While Harvard and Yale were fighting for their March Madness lives in New Haven several months ago, I was flying (first class, of course) towards Asia in a hurtling, subsonic piece of aluminum. As we chased the sun eastward, I indolently pulled up my window shade and looked out upon the vast, barren, frigidness that is the Arctic Ocean. Then, through the miracle of Wi-Fi (you know, that powerful, invisible force that allows our planet to torment one another through magic), I proceeded to watch the Bulldogs dismantle their arch rivals before a, well, ”mostly filled” John J. Lee Amphitheater. Regardless of how the crowd appeared on site, I can assure you it did not “show well” at 33,000 feet on a 15-inch screen. In fact, the view from my window of Arctic Ocean seemed to be an appropriate metaphor for the vast sea of empty seats above the hardwood. (I exaggerate, naturally, but not too much.)
With only two weeks of the regular season left, the Quakers are in trouble. They need to win out, or at least get to 7-7, to even have a shot at the Ivy League Tournament. In December, when they were knocking off power-five opponents and capturing the Big 5 title, I never dreamed they’d ever be in this dubious position. But alas, they are.
So how did we get here? Perhaps it’s best if coach Steve Donahue tells you.
“There was a poise about us last year that was really one through 33 games,” Donahue said, according to The Daily Pennsylvanian. “This year, there have been moments of brilliance when this group plays really great that the other group probably didn’t have the chance to.”
Ah yes, “moments of brilliance.” Although I agree with Mr. Donahue, championships are built on consistency, not moments of brilliance.
OK, not a great weekend for Penn basketball, but it certainly could have been worse.
First, the Quakers got off to an early lead in Providence against Brown which they never relinquished. The Bears, however, looked completely uninspired throughout the contest. Penn was never really in danger of anything except perhaps the random concussion when, in what can be considered the longest two minutes in basketball history, Mike Martin decided to foul every remaining Penn possession. `It was as painful to watch as I am sure as it was for the Red & Blue players to play. Regardless, a win is a win, as they say.
For the uninitiated, I can tell you the Big 5 is a Big Deal. The Philly City Series is as important and frequently more difficult to capture than the Ivy Crown. The teams are generally better, the crowds are bigger and the games are significantly fewer. Villanova has owned the Big 5 for more than a decade, and rightfully so. To play the national champions every year is no easy feat for anyone. Since Penn’s last title in 2002, St. Joseph’s has been ranked number one in the nation, and the John Chaney-Fran Dunphy Temple Owls as well as La Salle are almost always solid squads from deep conferences.
So when Penn, coming off a four-game losing streak, faced Temple (14-3 and coming off a four-game winning streak) Saturday, a lot was on the line. In my opinion, it was a masterful performance by the Quakers. I would argue that it was even better than the Villanova win. Of course, Penn was still without last year’s leading scorer, Ryan Betley. Max Rothschild played only a few token minutes, Michael Wang does not appear to have fully regained his soft shooting stroke and the Quakers were playing away from home, before a full house, on national television. Still, Steve Donahue’s squad maintained complete control of the game. Their four-game hiatus from victory looked like a thing of the past. (I consider the losses to Princeton just a low point in a season where low points inevitability happen.)
It’s been a rough couple of weeks for the Red and Blue. After a euphoric start to the season with wins over New Mexico, Miami and, of course, the reigning national champions, the Quakers then had a bit of downturn, losing in blowout fashion to Toledo and enduring an embarrassing defeat to the heretofore winless Monmouth Hawks. Naturally, the last two losses can be explained as starters freshman Michael Wang and senior Max Rothschild were both out due to injury. Injuries are indeed part of the sport (just ask Harvard), and losing two productive members of the frontcourt rendered this Penn team substantially smaller and guard-heavy. (Oh, did I also mention that Penn had already lost its leading scorer from last year as well?) Although “super-stud” AJ Brodeur did his best, it hard for any team to win in this fashion.
Question: How many Ivy League hoops squads could lose their leading scorer from the preceding year in the first five minutes of a nascent season and still go on to beat KenPom No. 44 Miami as well as the AP No. 17 defending national champions, all the while compiling an overall 9-2 record?
Answer: None — except Penn.
The fact that the Quakers have been so successful so far this season appears to be less a factor of overall talent (which is substantial nonetheless), and more of a function of overall depth and system.
Nowhere were these latter two qualities on full display than on Tuesday night before a packed house when the Quakers knocked off Villanova, thus ending the Wildcats’ 25 game Big 5 winning streak as well as their painful 16-year reign over Penn.
Before the season started, I wrote for IHO, “Clearly, the marquee game will be against the Wildcats. I can tell you from experience, anything can happen in a Big 5 game. I just hope it happens this year.”
And it did.
As Ivy Hoops coverage dwindles across the digital world like Princeton’s winning percentage, I have returned to the dismay of many and the delight of few for yet another year of Penn Basketball coverage for IHO. Therefore, I will now channel another Philly hero, Sylvester Stallone, and pick up exactly where the team left off last season.
I must admit that there were times over the last 10 years that I began to despair.
Penn basketball has always been an essential part of my sports spectating life, and yet, inexplicably,
there was the “crown jewel” of Penn Athletics in shambles. For those of us who had always witnessed greatness on the hardwood from the Red and Blue, the past decade has been nothing less than a gut-wrenching, surreal descent into irrelevance and thus humiliation.
With the 2017-18 Ivy hoops season coming upon us, I wish to share with you my one encounter with the Ivy League football championship trophy.
In 1982 I was doing post-graduate work on campus in a subject that will remain classified. (However, I will tell you that it was replete with the “three Ms”—math, molecules and, therefore, misery.) It was also the year that Penn football vaulted from doormat status to Ivy League champion. Up until this time, the football team was so incredibly bad. I once watched an opening kickoff squib a mere seven yards.
The leaves remain unnaturally green, the air temperature dips into the upper 70s and the Quaker football team uncharacteristically turns Franklin Field into a house of horrors. All of this can only mean one thing: the upcoming Ivy hoops season cannot be far behind. (And, of course, the Earth is going to burn like a cinder in space.) And once again it is I, The AQ, bringing you another year of outstanding Penn basketball coverage as I faithfully have for IHO since 1947.