. “He makes hard things look easy,” head coach Mike Martin said of his star player. The Bears also return a deep frontcourt that includes Nana Owusu-Anane, Kalu Anya, Malachi Ndur, and Landon Lewis. Owusu-Anane and Anya in particular will be counted on for starting the fastbreak in addition to rebounding.

No. 5. Penn – 68

  • Steve Donahue expected the Quakers to return four starters, but after Jordan Dingle entered the transfer portal, and Max Martz medically retired, Penn only brings back two of its first five. Replacing Dingle, who was the second-leading scorer in the country, will not fall on just one player, but Donahue needs returning starters Clark Slajchert and Nick Spinoso to be models of consistency this year. Slajchert had a bunch of big performances for the Quakers over the past few years, but now he’s the alpha. Donahue also spoke highly of George Smith and Andrew Laczkowski’s development into more than simply role players.

No. 6. Harvard – 66

  • Harvard lost its two top scorers in Chris Ledlum and Idan Tretout, but Tommy Amaker is excited about some of the young talent on the Crimson roster. Evan Nelson and Chisom Okpara had strong sophomore and freshman seasons respectively last year. Senior Justice Ajogbor is on the precipice of a breakout campaign. The 6-foot-10 big man averaged 6.1 PPG and 3.2 RPG in just 17.7 MPG last year, and guard Denham Wojcik said that “we’re looking to him to be a big presence in the post.” Harvard also brings in a strong freshman class, including Washington D.C. Gatorade Player of the Year Malik Mack, a well-rounded guard.

No. 7. Dartmouth – 28

  • Dartmouth, which made some offseason news with all 15 players filing a union petition, finished dead last in the conference in turnover percentage last season, and Dave McLaughlin is committed to fixing that. “No matter what style of basketball you play, you have to value the basketball on the offensive end, and for us, it’s that ability to make decisions, do the little details,” he said. A lot of the onus falls on Ryan Cornish, the junior guard who enters year two as the primary ball handler for the Big Green. Cornish finished second on the team in scoring behind Dame Adelekun, doing so on solid efficiency, but he also averaged nearly three turnovers per contest. Dartmouth is also expecting a leap from sophomore Brandon Mitchell-Day, a swingman who shot 60% at the rim last season.

No. 8. Columbia – 23

  • After two seasons of being one of the youngest teams in the country, Columbia is now shifting its focus. “There’s no surprises now for the guys, we don’t have to tell them how it’s going to be or what’s going to come,” head coach Jim Engles said. “They’ve experienced the travel, they’re able to experience how to come back to class and get their work done.” The backcourt of Geronimo Rubio De La Rosa and Avery Brown took steps forward last season, and Engels expects the pair to be one of the top duos in the conference. Six-foot-11-inch freshman Arop Arop is a player to watch, combining his size with impressive mobility and athletic traits.