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Thursday, January 13, 2005

Of Trees and Trolls

Every year, fans of all D-I college hoop teams look at the standings of each conference and try to project which 64 (err, 65) will make it to the NCAA Tournament. For those fans whose teams are fortunate enough to be 8 seeds or higher, there can be dreams of the Sweet 16 or beyond. For those fans whose teams are in the bottom quadrant, well, the discussion usually is whether the Bucknells of the world will have a good enough body of work to merit a 12 or a 13 seed and perhaps a chance to win a first-round game against a large-conference runner up (that hope usually gets dashed when they run into a #5 seed whose front line goes 6'10", 6'10", 6'8" against the low-major team's front line that goes 6'8", 6'5", 6'5").

It's fun to speculate, for sure, whether you're at the Superman or Sisyphus level in the post-season scheme of things. And yesterday's men's college hoops results gave us a good look at a well-oiled machine at the upper level and a struggling team that usually is in the hunt for one of those 12 or 13 seeds.

It's a tale of two conferences, to be sure, a tale of two regions, and a tale of the two poles of major college basketball. At the penthouse, the North Carolina Tar Heels made quite a statement, breezing by a good Georgia Tech team by more than 20 points. The win was Carolina's 14th in a row, and they've won those games by an average of more than 20 points per game (or more than Michael Jordan averaged per game while in Chapel Hill). Click here for Dave Sez's report on this game (and click on the links in Dave's post) and other ACC action.

It says here that the Tar Heels are a Final Four team. I won't be so bold at this point to name them the national champions, but they are a first-rate basketball team (I promise to be a little more profound in the rest of the post!). Roy Williams probably holds the title as the best coach never to win an NCAA title (although others, such as John Chaney and Eddie Sutton could make a run for that title), and he's bound to get there someday.

Very soon.

At the other end of the spectrum are the Penn Quakers, a perennial contender in the Ivy League. Penn has an excellent hoops tradition, is one of only 15 teams to win 1,500 games during its history, and usually battles Princeton for the Ivy title year in and year out. I recently blogged that Penn's five games in January against non-league opponents would speak volumes about the Quakers' chances for the Ivy title, and so far Penn is 0-2 in those games. Last night they dropped a home game against visiting Rider by 6 in overtime, and their three primary outside shooters -- Tim Begley, Ibby Jaaber and Eric Osmundsen -- shot 4-22 from behind the arc, with Begley, the team captain and go-to guy, shooting 2-11 from behind the three-point line.

Two years ago, Begley was the Quakers' fifth option on offense (the first four were Ugonna Onyekwe, Andy Toole, Jeff Schiffner and Koko Archibong, each of whom earned at least one first-team all-Ivy nod during his career), blended in well, passed great and hit the open shot. Last year, he was the second option next to Schiffner (who was a returning first-team all-Ivy player), and he played very well. Schiffner, though, as the first option, couldn't replicate his first-team all-Ivy season. As the first option, he just didn't have enough game to take over a game. Begley, who I think is a better all-around player than Schiffner (although perhaps not a better competitor), finds himself this year in the spot Schiffner found himself last year. And, so far, it's been a bit of a challenge, in that he can't carry the team on his back all the time (last night he had 18 points, 10 rebounds, 8 assists, but had 5 turnovers and did shoot 2-11 from behind the arc). Super sophs Mark Zoller and Ibby Jaaber are in a bit of a sophomore slump; Zoller has been fighting off the effects of an ankle sprain, and Jaaber has been challenged on offense. Osmundsen is not a penetrator, and he turned the ball over 5 times against Illinois-Chicago. And the Quakers' big men -- Steve Danley, Jan Fikiel and Ryan Pettinella -- have been serviceable. All have shown promise -- Fikiel had 21 last night -- but none has been consistent.

So Penn is 4-7 right now and still trying to find a rhythm. The Quakers still have a chance to turn it around, as they have 3 more non-league games to play and 14 league games. Their Ivy record right now is 0-0, but their non-conference record suggests that while they're tough on the boards they're not good at protecting the basketball and not as good at shooting it as they have been in the past. And that could bode trouble in the Ivy campaign.

All that said, the Ivies usually boil down to Penn and Princeton, Princeton and Penn. True, Brown and Yale have found themselves in the mix over the past four years, and this year Columbia might be a gate-crasher.

Okay, so it's not the ACC, but watch the Patriot League championship game in early March, watch a Penn-Princeton game in February or March, and tell those teams and their fans that. Because basketball is basketball, and they play to win in Hanover, New Hampshire, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Providence, New Haven, Ithaca, New York, New York City, Princeton and Philadelphia with the same passion that they do on Tobacco Road. They might not jump as high, run as fast or shoot as well, but the kids who play the game want to win as badly.

That's what the teams who compete for the NCAA Tournament's top seeds and bottom seeds have in common.

And that's what makes Division I basketball as compelling as it is.


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