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Saturday, March 11, 2006

Thoughts on the Ivy Men's Basketball Season

First, congratulations to the Penn Quakers, who now have won 3 out of the past 4 Ivy titles. For those who might contend that winning the Ivies in hoops is like being the best beach volleyball player in Bangladesh, try winning games on back-to-back nights six weekends during your league season. It's not as easy as it seems.

Second, the way Coach Fran Dunphy went about putting together this year's team is a tribute to his evolution as a coach. For two years running, his teams have won the Ivies without the dominating lead guards that Jerome Allen, Michael Jordan and Andy Toole were. Eric Osmundson is a good player, but he's more of a combination guard trying to play the point. Ibby Jaaber is a transcendant player, but he's a two guard, not a point guard. Adapting his team away from having to have a pure PG leading the squad is a tribute to Coach Dunphy.

Third, Penn also won with very little depth. Its center, Steve Danley, is 6'8" but doesn't play particularly tall, and he didn't have a backup. Dunphy started the season with a nine-man rotation, but somehow 6'7" frosh Brennan Votel fell off the map and 6'6" shooter Tommy McMahon hurt his back and missed most of the second half of the season. That left Dunphy with 6'6" small forward Friedrich Ebede, a senior who came in with the hyped potential of an Ugonna Onyekwe but didn't play for most of his first three years. This year, until he suffered a groin injury three quarters of the way into the season that ended his season, Ebede had some great moments coming in off the bench. In addition, 6'4" Brian Grandieri, a soph who missed his freshman year owing to a knee injury, has played very ably off the bench and much taller than his height would indicate. Last year, Penn had a seven-man rotation that had two players taller than 6'9" coming off the bench (Jan Fikiel and Ryan Pettinella); the Quakers were far shorter this year.

Fourth, Penn will be the favorite next year for several reasons. First, they'll have Ibby Jaaber back, and if he's not the unanimous choice for the league's player of the year award, they should discontinue the honor. He's a great defender and has become an excellent shooter. Second, they'll have Mark Zoller back. Zoller, a 6'6" junior, plays the four for Penn and came in relatively unheralded. To me, he has a near-genius hoops IQ, and he should be a first-team all-league player this year as well. Third, well, it's Penn's title to lose. Until someone takes the mantle from them, they're the favorites. Fourth, Penn, from all reports, is having a good recruiting year. It may well be that the difference between Jaaber and the next best player in the Ivies is about as big as it's been in the last quarter century.

Fifth, what can you say about Cornell and Harvard other than they were huge disappointments? I think that those who gave them lots of hype did so because they were hungry for a champion whose name doesn't begin with "p." Boy, were they wrong and disappointed. I suppose I bet the jockey and not the horse when I predicted that Cornell would win, figuring that with a good assembly of talent, a good year last year and a long history of coaching under Fran Dunphy, Cornell's Steve Donahue would win his first title. He didn't. At least his job is totally safe, as he extended his contract last year. I wonder if the same can be said for Harvard's Frank Sullivan, an able coach who has been able to do more with less and has had a good Ivy record in his long tenure in Cambridge. The Cantabs basically flopped in the league this year, finishing 5-9. Expectations were high; Harvard fans have to be bummed.

Sixth, the most complex team in the midst of this is the Princeton Tigers. They began their season at 2-11 and finished at 12-15, including a 10-4 record in the Ivies that gave them sole possession of second place. They were at their nadir in December, when they lost pitiful affairs to Monmouth (which won its conference tourney last night) where they were held to a DI-low 21 points (worst in the three-point ball era) and also at home to DIII Carnegie-Mellon. After luring alum Joe Scott back from Air Force two years ago to replace John Thompson III, who had moved on to Georgetown, Tiger fans were left scratching their heads. They were clearly lamenting what they had wished for -- the return of Scott, who had done nothing short of a coaching miracle three seasons ago when he led Air Force to its first NCAA tournament bid in over 40 years.

It was the worst of times in December, that was for sure. Matters did get better, for after the Carnegie-Mellon game Tiger fans were forecasting a 5-9 record or worse in the league, something that was just beyond the comprehension of the average Princeton diehard. Yet Scott, who tinkered more with his lineup this season than James Bond's "Q" fiddles with sports cars, kept at it. Bloodied but unbowed, he kept looking for the right combination. In doing so, he earned the admiration of everyone who ever dove for a loose ball in a gym hoping to get noticed, while also drawing the questions of the faithful who were wondering if he ever could win with a 6'4" center.

Enter Justin Conway. If this were Hollywood, Conway would have enjoyed a flawless second half of the Tigers' season, shot the lights out, and led his team to the Ivy title. But, alas, he couldn't do it alone, but his story is a compelling one, worth telling and worth listening to, if you're a player or parent anywhere.

Going into the season, Conway was an end-of-the-bench player on a team that had about 17 kids vying for roster spots. Unrecruited, he was a 6'4" junior whose coach told him at the season's outset that he would be nothing more than a practice player (whose role would be to test the starting rotation and keep them fresh). Still, he kept at it, and what the coaches realized in December was that he was more than just a practice player, he was their best player in practice. Somehow, some way, they would work him into the lineup. So much so that he was named an honorable mention all-Ivy player for his efforts.

Salvaging their season to a degree, the Tigers came back from their adversity in 2005, finished second in the Ivies at 10-4 and, in a fitting ending for Conway's Cinderella season, beat Penn by 1 in overtime at home in the season finale with -- you guessed it -- Justin Conway scoring the game winner after a nifty pass from team captain and unanimous first-team all-Ivy selection Scott Greenman, whose back injury and corresponding absence from the lineup contributed to the December malaise. I wasn't there, and I don't know if anyone carried Conway or Greenman off the court, but the two of them signify what went right about the Princeton season.

It just wasn't enough.

Not for Joe Scott. Not for the heralded Princeton basketball program. Not for the fans.

They've come to expect more. Butch van Breda Kolff created the high expectations, Pete Carril perfected the system, Bill Carmody took it to its highest level since the van Breda Kolff years, and John Thompson kept it going and put his own outstanding twist on it. Pretty hard to do, keep the family business going. No, check that. Very, very hard to do.

Whither Joe Scott? The Princeton Tigers? The Penn Quakers? What will happen in the Ivies next year?

First, neither Penn fans nor Princeton fans should rejoice when the other school has a bad year. Penn and Princeton bring out the best in one another, and it takes excellence at both schools to bring out the best in the other. If one school is lagging, then the whole league lags. Sure, I say this as a Princeton loyalist, but the whole league isn't any fun unless the Penn-Princeton games have true meaning and unless both teams are strong enough to give the Ivy winner a fair chance at a first-round win in the NCAA tournament, something that hasn't happened since the year of Joe Scott's tenth reunion at Princeton. Bill Russell wouldn't have been Bill Russell unless he had Wilt Chamberlain to go against (and, vice versa), and it's the same with these two. Absent the other, either school wouldn't be nearly as enticing from a hoops standpoint.

Second, Penn will be the clear-cut favorites next year, returning two first-team all-Ivies and a second-teamer (Mark Zoller was a first-team selection; Steve Danley a second-team selection). Ibby Jaaber, who, with Scott Greenman, was a unanimous all-Ivy selection (and who was hands down the winner of the Player of the Year award), will lead the way, and, yes, Penn has the chance of being something special. Then again, two seasons ago Princeton returned two first-team all-Ivy selections in Judson Wallace and Will Venable, only to have the season that should remain forever buried -- their only losing season in league play in the history of the Ivies. The big difference, of course, is that Penn will not be undergoing a coaching change.

Third, Princeton will be very interesting. Last fall, Joe Scott created some controversy on campus when he shook up his roster. He cut two juniors (a third sounded like he was cut, only to make the team and then quit) and pared his roster from 17 to 14. Going into next season, he'll have about 19 players coming in -- 14 returning veterans and 5 frosh. If this year's season is any indication, competition for playing time will be spirited to say the least. If an end-of-the-bench player turns into an all-Ivy player, then all spots are open. Perhaps that's as it should be -- let the best players, those who earn the time -- play. Then again, the Tigers will miss Greenman more than Penn will miss Eric Osmundson or Friedrich Ebede, in that Greenman was the Tigers' glue. They're hoping to have a PG as part of the incoming freshman class, and it is somewhat hard to see who will play the point in Greenman's absence. They have an abundance of forwards, but they also need some players to emerge as go-to players. Put differently, someone has to stand out.

It's great to have five guys who average thirteen points a game, with each capable of carrying the team on a given night. But it's also great to have one or two go-to guys who can lead your team through crunch time. In Ibby Jaaber, Penn has that player. Mark Zoller is very good, but I'm not sure he is good enough offensively to do that for the Quakers. As for the Tigers, they have several players who can score twenty on a given night. The issue for them will be to develop several who can bring their best games consistently.

Will Joe Scott ultimately succeed in Tigertown? Will his brand of orthodox Princeton basketball help the Tigers' rekindle the fond memories of the juggernaut that was the Steve Goodrich-Mitch Henderson- Gabe Lewullis-Brian Earl-James Mastaglio Iron Five that Vaulted to a #8 national ranking and a #5 seed in the NCAA Tournament just about 10 years ago? Or has the world been saturated enough with the Princeton Offense that the back door the hoop is nailed shut in most arenas around the country? Will Scott's drill-sergeant style, befitting of his mentor, Pete Carril, work more than twenty years after he last laced up his sneakers in Jadwin Gym? Will the combination of his demand for precision and the Princeton Offense carry the day for the Tigers in years to come.

It says here that Coach Scott will coach the Tigers' to a title in the Ivies before he is through in Princeton. It says here that if Coach Scott can preserve the sense of purpose that his team forged during the Ivy season, he'll build on that momentum and continue to build teams to his vision. It says here that if Coach Scott can see his vision through, he will have some special teams. If he can see his vision through and capture some of his predecessor's magic at recruiting, Tiger opponents should watch out.

Not, of course, that Penn fans should shudder any time soon. They know that the tides of Ivy hoops are such that Princeton will return and win some titles. After a long run in the 1970's, good Tiger teams became better and wrestled some titles away from Penn in the early 1980's. The late 1980's weren't great for either school until '89, when the Tigers reeled off four straight titles, only to be followed by three straight for Penn. Penn has Fran Dunphy, they have Ibby Jaaber, and they're on a roll.

But reports of a total collapse in Princeton are greatly exaggerated. After the low point, the loss to Carnegie-Mellon, Tiger fans lamented the possibility of a second sub-.500 Ivy season in a row. Fortunately for them and the Tigers, that didn't happen, and Princeton didn't come close to even a .500 season. That result, of course, is not a huge victory and one in which Joe Scott won't take much solace, because he drives himself hard enough to want nothing less than an Ivy title and an NCAA appearance every year. It could well be that he learned enough about the contemporary Ivy player and his ability to coach that player in the last half of this up-and-down season to do him and his program loads of good in future years.

For the Tigers, hoops practice starts in October. My guess is that neither the coaching staff nor the players can wait that long.

For the Quakers, they'll have a date with a #2, #3 or #4 seed next week. Their starting lineup is short, their depth thin, and as ESPN The Magazine pointed out, most high seeds are adept at stopping a low-seeded team's star. Still, Fran Dunphy's teams are dangerous, and they should be able to battle an opponent well into the second half. The difference in the Big Dance is that the low seeds have enough talent and depth to go with an opponent for about 32, 33 minutes, but then the Chalk Teams turn on the afterburners and put the opposition away. Look for that to happen to Penn next week.

But perhaps not next year.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow. You didn't even mention a Brown team that was all frosh and sophs, and that finished the season one of the league's best teams. They came very close to sweeping Princeton and Penn the last weekend, and did so with one junior. They, more than Princeton, are a team to watch next year.

5:13 PM  
Blogger SportsProf said...

Thanks for your comments. I suppose that I'm so used to the Penn-Princeton thing that I neglected Brown. That said, Brown was the only team in league history to have three first-team all-league players and not win the title, so I'm not convinced that this group can do what that group couldn't. Also, while a case can be made that Glenn Miller is the best Ivy League men's hoops coach north of New Brunswick, until the Bruins learn to play defense on a consistent basis they won't contend for a title. On the very positive side, put together a good nucleus of talent and Glenn Miller, and good things could happen. Still, until proven otherwise, Penn and, yes, Princeton, remain the teams to beat in the Ivies.

7:49 AM  

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