What the Ivy League tells us about women’s college basketball now — Must-click women’s basketball links — Sara Scalia talks Indiana Hoosiers
The IX: Basketball Thursday with Howard Megdal, Nov. 30, 2023
PRINCETON — The problem with getting ranked, as Princeton from the Ivy League finally experienced on Wednesday night, is that you have to keep winning to stay ranked. And the BIG EAST’s Seton Hall wasn’t about to make that easy in an intra-Jersey battle on a cold night in Central Jersey (yes, it’s real).
What followed was a battle that will be long-remembered by all who saw it live, eventually resulting in a 75-71, two-overtime win by the Tigers over the Pirates. But for me, the bigger takeaways were the reminders of the depth of talent in the women’s game as we enter 2024.
Sure, it is easy to look at the very top of the game to understand this, whether in the performances and skill sets of the trio of MVP candidates in the WNBA this season, from A’ja Wilson to Breanna Stewart to Alyssa Thomas, or players redefining the outer limits of the guard and big in the college game like Caitlin Clark and Cameron Brink.
But to me, just as significant a measurement of this is found in some gray areas further down the funnel of talent, one that is wider and more flush than ever.
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Let’s take the fact that Princeton utilized Parker Hill on Wednesday night. Hill is the team’s third big. Starter Ellie Mitchell, who is to rebounding what Picasso was to art, prolific and sui generis, is backed up by the capable Chet Nweke. Against bigger teams, head coach Carla Berube has utilized both together. That means stretching her bench thin, and leaving Princeton vulnerable should either Mitchell or Nweke get into foul trouble.
So it was a revelation on Wednesday night to see Hill, whose previous career-high in minutes had been 16, play 29 — she’d passed her all-time best before the end of regulation. And her performance was the height of efficiency. She did not miss either shot she took from the field, grabbed four rebounds, dished out two assists, and most critically, blocked four shots and added four steals. It wasn’t her career-high — that was 12 points against Rhode Island last season — but she has other standards of excellence she uses.
“I’m usually a pass-first type of player,” Hill told me, sitting happily at the podium in the Jadwin Gym press room recently vacated by an evening class, flanked by teammate Skye Belker and Berube. “So I definitely value blocks and steals more than points. I mean, it’s nice to score, too. I think definitely this game was more important to me than URI last year, just from the impact through time played, and also just, we won this game on defense.”
That Princeton can bring a third big off the bench to perform like this is simply another reminder that the Tigers are deep, built to win in March, and didn’t come by their ranking accidentally. Kaitlyn Chen returns as Ivy Player of the Year, and Madison St. Rose, a sophomore, is clearly a future recipient of the award. Belker, too, is an elite two-way player as a freshman, someone Berube clearly trusts already. There was a time not long ago when an Ivy League team defeating a BIG EAST team would qualify as a genuine shock. Nor is this Seton Hall team a pushover — they played a ranked USC team powered by Juju Watkins very tough, and its only other loss is to a team that should also make the NCAA Tournament — Columbia.
Indeed, two BIG EAST teams fell to Ivy League teams on Wednesday, and neither one was a surprise. Columbia defeated a Providence team just beginning to build under Erin Batth, 77-52 at Levien Gym in front of 2,357 fans used to such wins. Abbey Hsu is the WNBA-caliber star of the Lions, but Wednesday it was sophomore Perri Page, normally coming off the bench, posting a double-double to lead the way.
It was Providence’s second loss to an Ivy League team — the Friars also dropped a decision to Brown earlier this year. But these are not shockers, or one-offs — Brown has two BIG EAST wins this season, having defeated Georgetown as well. Just as notable is how unsatisfied Berube is with all of it. She recognizes the progress, but sees more possibilities ahead.
“I think there’s still ways to go,” she said when I asked her whether the Ivy League had reached its peak. “I think we can still, as a whole league, keep keep elevating. But any of our Ivy League teams can compete against the BIG EAST, some Power Fives. And I think we were still building and we’re still getting there. But also, I think for for many of our schools, we can compete with with anybody. So it’s exciting, and it’s fun for our league.”
As Seton Hall head coach Tony Bozzella pointed out, the lack of transfers in the Ivy League helps to create continuity. But there’s also the delightful reality: that there is so much talent in women’s basketball right now, Ivy League schools are stocking deep rosters and playing tough, physical and at the level of the best basketball conferences in America. As Bozzella pointed out, outrebounding Princeton, as Seton Hall did Wednesday, is an accomplishment.
“That was our biggest thing before the game,” Bozzella told assembled reporters. “We were like, we need to fight…. I thought we really really competed on the glass. It’s hard, because they’re really good at it. I know Ellie Mitchell… Ellie Mitchell is a great rebounder. When you rebound the way she can, that’s an elite talent.”
Mitchell still grabbed nine boards. Bozzella chalked that up as a win, and he’s right — the previous two seasons against the Pirates, Mitchell collected 41 rebounds.
While the general discussion about the league is always quick to acknowledge some stragglers, too — Dartmouth, Cornell and this year Yale may bring down the league’s overall metrics, something that cost an elite Columbia team an at-large NCAA berth last year — the scheduling is no longer about getting powers like Princeton, Harvard, Penn and Columbia some elite competition ahead of easy Ivy sledding.
“And that’s why we’re getting ready this preseason for that Ivy League season, because it is so challenging,” Berube said.
That’s the state of the game in the toughest academic conference in Division I, give or take a Patriot League. Think about what that says about the game everywhere right now.
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