SportsProf

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Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Penn-Princeton At The Palestra Tonight

Going into last weekend, I had hoped that tonight would present a much more compelling scenario that it actually does. I had envisioned a Princeton sweep of Ivy doormats Dartmouth and Harvard on the road, bringing the Tigers' record to 3-1 in the league and only 1 game behind host Penn (which I also assumed would sweep those teams). I also had hoped (as it turned out, futilely) that the Eagles would win the Super Bowl. The result: I would take the day off, go to the victory parade, hang out in Center City and then make my way to the Palestra for this game -- a most interesting sports journey.

Instead, the moons didn't align right, and the nadir surfaced to throw cold water on me on a frosty day. The Tigers lost to both Dartmouth and Harvard, thereby seizing the doormat mantle from those schools, and the Eagles came up short against the Patriots. Which means that going into this game, I'm a little numb from the Super Bowl defeat and rather empty about the Tigers' awful start. The game that would have figured into who is going to win the Ivies is now all about whether or not Princeton will be around for a rousing finish, or whether they'll get eliminated on a TKO tonight.

For Princeton fans looking for some ray of hope, harken back to the 1983-1984 season, when the Tigers dropped both games on the road at Harvard and Dartmouth on the opening weekend, went 10-2 the rest of the way in the Ivies, won the Ivies and actually beat U. of San Diego in a play-in game in the NCAA Tournament before bowing to UNLV. Back then, Princeton had stellar guards in senior Billy Ryan, soph John Smyth and a feisty freshman named Joe Scott. Kevin Mullin played SF, and he proved to be one of the best shooters in recent Princeton memory. Can the Tigers make this kind of comeback? Tonight will tell us a whole lot.

I posted here about my thoughts on what happened to the Tigers, so now I turn my attention to tonight's game and the matchups (Click here for Penn's official preview, here for their stats, here for Princeton's preview and here for Princeton's stats):

Center

Penn: Steve Danley, soph
Princeton: Judson Wallace, senior

Wallace is a returning first-team all-Ivy player who had an outstanding season last year and has been inconsistent this year. Sometimes it takes him a while to get into the flow, but when he does he's tough to stop. He's been playing with an iffy back (he didn't start against Dartmouth and played only 17 minutes). Danley, to me, could be the Ivies' most improved player. He played hard on defense last year and looked bad on offense, but he's shown that he can shoot it from mid-range, put it on the floor and bang inside. If he can hold his own against Wallace tonight, that's a big plus for Penn. Princeton needs Wallace to have a very good game tonight; they're a little point-challenged right now (with only Wallace and G Will Venable averaging in double figures).

Edge: Princeton (but not as significantly as Tiger fans might hope).

PF

Penn: Mark Zoller, soph
Princeton: Noah Savage, frosh

This position is a misnomer, because someone has to play the four, but really these guys are small-forward sized, with Zoller, even with his hair, coming in at 6'6" and Savage at 6'5". As for Zoller, well, he's a very unique player. He always gets his points and rebounds even if it doesn't seem that he can run or jump well. Why? Because his hoops IQ is off the charts -- he always knows where to be and where the open man is. And, he bangs the boards relentlessly. Opponents who underestimate him and leave him be regret it when the final score is posted. Savage is a tenacious offensive player who has earned the affection of Coach Scott, who (apparently) publicly questioned his team's grit recently and gave Savage props in the process. While Savage can shoot the basketball better than most Tigers (which isn't saying a ton given that Princeton isn't that good a shooting team, although it has shot to date about 42% from behind the arc in the Ivies; 30% from behind the arc overall), he doesn't always find the open man, and he tends to foul a bunch on defense. Still, he'll get his points. This should be a fun matchup to watch.

Edge: Penn (and less significantly than Penn fans might think; Savage can play).

SF

Penn: Tim Begley, senior
Princeton: Luke Owings, soph

Readers of this blog will know that a) I am a huge fan of Begley and b) I believe that he's the best Princeton-type player in the Ivies. He handles the ball reasonably well, is a fantastic passer and can shoot the lights out. He's not as physically tough a player as Jeff Schiffner, and he's not always wont to take over a game, either because he's unselfish to the core or because he's just not totally capable of carrying the title "first option." Still, he is Penn's glue, and he always knows what to do with the basketball. Watch Begley when he gets the ball -- he doesn't hestitate, it either stays in his hands for a split second before making its way to a teammate or he puts it on the floor right away. As with Zoller, he is a joy to watch. Owings might have the best shooting talent of any Tiger, but he was hampered early in the season with a foot injury and hasn't totally integrated himself back into the Princeton lineup. The Tigers could use a solid effort tonight from him -- if he can hit a few threes and figure out what type of gum Begley chews, he'll have helped give the Tigers a good chance to win the game tonight.

Edge: Penn (by a wide margin)

2G

Penn: Ibby Jaaber, soph
Princeton: Will Venable, senior

At the end of last season, this had promised to be the matchup that everyone would have waited for, the young gun against the returning first-team all-Ivy player who was the inspiration that helped propel Princeton to the Ivy title last year. Fast forward to this season, and you have a young 2G with a ton of talent who has yet to harness it (and who is barely his team's second option on offense) and a veteran 2G who seems out of place in Princeton coach Joe Scott's exacting version of the Princeton offense. Jaaber is a catalyst who can spark the Quakers (and he is great at stealing the basketball), but he hasn't put together the string of games this year that he did last year in the second half of the Ivy season. Venable is not a good shooter, and he hasn't finished plays as well this year as he did last season. He played great on national TV against Duke, but his season thus far has been a disappointment. What promised to be the feature matchup is, well, just another matchup tonight and not as intriguing, say, as the Danley-Wallace matchup.

Edge: Even.

PG

Penn: Eric Osmundsen, senior
Princeton: Scott Greenman, junior

Osmundsen is another reason for Penn's great Ivy start. He's much more relaxed out there than he was last year, plays with a quick first step and can get on a roll and shoot the three very well, just as he did last year in Jadwin Gym when he hit two threes in the first half that helped propel Penn to an easy victory over the Tigers. He's also 6'5", and he'll present a ton of matchup problems for Princeton if Princeton decides to play man-to-man defense (which it probably will not). Greenman, at 5'9", is a gritty PG with a fine assist-to-turnover ratio, but he hasn't been able to shoot with consistency. He's still an especially tough player down the stretch, but he's not someone who normally can take over a game.

Edge: Penn.

Bench:

Penn: C/F Ryan Pettinella (soph), F Jan Fikiel (senior), G/F Friederich Ebede (jr)
Princeton: C Mike Stephens (sr), F Andre Logan (sr), G Max Schafer (soph)

Edge: Penn (slight).

I don't think that either team's bench is that stellar, although Penn has gotten better play from its reserves than Princeton has from its, with the exception of Stephens, who almost singlehandley beat Yale in the Tigers' only Ivy win, scoring 23 points in 25 minutes. Logan's been getting solid double figures in minutes, but he's showed little so far. Pettinella hasn't shown a lot of offensive skill, but he's a hard-nosed player who keeps on battling. Fikiel is good for points on occasion, has questionable hands and sometimes gets lost out there. Penn has no guards who get meaningful time of the bench, something the Tigers could exploit if they can pressure Penn's "true guards" (Osmundsen and Jaaber) and get them into foul trouble. Princeton seemingly has more depth given who did what last year, but no one has emerged as a key role player other than Stephens so far.

Coaching:

Penn: Fran Dunphy
Princeton: Joe Scott

Much was written about Scott's working miracles at Air Force and his return to his alma mater, how he would make this veteran Tigers team a better team and how this Tigers team would definitely repeat as league champion. As for Penn, they came into the season as an enigma. Questions abounded -- how healthy was Mark Zoller's ankle (he's recovered), would Eric Osmundsen's knee get well enough to give him more quickness than he'd shown previously (it has), would the soph big men improve (yes, they did), would Tim Begley be able to be the first option (no, he hasn't always shown it, but it hasn't really mattered in league play so far), would Ibby Jaaber break out and establish himself as a first-team all-Ivy player (not yet) and would Penn establish a bona fide PG who can penetrate and create (no, they haven't, and backup G Michael Kach, a frosh, quit the team in the fall, leaving the Quakers thin at guard). Still, and importantly, Dunphy has done a masterful job of preparing this team for the Ivy title hunt, and the chemistry of this Quaker team is outstanding (looking at the scoring balance with Begley at 13.4 ppg, Jaaber at 10.4, and then four players at 6.4 ppg and above). As for Princeton, as I wrote in my previous post, their chemistry is rather bad, as it seems that the coach and his players haven't been on the same page. Scott will coach champions at Princeton, and tonight will tell us whether his team will have even a remote chance this season.

Edge: Penn (at least for now).

Analysis/Wrap-up:

Princeton has been point-challenged, and it has relied basically on Wallace and Venable to carry much of its scoring load. Venable hasn't been as much of a factor as people would have hoped. Greenman can score in high single digits, but he's not a prodigious scoring threat, and Logan, Owings and frosh G Matt Sargeant all have been disappointments so far. Soph G Max Schafer, a feisty guard in his own right, could break out tonight, as he saw a lot of playing time over the weekend. On balance, this is a Tiger team that is on the ropes, and it's playing without much confidence. Tonight will tell the league whether they have a legitimate shot at the title. As for Penn, their confidence couldn't be higher, and they've pasted their opponents in their first four league games. None has been close, and they can smell the kill tonight. The Palestra will be packed tonight with Penn fans who didn't necessarily expect that this team would challenge for the league title. Strategy wise, if I'm Penn I zone Princeton until the Tigers start to hit shots to bust it, as you don't want Venable in a man-to-man matchup -- he's too dangerous. If I'm Princeton, I would show my depth and press the heck out of Penn, as Penn is basically a lineup with two 2Gs, two small forwards and a power forward; there isn't a true ballhandler in the bunch, and there aren't any off the bench (Penn has 275 assists to 278 turnovers on the season; this is a fact that Princeton must exploit to win this ballgame; yes, Princeton's ratio is an equally mediocre 212-225, so what I'm emphasizing is pure ballhandling from the guards as opposed to silly plays by forwards and centers not knowing what to do with the ball). Player killer defense, don't get killed in the transition and force a ton of turnovers. I also would play Owings and Savage out there at the same time as much as possible, and I'd keep them shooting. Lastly, I'd make sure that someone always has a body on Mark Zoller. Left to his own devices, he can kill you.

All that said, this is a tale of two teams, one that can establish a huge cushion over its archrival, and one that is playing with nothing (and everything) to lose at the same time. I look for Princeton to make a gritty effort for the first 33 minutes, but then foul trouble, their lack of chemistry and a cold shooting spell will ultimately prove fatal for the Tigers.

Call it Penn 66, Princeton 54.

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