2020-21 Ivy League Preview, Part 1 — COVID-19’s Impact on Rosters
A majority of the league's women's basketball teams could be shorthanded this season
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Ivy League women’s basketball is, to put it mildly, in a state of flux. The 2020-21 season will not start until January at the earliest, and it is possible that there will be no Ivy League basketball at all this season due to COVID-19.
On the men’s side, sources have told Forbes’ Adam Zagoria that Harvard is unlikely to play because students are unlikely to be back on campus for the spring semester, a rationale that would seemingly apply to the women’s team as well. However, sources also told Zagoria that conference play could continue if as few as five teams are willing to participate.
Penn women’s basketball head coach Mike McLaughlin told The Next that the plan before the pandemic to begin conference play on January 2 is “not going to happen,” but he is “hopeful” that there will be a basketball season. “If safe and permitted by the school, Penn is committed to play,” he said.
All eight schools are following the league’s plan to return to sports, which has four phases: Phase 0 (no in-person activities), Phase 1 (strength and conditioning only), Phase 2 (practices and team meetings with a maximum of 10 athletes), and Phase 3 (practices and meetings with larger group sizes as determined by campuses). As of late October, no school had reached Phase 3, and some schools will remain at Phase 0 for the entire fall semester.
Both McLaughlin and Yale head coach Allison Guth said that the women’s basketball schedule will likely have to change in order to make a season feasible. The league announced in January 2020 that the 14-game conference schedule would be more spread out in 2020-21, going from eight weeks to ten weeks and involving fewer back-to-back games. Guth was part of the committee that decided on the new schedule, but in light of the pandemic, she said, “It probably looks like it should go right back to what it was, right, with even more thought on how do you minimize travel?”
From her own experience as well as conversations with her peers around the league, Guth indicated that the Ivy League schools have the resources to test student-athletes and staff regularly. McLaughlin likewise expects Penn to be “in great shape” with testing due to the proximity of the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. The more intractable issues include whether student-athletes will be allowed to play without the student body on campus, how to minimize the risks of travel, and whether there will be exceptions to state quarantine orders to allow college athletic teams to travel without quarantining for 14 days.
If there is a season, Guth will have to make do with an eight-player roster, as five players decided to take leaves of absence from Yale for the year. Unlike other conferences, the Ivy League does not allow redshirts: student-athletes are only eligible in their first four years of undergraduate enrollment, so if a player wants to preserve a year of eligibility, he or she must withdraw from school.
Dartmouth will only have nine players available, as its sophomore through senior classes received approval from the administration to be on campus for the winter quarter but its four freshmen did not. The freshmen will take classes remotely that quarter and will not play this season.
Harvard and Columbia have also been hit hard by leaves of absence. Harvard has four players who took the fall semester off and may or may not reenroll for the spring, and Columbia has five players in the same position. Two would-be Harvard freshmen also deferred admission until fall 2021. In contrast, teams such as Penn and Cornell have had no players take leaves of absence, as of late October.
Here is a breakdown of every Ivy League team’s roster, in order of the number of players available. Available players are highlighted in shades of blue, players who left after last season or are unavailable are in shades of pink, and players who may or may not be available are in purple.
*refers to players who graduated or permanently left the team, not players on leaves of absence (LOA) or otherwise unavailable this season.
**Guth indicated that Princeton has several players on leaves of absence, but Princeton’s athletic communications department would not confirm this.
When asked about their rosters and their ability to practice, the athletic communications departments for all eight teams provided varying levels of detail, from no comment at all to a player-by-player accounting of who is still enrolled, on campus, and/or available to play this spring.
Sources: University newspaper reports and athletic communications departments.
It is important to note that players who are taking leaves of absence for the fall semester could re-enroll this spring, and players who are currently enrolled could decide to take a leave of absence in the spring and not play this season. However, here is what we know about each team as of October 2020, in order of finish last season.
Princeton (26-1, 14-0 in the Ivy League in 2019-20)
Princeton graduated two seniors in 2020 in Bella Alarie—a three-time Ivy League Player of the Year and the No. 5 overall pick in the 2020 WNBA Draft—and Taylor Baur. That duo accounted for 23% of Princeton’s minutes, 31% of its points, 35% of its rebounds, and a whopping 55% of its blocked shots in 2019-20.
The Princeton athletic communications department declined to provide any information on the 2020-21 roster until the league and Princeton University announce their plans for the season, which makes it difficult to assess who the Tigers have returning. Guth indicated that Princeton and Yale are similarly shorthanded, which could hamper the Tigers’ quest to win their fourth straight Ivy League regular-season title. A lot will depend on whether they have senior guard Carlie Littlefield, who led the team in minutes (31.0), assists (3.1), and steals (1.9) per game last season and ranked second in scoring (13.7 points per game).
Princeton students are all learning online this semester and almost none are on campus, so the team has not been able to practice.
Penn (20-7, 10-4)
Penn returns 14 players from last season’s runner-up finish in the Ivy League, including senior forward Eleah Parker (12.0 points and 8.2 rebounds per game last season) and sophomore guard Kayla Padilla (17.4 points per game), who won both the Ivy League Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year awards. McLaughlin also adds four freshmen and Georgetown transfer Nikola Kovacikova, giving him a deep and relatively experienced roster. (Penn’s athletic communications department declined comment on whether the team is applying for a transfer waiver to allow Kovacikova to play this season.)
To date, none of the Penn players have taken leaves of absence. Although education is online and players do not have access to Penn’s basketball facilities, about ten of the players are living and training together in the Philadelphia area. Penn will return 74% of its scoring from last season, one of the highest shares in the conference, and could contend for its fifth regular-season title in the past eight seasons.
*Columbia declined to identify which of its players have taken leaves of absence, so those players are included among the returners. For that reason, Columbia may return less than indicated in this chart, depending on how many players reenroll this spring.
**Similarly, Princeton declined to specify how many or which players have taken leaves of absence, so the Tigers may return less than indicated.
Yale (18-8, 9-5)
Yale has five student-athletes taking leaves of absence for the full academic year: starter Camilla Emsbo and reserves Alex Cade, Klara Astrom, Jenna Clark, and Ayla Elam. Emsbo was Yale’s second-leading scorer last season with 15.0 points per game, and Guth called her “a Player of the Year-type candidate.”
Yale also graduated two other starters and will be without five of its top seven players from a season ago. Just five players are currently on campus and a maximum of eight will be available this spring. Yet Guth is still bullish about her team because of the experience that her two senior guards, Ellen Margaret Andrews and Tori Andrew, got last season. The Bulldogs won three more conference games than in 2018-19 and earned their best-ever seed in the Ivy League Tournament.
“There was no doubt, in my opinion: [2019-20] was the best team that Yale's ever had,” Guth told The Next. “… I think there is that platform in sports that you kind of jump off into the next level, because you take that next step. And for us, we needed to take that next step. It's the experience that is the teacher.” Guth hopes that those lessons will position the shorthanded Bulldogs to contend again in 2020-21.
Columbia (17-10, 8-6)
Fresh off of its first Ivy League Tournament berth in program history, Columbia graduated just one senior, but the Columbia athletic communications department confirmed that five players have taken leaves of absence for the fall semester. The department would not reveal which players are not currently enrolled, but if Abbey Hsu (14.3 points per game last season), Sienna Durr (12.8), and/or Kaitlyn Davis (8.4) don’t play, it will be a big blow to Columbia’s hopes of continuing to ascend in the conference. If everyone returns, however, Columbia will lead the conference in the percentage of minutes (86%) and points (87%) returning from 2019-20.
*Columbia and Princeton both declined to identify which of their players have taken leaves of absence, so those players are included among the returners. As a result, those teams may return less than indicated in this chart.
None of Columbia’s players are on campus for the fall semester, so the team is limited to individual workouts and team Zoom calls to stay connected.
Harvard (15-12, 6-8)
Harvard earns the unwanted distinction of having the most players not enrolled this semester, with six. Four players took leaves of absence for the fall semester and left open the option to re-enroll this spring: Lola Mullaney, Maggie McCarthy, Rachel Levy, and Maddie Stuhlreyer. Mullaney averaged a team-high 14.7 points per game last season, and McCarthy, a fellow starter, averaged 7.6 points and 5.6 rebounds per game.
Harvard’s chances in the Ivy League hinge dramatically on whether those players decide to re-enroll. Those players accounted for 43% of the team’s minutes and 50% of its points a season ago. If those four do not return this spring, Harvard will bring back less than one-third of its minutes and one-fourth of its points, which is not exactly a recipe for success. (However, the team does add Cal transfer and former McDonald’s All-American McKenzie Forbes to the mix.)
In addition, would-be freshmen Elle Stauffer and Harmoni Turner have deferred their admission until fall 2021 and will not play this season. Stauffer was a McDonald’s All-American nominee in 2020, while Turner was the No. 42 prospect in the 2020 HoopGurlz Recruiting Rankings.
Dartmouth (10-17, 4-10)
Dartmouth currently has five players on campus—its four freshmen and junior Veronica Kelly—and is able to practice under Phase 2 guidelines. None of the players are currently taking leaves of absence, but the Big Green will nevertheless be shorthanded in 2021. Only the sophomores through seniors on the women’s basketball team received approval to live on campus during Dartmouth’s winter quarter, which spans January 7 through March 17, so the freshmen will learn remotely and will not play this season.
However, Dartmouth is one of only three teams to return at least 10 players from last year’s roster. That continuity should help, especially early in the season as teams reacclimate to game play. Four of Dartmouth’s returners started at least 12 games last season, and seven averaged at least 10 minutes per game.
Cornell (10-16, 3-11)
Cornell does not have any players taking leaves of absence, but the Big Red lost the most players of any team after last season: six seniors and two other players who left the program. As a result, they return just 50% of their minutes and 46% of their scoring from a season ago. The next wave of talent includes four freshmen and Georgetown transfer Olivia Snyder, who will presumably not play this season in accordance with NCAA transfer rules.
Despite the turnover, an advantage that Cornell has this season is that at least some players are on campus and the school is one of the few to reach Phase 2 activities, allowing them to do limited basketball workouts. Head coach Dayna Smith declined an interview request to discuss those workouts in more detail, but Cornell women’s basketball has a reputation for being “incredibly tough and physical and they compete,” according to Guth, and the team will likely retain that identity in 2020-21.
Brown (8-19, 2-12)
Coming off of a last-place finish in 2019-20, Brown has a new head coach in Monique LeBlanc and six newcomers to integrate with the nine returners. However, the team’s ability to develop chemistry is limited right now because of the school’s altered academic calendar, in which sophomores, juniors, and seniors are on campus this fall but freshmen will not arrive until the winter term. The players on campus are currently allowed to do strength and conditioning workouts but are not able to get on the court.
The Brown athletic communications department declined to state whether any players have taken leaves of absence for this semester or the full year.
Unless otherwise hyperlinked, all statistics for graphs, tables, and text were calculated by the author using data from teams’ websites.