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Saturday, January 11, 2014

Penn 77 Princeton 74 at the Palestra

I took my 14 year-old son to the Palestra for the first time tonight, where Penn defeated Princeton in a hard-fought battle before 6400 fans.  Here is the box score.

Here are some observations:

1.  My son, on the Palestra:  "It's like going to the basketball version of Fenway Park."  I couldn't have said it that well.

2.  Me, on the rivalry:  "With Harvard as the preeminent team in the league, the atmosphere is less charged.  Without a sellout, the atmosphere just isn't as intense."  Penn Coach Jerome Allen could not have been pleased that his athletic department scheduled the game while Penn students seemingly were not on the campus.  The Penn student section usually is loud and helpful to the home team at men's ball games.  Tonight, they were absent.  The rivalry is at it's peak when the schools are vying against each other for a title.  That's not the case now.

3.  On the game itself:  Princeton's interior defense has been lacking for several years under Mitch Henderson.  Tonight was no different.  Princeton had trouble guarding Penn's bigs, and Penn out-rebounded Princeton big-time.  Mostly, that was the story of the game.  Penn's huge center, Darien Nelson-Henry, is a bit of a puzzle.  He is not a very good basketball player -- he doesn't defend well, and he has no post game.  When he floats in the lane and gets a pass, he's very effective  at putting the ball into the hoop (and putting is a good verb for him) (and he's an excellent free throw shooter).  But when fronted, he doesn't get the rock, and if he gets it with his back to the basket, he struggles.  If he were a six-footer, he'd probably be in the stands.  That said, give him credit, he played great in the first half, particularly early, when Princeton had no answer for him when he did so much damage early in the first half (they solved for him at half-time).

4.  That said, Penn's 6'8" big, Fran Dougherty, is a much better basketball player.  He was a driving force for the Quakers tonight, banging inside, rebounding, and just being an overall hustling star for Penn and nuisance for Princeton.  Nelson-Henry might get more attention, but if Penn is to make a run in the Ivies, they'll rely much more on Dougherty, especially because teams will watch Princeton's 1-3-1 defense against Penn in the second half and neutralize Nelson-Henry.

5.  As for Princeton, they need to develop a better third option on offense than they are showing right now.  T.J. Bray has the heart of a lion, but how many times can Princeton rely on his posting up and going 1 on 3, sometimes against the other team's big men?  He was a hero tonight, as was somewhat one-dimensional Will Barrett, who not only hit threes but hit clutch threes.  I suppose if Nelson-Henry had a game or Barrett was more of a defender or rebounder, they wouldn't be at Penn and Princeton, they'd be at bigger time schools.  Both were credits to their teams tonight.  That said, for Princeton, while Hans Brase played point center from behind the three-point line most of the night (to draw out Penn's bigs), he needs to develop more confidence in his three-point shooting (a la Steve Goodrich).  The shot were there, but since he didn't look for them, Penn's defense sagged off and created a bunch of trouble for Princeton's other players.  Likewise, it would be great to see more from frosh guard Spencer Weisz, who scored ten and had moments of brilliance.  Guard Ben Hazel also had his moments, too, and the Tigers stole the ball 11 times.  Still, it was the lack of defense against Penn's bigs and the lack of weak side defense that hurt the Tigers.  Pete Carril's teams sometimes didn't give up 77 points in two games.

6.  While the officiating troika of Messrs. Alvaro, Kelly and Ostwalt didn't cost anyone the game, they blew a few major calls in the waning minutes that cost Princeton.  Among them was failing to see that Penn had six men on the court after an inbounds play (they gave the Quakers a get out of jail free card for that, instead of a technical foul and the ball to Princeton) and then, in the final 10 seconds, Will Barrett was hacked going up for a two-footer, and there was no foul.  Instead, a scrum ensued, and the refs called a foul on Hans Brase that fouled him out.   I don't know what game they were watching, but they missed a big call at a critical time.   I think that they generally called a loose game, a game that benefitted a team with Penn's size, and usually the smaller teams do not get the calls.  But they did blow those calls near the end, and they did have an effect on the outcome (showing that eyewitness accounts aren't always reliable -- the refs miss things too).  Atop that, though, the Tigers didn't defend well enough or rebound nearly well enough to win.  To win at the Palestra, you need to go on runs that consist of good shooting and then stopping your host team consistently -- for several series in a row -- and I don't think that the Tigers held Penn without a basket tonight for more than three consecutive possessions during the contest.  You also need to get a big enough lead that inconsistencies or blown calls from the refs don't make a difference in the outcome.

7.  This game was a crushing disappointment for the Tigers.  They went into the game on a roll with a great pre-season record, only to run into an under-achieving team with a returning huge center whom they couldn't solve early.  Then, they lapsed into bad habits of the kind they did in otherwise good games against George Mason and Kent State, where they got out-quicked, out-muscled and forced to draw upon athleticism that they do not possess.  Given Penn credit, they played their game much more than Princeton did, and they took Princeton out of it's back-door cuts after about 5 minutes while the Tigers couldn't solve for Nelson-Henry until after half-time.  All that contributed to a hard-fought, narrow victory for Penn.

8.  Penn pressed Princeton early, and disastrously so.  Had the Quakers continued with their press throughout the game, they would have lost by 10 or more, as the Tigers got a lot of easy baskets off the press.  When Penn figured out that it could clog up the lane, take away the back-door layups and force Princeton to play a perimeter game, it did take the chance that the Tigers could hit a lot of threes.  As it turned out, they didn't make enough of them.

9.  I am one for two in pre-game communications with Ivy coaches.  Last year, I complimented Coach James Jones of Yale on his coaching before a game at Jadwin.  He thanked me and then went on to coach a great game against Princeton and beat the Tigers on the road.  Tonight, we were sitting about 10 rows behind the Princeton bench, and Coach Henderson's gaze met mine about five minutes before the game.  I gave him a thumbs up sign, he waved, and I thought that was a good omen.  Note to file:  avoid contact with any coaches of your team or their opponents -- it does zero good.  I helped Princeton lose -- twice.

10.  Penn kept showing images of Matt Maloney, who played great games against Princeton along with Penn coach Jerome Allen (the Quakers were 42-0 when those two constituted Penn's backcourt and won three straight Ivy titles).  I joked with my friends that I wondered whether they were going to show clips of what I think was the '99 game, when the Tigers rebounded from a 33-9 halftime deficit (they trailed 40-15 with 15 minutes to go) to edge the Quakers 50-49 in a game Sports Illustrated computed was the fifth best comeback in NCAA history (historians will note that while the Tigers won the game, they lost in double OT the following Friday night at Yale to an Eli team that would go 4-24 on the season, and Penn would go on to win the Ivies).  Perhaps wanting clips of that video showed in the Palestra was wishful thinking.

11.  When did they take my parking lot at 34th and Chestnut across from Penn Law School, gentrify it, turn it into a mall featuring Eastern Mountain Sports and take away that parking and parking behind the Palestra?

12.  Governor Rendell was there, looking natty in a blue sweater and khaki pants, smiling widely.  This is one event and one location where I want him to look pissed.  Really pissed.  Didn't happen tonight.  I happen to like the silence of a road arena after my team has won -- it's one of the sweetest things to hear.  Didn't earn that right tonight.

13.  Noted with amusement that the same school that gave us "Penn-Prinecton" tickets to a football game at Franklin Field years ago ("Prinecton was the actual spelling) has a band that played "Eye of the Tigers" from "Rocky."  Note to Penn students:  Princeton's mascot, is, um, the Tigers.   Might want to remember that next time your team plays Princeton.

14.  Was that a Steve Mills sighting in the comfy seats behind the Princeton bench for about the first fifteen minutes of the game tonight?  The former second-team all-Ivy guard who played for an Ivy title team his senior year is now president of the Knicks (who were in town to play the 76ers).  

15.  There is no better place to watching a college bball game than at the Palestra, one of the true foundations of major college basketball.  Great, great place to watch a game.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

See Facebook photo posted of palestra by Mr. Mills

2:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's hoping you showed your son the Palestra plaque reading: “To win the game is great. To play the game is greater. But to love the game is the greatest of all.”

9:44 AM  
Blogger SportsProf said...

Thanks for your comments.

As for the latter, we didn't have a chance to get there early enough to look at the exhibits -- traffic was terrible. But it's a great plaque and a great cathedral for the sport. It's just too bad that Final Fours are now in big barns and not in the places with great roots in the game -- at Kansas, at Kentucky, at Indiana, in Philadelphia or New York.

8:50 AM  
Anonymous George Clark said...

I was seated a few rows behind you and saw the same game from almost the same vantage. We are hearing a lot of grumbling concerning the Tigers' defensive woes, some of it parsed as comparison with Sydney, who "practiced defense more." I expected Koon to be much more of an option on offense than he has turned out to be this year. Hazel and Weisz have picked up a lot of the slack on most nights but, if we give up 70, we MUST make 40%+ from beyond the arc. Brase made a lot of 3's early on; thought he would keep it up. We took a lot of good shots; just didn't make enough.
You're not being entirely fair to DNH. He's not in very good shape yet.
Even on a losing night a return to The Cathedral is basketball bliss. Take the kid back when you have more time

4:45 PM  
Blogger haphar said...

The tactical decision to front the big guy with no rotation support caused the loss. If Princeton had played straight up defense and forced the Penn center to prove he could make a contested 6-10 foot jumper, I doubt that he would have made many. The Tigers would likely have won the game.

10:24 AM  
Blogger SportsProf said...

Great thoughts, thanks George and Haphar.

As for DNH, it's true that he isn't back in bball shape, but he didn't look like he had much of a post game and has trouble defending quicker players (when they go straight at him, he's terrific). A Penn friend said that Penn is more athletic and should have beaten the Tigers by 15 that night, but he also lamented that a) Penn recruits athletes now who turn the ball over too much because they try to rely on athleticism over smart bball decisions and b) Allen is overmatched as a coach but is a great guy. I am not sure I agree that Penn should have won by 15; you could make the argument that had Princeton shot better they could have won by 10. But the Tigers had trouble making consecutive defensive stops, and that hurt.

As for fronting the big guy, Haphar, I think that worked and took Penn out of its rhythm. It wasn't that so much as I am not sure how good Barrett is as an interior defender. That said, I don't think the big guy would have come out that far to shoot, and when he tried posting up DNH showed he doesn't have a left hand and isn't that good posting with his right. At the end of the day, Dougherty and Hicks combined for 38 (Henry added another 17), and the Tigers couldn't stop Hicks, either.

Tough one to lose after a great pre-season. Tigers just didn't have enough to win, and some poor officiating at critical moments proves the point that when you're on the road, you need to play just a little better to take away those magnified calls.

10:32 AM  

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