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Sunday, February 20, 2005

The Upside Down Year Of Ivy Basketball

Ivy hoops fans went into this year thinking that the same Ivy Hoops World Order that has existed for much of the past 35 years would have stood pat. Penn and Princeton, Princeton and Penn.

And then everyone else.

The Ivy Hoops World Order almost has gotten to the point where the average Penn and Princeton fan would prefer to see the archrival win the Ivy title than any other Ivy team. The reason: worthiness. I recall about three years ago when Yale and Penn had a playoff game to determine who would go to the NCAA Tournament, and many Princeton fans told me they were actually rooting against Yale because the NCAA Tournament was a "Princeton and Penn" thing. Most couldn't admit they were rooting for Penn, but they were rooting against Yale.

And this year promised to be no different. After all, Penn usually reloads before it rebuilds, and while the Quakers lost three starters, they had about half a dozen promising players returning. The Tigers, meanwhile, returned two first-team all-Ivy players, so it was easy to make them the favorites. As a result, going into the season, the Ivy Hoops World Order looked secure.

At least to those who prefer the Ivy Hoops World Order.

But you couldn't have told that to the six head coaches at the "other" Ivy basketball programs. If you look at the standings today, with five (or six, depending) games to go, it's clear that those "other" coaches weren't paying attention to the Ivy Hoops World Order. Sure, they knew about it, but they didn't get the memo that said that they were supposed to play second fiddle.

Case in point is Ivy Coach of the Year favorite Terry Dunn, the new coach at Dartmouth. Dunn came to Dartmouth to find a program at its nadir, only to have returning Ivy Rookie of the Year Leon Pattman leave the team. Even with that loss, the Big Green, who probably didn't combine to win 5 Ivy games over the course of the previous two league seasons, are now 5-5 in league play. The Ivies don't give a Coach of the Year award, but if they did, presumably Dunn would win it hands down.

Case in point #2 is Cornell coach Steve Donahue, once upon a time Fran Dunphy's top aide at Penn. Donahue struggled mightily in his first four years in Ithaca, but today his Big Red squad is in third place in the Ivies, at 6-4, three games behind Penn in the loss column. While Donahue's squad isn't likely to overtake his former boss's, his team has battled all year and, once the season ends, should find itself with the Big Red's first first-division finish in the Ivies in a long time.

Case in point #3 is Harvard coach Frank Sullivan, who never seems to get the help at the admissions office that the other Ivy coaches do. Yet, he still has managed to bring his team's into the league's first division many times during his tenure in Cambridge, and this year so far his team is 5-5 in the Ivies. That's a great showing for a coach whose team was predicted to vie for the league's basement with Dartmouth.

Case in point #4 is Columbia coach Joe Jones, who last year took over a Lions' squad that wasn't in much better shape than Dunn's Big Green squad after last year. Jones has recruited well and has shaped a team with leftovers from the Armond Hill era and his own recruits into a formidable opponent. The Ivy results aren't there yet, for at 3-7 thus far the Lions could well finish in the Ivy cellar. Give the younger Jones another year or two, though, and let's see what happens. The future for Columbia basketball looks bright.

Case in point #5 is Yale coach James Jones, Joe's older brother and the biggest enigma of the bunch. When he arrived in New Haven about four years ago, the Elis were coming off a 4-24 (or something like that season). Jones got the Yale players to focus more intensely on basketball, got them in better shape, and Yale became a tough opponent. They were emotional, physical and feisty under James Jones before they got enough talent to challenge for the title. When they did, three years ago or so, they tied Penn and Princeton for the Ivy title before losing to Penn in a playoff game to determine which school would represent the Ancient Eight in the NCAA Tournament. Since then, the Bulldogs have disappointed. They've underperformed, really, given the talent that Jones has been able to bring to New Haven. After all, 2G Edwin Draughan and PF Sam Kaplan were Top 150 recruits, C Dominick Martin transferred from Princeton and had been recruited by Stanford out of HS, and SF Casey Hughes was a big recruit too. Given the talent, you'd have to pin the disappointing results on Jones, who substitutes frequently and appears to rely on emotion and a physical style of play more than sound planning. Well, you could have said that until this past weekend, when Yale, at the time 3-3 in the Ivies, played an unkind host to Princeton and Penn, scorching both teams and, in the process, pulled itself up to a 5-3 record in the Ivies, good for second place, two games behind Penn in the win column. Yale still faces an uphill battle, because it doesn't play Penn again, and it will need two other teams to knock off the Quakers in order to force a tie for the Ivy title. Still, they seized the moment and took it to Penn and Princeton when they had the chance.

In contrast, recent bellwether Brown is having a rough year, proving that a returning Ivy Player of the Year and no other proven veterans cannot come close to winning at title. The Bruins' results come as a surprise, given that mentor Glenn Miller has been a master of forging winning squads. And, of course, there's Princeton, a team that has fallen off the table, at least this year. Teams didn't lie down and roll over for the league favorites. In contrast, they came at Princeton hard, and the Tigers, still loaded with talent, haven't been able to mesh. Right now the Tigers stand at 3-6 in the league with 5 games to go, and their 48-year streak of finishing with a .500 record or better in the Ivies stands in grave danger. Remember, one of those games is against Penn. Look for the streak to get broken this year.

Ivy boosters will note that the league's RPI is about five places higher this year than last year, and they'll argue that the Ivy League is a better league based upon that statistic. Boosters of all Ivies other than Penn and Princeton will argue that parity, the noun that is synonymous with the National Football League, has come to the Ivies as well. There are those, however, who argue that mediocrity has taken over, and that it's not so much that the other teams have closed the gap with Penn and Princeton but that Penn and Princeton have sunk back to the levels of the teams that they used to beat regularly.

It's an interesting debate, and I for one will argue that these Penn and Princeton teams aren't as good as the Penn and Princeton teams we've watched since the late 1980's. As for Penn, they haven't had a true PG since Andy Toole left, and for much of this year they haven't had an inside game. True, C Steve Danley is much improved, but against Princeton in the Palestra Penn had trouble defending inside and scoring inside on offense. And they don't have a penetrating PG. Princeton is adjusting to a new coach, and he is adjusting to his talent. While the Tigers do have first-team all-Ivy talent returning, they've also had to rely on freshmen too much and lost a key player -- soph big man Harrison Schaen -- to a year off. These Princeton Tigers don't play with nearly the crispness they played when they won two Ivy titles in the past four years, and while the opponents have had something to do with that, the Tigers have had something to do with that too -- bad execution.

The RPI is an over-used statistic, and until you see several years in a row of the "Other Six" beating up on Penn and Princeton with regularity, the argue that parity has somehow enveloped Ivy basketball just will not work. Yes, the Other Six will be encouraged about Princeton's free fall this year, but under Joe Scott, Princeton will beat most of the Other Six most of the time.

By double digits.

And until someone displaces him, Fran Dunphy is the dean of Ivy coaches, and he and his staff recruit great. And they coach pretty well too. This Penn team lacks a PG and has no guards coming off the bench; the sixth and seventh men are 6'9" or taller. Still, this is the team that in all likelihood will win the Ivies.

I will concede that some of the Other Six have improved, but not significantly enough to support the parity argument. At least not yet.

Has the Ivy Hoops World Order changed? Or is this season more like a small earthquake that has just adjusted the seismic plates on which the Ivies' foundation rests, shifting about the residents on a temporary basis?

Only time will tell. But one season's worth of games do not form a trend.

Not by a three-point, err long, shot.


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