Griffith's Got Stats: Predictions for the 2018 Ivy League Men’s Basketball Tournament

by Evan Griffith | 2/5/18 2:05am

The Harvard Crimson recently published an article entitled, “Wide Open Road for Men’s Basketball in Battle for Ivy League.” The article touched on some important points, including Harvard University’s men’s basketball team’s then-undefeated conference record and the Crimson’s non-conference losses to the College of the Holy Cross, Manhattan College and California State University at Fullerton. However, the article did not mention the Crimson’s shooting struggles, instead arguing that Harvard would “finish with the best record in conference.”

Let’s analyze the validity of that statement.

As it stands right now, there is a very clear gap between the best teams in the Ivy League and those in other conferences. In the Ivy League, the teams at the top are the University of Pennsylvania (5-0), Harvard (5-1) and Princeton University (3-2).

Harvard’s start to Ivy League play has been surprising given its out-of-conference record. Looking at the numbers, the Crimson is a very one-sided team. Harvard averages 97.0 points per 100 offensive possessions according to KenPom.com, 308th out of 351 teams in Division I and last in the Ivy League, while Harvard’s defense holds opponents to 99.0 points per 100 possessions, 70th in the country and second-best in the Ivy League to Penn’s 98.1. Harvard’s defense can take it to the top of the Ivy League. Since Tommy Amaker became Harvard’s head coach in 2007, his defense has held opponents to less than 98 points per 100 possessions three times: in 2012, 2014 and 2015. And from 2012 to 2015, Harvard won the Ivy League and qualified for the NCAA Tournament, making it as far as the Round of 32 in both 2014 and 2015.

The road is not as open as it seems for Harvard to obtain the best record in the Ivy League. Harvard’s defense is returning to NCAA Tournament form, but the team’s offense is not there yet. The 97.0 points per 100 possessions is the worst offensive efficiency by the Crimson since 2006. Harvard was 4-0 at the time the article was written, but it’s worth examining those wins. Two of those wins came against Dartmouth (4-15 overall, 0-6 Ivy), the team with the worst record in the Ivy League. One came against an injury-riddled Yale University (9-13 overall, 2-4 Ivy) team in New Haven, a game which Harvard won by two points, and the fourth was against a middling Brown University (10-9 overall, 3-3 Ivy) team. For Harvard to convincingly be in strong contention for first place in the Ivy League, the Crimson would have had to beat Columbia University (6-13 overall, 3-3 Ivy) on the road this past Friday, which it did not do, losing 83-76. Harvard came back with a win against Cornell University on Saturday to bring its record to 5-1. Harvard will most likely make the Ivy League Tournament, but it’s difficult to see the team winning it all, much less being the top seed.

Princeton was the frontrunner in my eyes going into conference play. The Tigers had held their own against difficult opponents this year, their résumé including a win over the University of Southern California on the road and a two-point loss to a very good Middle Tennessee State University (18-5 overall). However, at 3-2 in the Ivy League, Princeton is on the outside looking in at the top spot in the Ivy League. It lost to Penn on the road and against Brown in overtime. The Bears’ stud freshman Desmond Cambridge played his best game of the year with 32 points and nine rebounds. Princeton is, statistically, performing quite well on the offensive side of the ball in the league. In conference-only play, Princeton is the best team in the Ivy League in offensive efficiency (117.3 points per 100 possessions), effective field goal percentage (57.8 percent), turnover percentage (14.6 percent) and two-point field goal percentage (55.4 percent). Princeton’s defense must improve if it wants to have a better shot at the No.1-seed in the Ivy League Tournament. Princeton’s adjusted defensive efficiency is currently at 107.3 points per 100 possessions, the Tigers’ statistically worst defense since 2015. Princeton has the numbers of a top-seeded Ivy League team, and it has the advantage of previously winning the Ivy League Tournament, but the team has things it needs to improve on to get to the Palestra again.

This leaves the team with the best conference record at the moment: the University of Pennsylvania. The Quakers are an interesting team to look at this season. Before conference play started, the Quakers had the fourth best offensive team in the Ivy League with an adjusted offensive efficiency of 103.2 and the second best defensive team in the Ivy League with an adjusted defensive efficiency of 101.0. The team’s defense has gotten better over time. Its ADE is currently better than Harvard’s at 98.1 points per 100 possessions, but its offense has gotten worse. The team’s AOE dropped to 99.4 points per 100 possessions, the second worst in the Ivy League. The team is still winning games despite this; since conference play started, Penn has won all its Ivy League contests. All of Penn’s league victories have come at home, and the team faces a tough test with five-straight road games over the next two weekends, including a visit to Princeton on Tuesday. That matchup will make the race for number one a little bit clearer.

All three of these teams have strengths, but they also have weaknesses to exploit. If I was a betting man, I’d bet on a different outcome than the one mentioned in the Crimson. The race for the No.1 seed in the Ivy League Tournament is way too close to call right now. If I had to make a prediction right now for the results of the tournament, I’d predict a Penn-Princeton final, with Penn winning it all. The tournament is held in Philadelphia, so I’m siding with home field advantage, since Princeton needed overtime to beat Penn in the first round of the tournament last year.