January 3, 2024
Six storylines to watch in Ivy League play
Freshman point guards, Princeton’s defense, a crucial injury and more
After Columbia swept BIG EAST teams Seton Hall, Providence and Villanova this season, head coach Megan Griffith was jokingly asked whether she wanted to change conferences.
“Yeah, I already put that [paperwork] in,” Griffith quipped. “I submitted that like five years ago. I don’t think they took me seriously, but they might have to reconsider it now.”
The Ivy League as a whole is 7-4 against the BIG EAST this season, and it has also defeated ACC, Big Ten and Big 12 teams. Princeton dominated a ranked Oklahoma team on a neutral court, while Brown went on the road and dealt Georgetown its only loss in its first 10 games.
As a result, three Ivy League teams are in the top 75 of the NCAA NET rankings: Princeton (51), Columbia (67) and Harvard (71). And the conference ranks seventh in RPI, behind only the Power Six conferences. It should be an extremely competitive and deep race for the regular-season title and for the four berths into the Ivy League Tournament.
Here are six storylines to watch as Ivy League play begins on Jan. 6. Read them in order or skip to your favorite using the links below. All statistics are for games through Jan. 1.*
- When will Princeton’s defense pounce?
- Can Harvard stay in the hunt without Turner?
- Which freshman point guards will thrive?
- Will Brown take the next step?
- Who will Penn’s No. 1 option be?
- Can Yale turn its season around?
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When will Princeton’s defense pounce?
In each of the last three full seasons Princeton played under head coach Carla Berube, it ranked in the top eight nationally in points allowed per 100 possessions, also known as defensive rating. Last season, the Tigers allowed just 78.7 points per 100 possessions; however, this season, they’re giving up 90.1. That ranks 156th nationally and is the Tigers’ worst defensive rating since at least 2008-09.
Princeton is allowing opponents to shoot 38.5% from 3-point range, one of the highest percentages in the country. Its defensive rebounding rate is also somewhat lower than in years past, ranking in the 62nd percentile nationally. That’s despite having 6’1 forward Ellie Mitchell, who is one of the nation’s best overall rebounders at 11.1 per game.
In part, those defensive challenges reflect how strong Princeton’s nonconference schedule has been, with games against UCLA, Oklahoma, Indiana and Villanova away from home. The NCAA ranks it as the 44th-toughest nationally and the toughest in the Ivy League. Princeton is also a young team: It had to replace three senior contributors from last season and has plugged freshmen into key spots, including starting shooting guard Skye Belker.
After Princeton beat Seton Hall 75-71 in double overtime on Nov. 29, Berube lamented allowing even 71 points in 50 minutes. “We’re just not quite there yet defensively,” she said. “But that’s okay … It’s things that I know we’re gonna get better at. With so many new faces on the court, new people with new roles, it … takes a little time for us to just run on all cylinders, like we have been in the past couple years.”
One of the most impressive things about the Tigers every year under Berube — an attribute that won them games in the NCAA Tournament in two straight years — has been their ability to shut down opposing offenses almost at will. They decide an opponent is done scoring, and the opponent is done. We haven’t seen that much this season, yet Princeton still looks like the favorite in the Ivy League behind reigning Ivy League Player of the Year Kaitlyn Chen and sophomore star Madison St. Rose.
It’d be foolish to bet against a Berube team figuring things out defensively. The question is, how soon will that happen — and will Princeton have tense moments, like against Seton Hall, or even a loss or two in the meantime?
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Can Harvard stay in the hunt without Turner?
Harvard finished the 2022-23 season on a tear, nearly toppling Princeton in the Ivy League Tournament final and advancing to the WNIT quarterfinals. Then the Crimson brought back over 75% of their scoring, including one of the best trios in the Ivy League in guards Harmoni Turner and Lola Mullaney and forward Elena Rodriguez. It looked like Harvard would challenge Princeton for the regular-season title in 2023-24.
The Crimson started the season 5-2, with losses only to ranked Maryland and Baylor teams. But against Michigan on Dec. 2, Turner hurt her knee midway through the second quarter, and Harvard announced on Dec. 11 that she would need surgery and would be out indefinitely.
“It’s a huge blow … She is such a huge part of what we do as a team,” head coach Carrie Moore said in the announcement. “Her productivity on the court speaks for itself, but her leadership and game experience are invaluable.”
Turner, a First Team All-Ivy League selection last season, has averaged 20.6 points, 5.6 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 2.0 steals in 34.2 minutes per game this season. When she exited against Michigan, the Crimson led 28-20, but Michigan dominated in the third quarter to win 80-66. Harvard then lost its next two games without Turner, to Maine and Boston University on the road.
Without Turner, Harvard needs both Mullaney, a senior who is closing in on Harvard’s record for career 3-pointers, and Rodriguez, an All-Ivy Honorable Mention selection last season, to carry an even bigger load. It also needs greater contributions from its supporting cast, including freshman point guard Karlee White and sophomore guard Saniyah Glenn-Bello, who has replaced Turner in the starting lineup.
Mullaney stepped up immediately, averaging 13.7 points per game before the Michigan game and 21.0 points against Michigan, Maine and Boston University. It wasn’t enough in those games. But in three games since then, Glenn-Bello is averaging 10.0 points, up from 4.1 previously; White is averaging 8.7, up from 3.2; and Rodriguez lit up Delaware on Dec. 31 with 33 points on 11-for-14 shooting, including 5-for-5 from behind the arc.
Will the Crimson have enough depth without Turner to keep pace with the top of the Ivy League, or will they have to fight just to qualify for the Ivy League Tournament?
Which freshman point guards will thrive?
Four freshmen are starting at point guard for Ivy League teams: Harvard’s White, Penn’s Mataya Gayle, Cornell’s Azareya Kilgoe and Dartmouth’s Nina Minicozzi. Here are their per-game statistics to date:
|Mataya Gayle (Penn)
|Azareya Kilgoe (Cornell)
|Nina Minicozzi (Dartmouth)
|Karlee White (Harvard)
All four rank in the top 25 in the Ivy League in assists per game, and Kilgoe leads them at 3.2, which is sixth-best in the conference. Gayle has won three Ivy League Rookie of the Week honors and is averaging the most points per game (15.5) of the quartet. And Minicozzi has the best assist-to-turnover ratio of the group (1.23) while playing the most minutes per game (33.2).
“[Gayle is] really skilled and talented,” Penn head coach Mike McLaughlin told The Next in November, “but she’s learning how to play with a different pace of the game — not all run down, run, run, run. There’s gonna be times she has to learn how to set it up and slow down … So we have a lot of learning curves, but it’s been fun. … She’s the real deal.”
Minicozzi is likewise adjusting to the pace of college basketball, Dartmouth head coach Linda Cimino told The Next in December. But she is constantly in the gym working on her game and is extremely coachable. After Cimino singled her out in a timeout against Navy on Dec. 8 and demanded more production, Minicozzi responded nearly immediately with a 3-pointer.
“Every time I say anything to her — positive, constructively, anything — it’s, ‘Thank you, Coach,’” Cimino said. “She’s as receptive as [any] player I’ve ever coached.”
Being a freshman point guard in any conference is challenging, and the four starters will likely face more pressure and more detailed scouting reports in Ivy League play. They are bound to have ups and downs, but whoever can be the steadiest will likely be one of the frontrunners for Ivy League Rookie of the Year.
Will Brown take the next step?
In 2021-22, Brown’s first season of competition under head coach Monique LeBlanc, the Bears had a 6-20 record overall and finished last in the Ivy League at 1-13.
Last season, they returned 88% of their minutes from 2021-22 and made obvious progress. They won seven games before conference play even started, went 11-15 overall and finished sixth in the Ivy League at 4-10. They had more depth, more efficient offense and a better understanding of LeBlanc’s 2-3 zone defense.
Brown again returned nearly everyone for 2023-24, and a once-young team now has plenty of experience and chemistry. Senior Kyla Jones (17.3 points per game) and sophomore Grace Arnolie (11.6) lead the way offensively, and junior Isabella Mauricio (8.7) is a former leading scorer for the Bears who can heat up quickly.
Entering this season, LeBlanc sought to improve her team’s defense and, in particular, its defensive rebounding. She’s accomplished both goals by changing her defensive system.
Last season, Brown allowed 91.5 points per 100 possessions while playing zone 89% of the time. This year, Brown is giving up just 84.8 points per 100 possessions while playing man 99% of the time. And the Bears are grabbing 66% of available defensive rebounds this season, up from 63% last season.
Brown also stepped up its nonconference scheduling this year to prepare for Ivy League play. “Last year, the beginning of Ivy League play really just smacked us,” LeBlanc told The Next in November. “… It just felt like it was this whole other level up than what we had been playing against. …
“The goal every year with the nonconference schedule is to kind of match where we’re headed or where we hope we’re headed. And so we knew this year, we want to feel a lot more confident.”
Against that tougher schedule, the Bears are 9-4 with wins over Georgetown and Providence. And with teams like Penn and Yale in flux, the door is open for Brown to finish in the top four in the Ivy League. That would get the Bears into their first Ivy League Tournament since 2017.
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Who will Penn’s No. 1 option be?
Penn entered this season with a giant question hanging over the program: Who would replace star guard Kayla Padilla as the leading scorer? Padilla graduated after earning First Team All-Ivy League honors three times in as many seasons (COVID-19 canceled her sophomore season) and averaging 17.8 points per game in her career.
The obvious choice seemed to be senior forward Jordan Obi, the team’s second-leading scorer last season. But that wasn’t necessarily the role that was most comfortable for her. She told reporters at Ivy League media day in October, “Coming into college, I never really thought of myself as a scorer per se … I’m kind of trying to take on that role more.”
Yet Penn has pieced together offense in nonconference games, ranking third in the Ivy League in points and assists per game and fourth in field goal percentage. Junior guard Stina Almqvist was the biggest surprise early: After averaging 3.7 points per game over her first two collegiate seasons, she scored 20 or more points in five of Penn’s first seven games this season.
“Stina has been terrific,” McLaughlin said in November. “… I knew she was going to do well [from] watching her when she came back [this fall]. I just didn’t think she was going to play this well.”
Almqvist slowed down some in December, likely due in part to greater defensive focus on her. But Obi found a rhythm, notably scoring 30 points on 11-for-16 shooting against Merrimack on Dec. 8. Gayle has also scored in double figures in her last eight games, including a career-high 28 points against Maine on Dec. 30.
The result is that, through 13 games, those three players are averaging near-identical outputs: Almqvist is at 15.8 points per game, Gayle is averaging 15.5 and Obi is at 15.2. As Ivy play begins, it will be interesting to watch whether one of them emerges as a consistent go-to when the Quakers need a basket, or whether it changes game-to-game.
Can Yale turn its season around?
Yale was picked fifth in the Ivy League preseason poll, the same place it finished last season. But the Bulldogs believed they’d be much better after bringing back 91.2% of their scoring from last season.
However, almost nothing has gone according to plan for Yale this season. The Bulldogs are 3-10 despite playing one of the country’s easier schedules. They rank 249th out of 360 Division I teams in the NET, and their only wins are against No. 235 Quinnipiac, No. 314 UMass and No. 326 Marist. (They also lost to No. 315 Merrimack.)
The problems are primarily on the defensive end: Yale is allowing 99.0 points per 100 possessions, which ranks 286th nationally, and opponents are shooting 45.0% from the field, which ranks 322nd. Yale’s foul rate of 25.3% is also one of the worst in the country, giving opponents 16.9 points per game off free throws.
In comparison, with a very similar roster last season, Yale allowed 92.7 points per 100 possessions on 41.7% shooting. The foul problems were evident last season, too, and may not be fixable, but based on last season’s numbers, there should be room for this season’s team to clamp down defensively.
There were some promising signs in the win over Quinnipiac on Dec. 30, as Yale held the Bobcats to 48 points on 36.5% shooting and committed only 13 fouls. “We finally put four quarters together,” head coach Dalila Eshe told Ivy Hoops Online.
Another reason for hope for the Bulldogs is the presence of senior captain and point guard Jenna Clark, a two-time Second Team All-Ivy League selection. Clark is averaging 14.8 points, 6.6 assists and 5.2 rebounds per game, all career highs. Her 404 assists also rank second in Yale history.
Clark will be one of the best players on the court every night in conference play, and she’ll have a clear advantage in experience over the league’s freshmen point guards. At her best, she could potentially steal a win in Ivy League play — and that could be enough to reset Yale’s trajectory.
* Most statistics in this article are from the teams’ or Ivy League websites and include all games played. However, the NET rankings and statistics from Her Hoop Stats only include games against Division I competition.
Written by Jenn Hatfield
Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats, FanSided, Power Plays and Princeton Alumni Weekly.