They weren't supposed to be this good. They were supposed to come in second in their league at best, or so said the pundits, who believed that with two first-team all-Ivy selections returning from last year's squad that won the Ivies, the Princeton Tigers were going to repeat as Ivy champions. That prediction was certainly the safe bet, and I, for one, made it too.
But the Penn Quakers didn't listen to the prognosticators, not during the pre-season predictions, not right after a start that saw them almost get blitzed out of the state of Wisconsin, and not after some early January games that had their fans wondering whether they'd win at least 10 of their 14 Ivy league games. No, the Penn Quakers only listened to their coaches and themselves, and they never quit.
Their coach came into the season after dallying with his alma mater, LaSalle, who wanted desperately from him to return to right their scandalized program, and he came into it with several question marks on his roster. The biggest question marks were at guard, in two distinct ways. First, would the Quakers be able to develop any depth at the position, given that they lost two guards to graduation and had two freshmen coming in? Second, would senior PG Eric Osmundsen, thus far a disappointment after his transfer from Utah, demonstrate the talent that the Penn coaches thought he had when he arrived at Penn?
There were other questions too, about leadership, about graduation losses, about whether a heralded sophomore class would improve or fall prey to the gravity pull known as the sophomore jinx. Finally, could Fran Dunphy lead a team to an Ivy title without a break-it-down, penetrating point guard? Those who have watched Dunphy coach over the years know that this was one of the most critical questions.
The positive answers to those questions climaxed last night, when the Penn Quakers beat Columbia, clinched the Ivy title and became the first team to make it to the NCAA Tournament. How they won the Ivies so easily is a testimony to their coach and to his players.
First, Dunphy made two fundamental changes to his coaching style. He didn't make his offense so guard reliant, and he stopped doing the tinkering and dallying for which he had become famous during his tenure at Penn. That meant that he wouldn't run the offense solely through one guard, and that meant that he wouldn't play too many players and fall in love with a Mike Sullivan, Charlie Copp or Jeff Goldstein. What resulted was that he basically played seven guys up until this weekend, when apparently Osmundsen was still battling the flu and reserve G David Whitehurst got many meaningful minutes. In essence, Penn had been an Iron 7 for most of the Ivy season.
Second, the Quakers won the Ivies without that penetrating PG, giving them their first title in the Dunphy era when a signature guard wasn't manning the point. Instead, he had a signature two guard and a signature small forward. In soph 2G Ibby Jaaber, he has the best defender in the Ivies, a shutdown defender who leads the Ivies in steals and is about to set the single-season record for the league in that department. Like many Ivy players, he has one hole in his game, which is outside shooting; otherwise he'd be launching three balls for some coach on Tobacco Road. His presence in Penn's press against Princeton at the Palestra helped ignite Penn's amazing comeback about a month ago.
As for the signature small forward, Tim Begley is the consummate basketball player. He can hit the open man, he's great at moving the ball around, and he can shoot the three. He also wants the rock during crunch time, and he's played very well. He is just a special player.
Penn never totally solved that guard problem, either. Frosh combo guard Michael Kach, who had showed some promise, quit the team around Christmas. Until Whitehurst emerged this past weekend, Osmundsen and Jaaber were getting more than 35 minutes a game, with Begley sometimes sliding into the backcourt. Osmundsen has played well in spurts, most certainly good enough to help his team to the title. He has shown ample evidence of the skill set that had Penn coaches after him when he was a HS senior near San Diego. Great? No. Outstanding PG play, a penetrating PG? No, not really. Just fine? Absolutely.
Penn's Iron 7 (or 8) won't go down as one of the best team's in Penn's history. But like the Princeton team of about five years ago, when John Thompson III first manned the conning tower of the hoops battleship known as Princeton and having to energize a program that had lost its top two coaches and about seven players to injuries, professional baseball contracts, graduations, transfers and years off, this team will go down as one of the most special. It's a team with the most improved player in the Ivies, soph center Steve Danley, two small forwards in 6'6" soph Mark Zoller and Begley, and ostensibly two two guards in Jaaber and Osmundsen. It's first two players off the bench are 6'9", senior Jan Fikiel and soph Ryan Pettinnella. The former is known for being a finesse player with a touch (at times) while the latter is known as a banger without one. For most of his career Fikiel played inconsistently; the night Penn made its heroic comeback against Princeton about a month ago, he turned into Dirk Nowitzki for a half, zinging three after three.
Over the years, more Penn players than not have majored in some business discipline offered by Penn's heralded Wharton School of Business.
This year they've earned their degrees in chemistry.