Ivy League | Princeton and Harvard programs are real

February 22, 2014: The Ivy League on the court surface before the Dartmouth Big Green versus the Penn Quakers at the Palestra in Philadelphia, PA
Gavin Baker/Icon Sportswire

When people hear Ivy League, no one is thinking about anything other than kids receiving some of the best book learning on the planet. Over the course of the last few years, however, the Princeton Tigers and Harvard Crimson have been changing that.

As the conference moves into a new era, having introduced a conference basketball tournament for the first time in league history last season, the Ivy League is fortunate enough to have two programs that are transcending not only in-league brethren but many mid-majors around the country.

We’re beyond the start, yet not yet in the middle, of the conference’s growth transforming it into well above what it has historically been.

Harvard’s rise to prominence is pretty well documented by now. The Duke of the north; Tommy Amaker’s redemption tour; it appears the Crimson are trending in a direction that is less fun, beloved mid-major and more annually dominant program that allows success to beget itself.

Outside of last season, in which Princeton won the league, and the anomaly that was the season before that (Yale’s title), Harvard had won the Ivy League from 2010-15. The Crimson didn’t go to the Big Dance in 2010-11, as that was a shared regular-season title with Princeton, with the Tigers having the edge in the tiebreaker.

Relatively speaking, Harvard has been down the last two seasons, both voyages in which the Crimson failed to win 20 or more games, a task last failed to be achieved by the team since Amaker’s second season with Harvard in 2008-09.

This isn’t a cause for concern. Amaker had an incredibly young squad at his disposal last season, but one so riddled with potential that fans could see it oozing from players in almost every single game the Crimson played.

Harvard’s 2016 recruiting class was ranked as the 23rd best in the land, according to 247Sports. Let that sink in for a minute. Allow it to wash over you like a cold shower after a night drinking heavily at the scummiest of scum dive bars.

Even that ranking may have been hedging a bit, as the Crimson lured four 4-star recruits, as well as a few other 3-stars, to play in the Ivy League.

Three of the 4-stars — Bryce Aiken, Chris Lewis and Seth Towns — all played major minutes for Harvard in 2016-17 and contributed in major ways. The other, Robert Baker, was a still-developing big (6-foot-10, but only 200 pounds).

Point being: Harvard basketball is set. Both for this season as well as a few more. The future is so bright, those academic types in ‎Cambridge will have to start wearing shades to avoid going blind from the basketball brilliance that will be on display.

Luckily for the Ivy League, this conference isn’t going to be a one-trick pony for years to come. Princeton isn’t to be trifled with.

The Tigers are the defending Ivy Group champions. In the first year the league held a conference tournament, Princeton won the regular and conference tournament titles. It was also the second straight season Mitch Henderson led the program to 20 or more wins.

Is that sustainable? Well, actually, yes.

Two of Princeton’s best players from last season’s squad were sophomores, Devin Cannady and Myles Stephens. Much like Harvard, Princeton has a young nucleus to work with.

But, wait … what’s that behind door number 2018? Oh, a top-rated high school recruit committed to the Tigers this week? I’ll be damned …

On Monday, 4-star prospect Jaelin Llewellyn announced he would join Princeton in the fall of 2018. What he is as a player can be debatable, as the stars attached to a player’s name don’t inherently equate to success, but what he represents is inarguable.

Llewellyn is proof that Princeton should — or, at least, might — be able to keep pace with Harvard on the recruiting trail. That the Tigers will fight that good fight, not go into that darkness without curb-stomping a fool, and are more than capable of solidifying commitments from talents who historically avoid trotting about in Ivy League competition.

As the league continues to grow, especially heading into Year 2  of the conference tournament era, it is important for the growth of it that these two programs grow, rapidly, alongside it. While it might never be a Gonzaga-St. Mary’s in the WCC type of situation, it currently has the earnest beginnings of it.

That’s the hope Ivy League fans should hold on to. Gonzaga and St. Mary’s weren’t always, you know, the Gonzaga and St. Mary’s people have grown to expect to be annually ranked. Yet, here we are in 2017, and both are as consistently great programs as there are. Due to that, the WCC, while still largely flawed, has been elevated.

It usually takes two to make things — look around — go right. For the Ivy League, its two are the Princeton Tigers and Harvard Crimson. If we’re being honest about it, the conference couldn’t have its future in the hands of two better programs.

The rivalry is there. The success is being parlayed. It is all very real.

The Ivy League is going to be fun to follow for years to come.

Joseph has been covering basketball for nearly a decade. He is the host of the Relatively Speaking Podcast and a columnist for FanRag Sports. You can follow him on Twitter @JosephNardone.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Robert Franklin

    Jul 27, 2017 at 6:22 pm

    There is a big difference between how Harvard and Princeton have built their excellent men’s basketball programs.

    The Ivy League has a complicated set of rules which govern the academic qualifications of varsity athletes, hinging upon a quantitative assessment of each high school recruit called the Academic Index.

    In 2007, Harvard athletic director Robert Scalise decided to go “big time” in men’s basketball. He fired long-time coach Frank Sullivan and hired a marquee name in Tommy Amaker. More importantly, he allocated to basketball coveted low Academic Index recruits from hockey, lacrosse and baseball. This simple strategic change allowed Amaker to pursue weaker students whom Sullivan was strictly prohibited from recruiting.

    In the Ivy League, because of the “restrictor plate” effect of the Academic Index, allowing any single coach to recruit more low AI athletes is equivalent to letting him be the only driver of a car without a restrictor plate.

    Tommy Amaker immediately started recruited a different kind of athlete than Sullivan had relied upon. These new athletes included Cem Dinc, who transferred from Marshalltown Community College in Iowa, and Frank Ben-Eze, who eventually ended his recruitment when he was unable to achieve a minimum Ivy score on Academic Index.

    In March 2008, Pete Thamel of the New York Times published a feature-length article about the new lowered academic standards at Harvard. Based upon the information published by the Times, the NCAA investigated Harvard’s recruiting practices. In July 2010, the NCAA completed its work and decreed that Amaker had committed a secondary violation, imposing recruiting restrictions for the 2010-11 academic year.

    But, if anything, Amaker and Harvard stepped up their recruiting efforts. For example, Amaker began recruiting current star point guard Siyani Chambers when the latter was still in eighth grade (and obviously without an Academic Index score), pursuing him for years before landing his commitment. There are several other questionable incidents, including the recruitment of Camden McRae off the junior varsity team at Los Angeles prep school Harvard-Westlake so that McRae’s high Academic Index score would be averaged into the Harvard team score before McRae was dismissed from the squad.

    To be sure, the aggressive tactics of Amaker at Harvard would amount to small potatoes at Baylor or Memphis or many other Power Five programs. But in the Ivy League, where Princeton and Yale compete under the same restrictions that Frank Sullivan did, Harvard is now — on a relative basis — recruiting like Kentucky or UNLV.

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