Ivy Hoops Online announces the next entry in Ivy 60 for 60, our series running through 60 of the greatest players in Ivy League men’s basketball history after a hiatus to continue celebrating six decades of modern Ivy League basketball. An Ivy 60 for 60 for Ivy women’s basketball will follow.
In May of 1967, a cryptic but prescient one-paragraph article was to be found hidden away in the the nether regions of the Philadelphia Inquirer sports section. It stated that Steve Bilsky, Dave Wohl and Jim Wolf were about to become the core components of the 1967-68 Digger Phelps-recruited Penn freshman squad which could possibly be the “best freshman team in the country.”
In 1967, this meant a great deal.
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.
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.)
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.
Penn did it.
The Red & Blue were simply better than the defending national champion Villanova Wildcats throughout their matchup at the Palestra Tuesday night, notching a 78-75 victory that underscored how each Big 5 squad is trending in opposite directions.
The continuation of Penn’s remarkable improvement made history at No. 17 Villanova’s expense, repeatedly getting easy buckets via cuts to the basket and making just enough free throws down the stretch to snap Villanova’s 15-game winning streak over Penn (dating back to Dec. 10, 2002) and 25-game Big 5 win streak (dating back to Dec. 5, 2013).
Penn pulled off the most impressive win of the Steve Donahue era (at least according to KenPom) Tuesday night at the Palestra, taking full advantage of hosting a high-major by besting Miami in convincing fashion, 89-75.
The Quakers (7-2) notched an astounding 1.39 points per possession, posting 50 points in the first half against the Hurricanes’ zone, a defense that ranks just outside the nation’s top 50 per KenPom.
The loss came in the first true road game of the season for Miami (5-4), which has now lost four games in a row, including a 79-75 home loss to Yale in the ‘Canes’ previous tilt Saturday.
Brett Franklin and Jill Glessner return as hosts of Inside Ivy Hoops this week to talk with Brown men’s coach Mike Martin and Penn women’s coach Mike McLaughlin and break down a slate of crazy results so far on both the men’s and women’s sides.
Brett and Jill recap an Ivy Friday night to remember on the men’s side, explain why Matt Morgan is more than a gunslinger, and much more:
Jill and Brett detail why and how Princeton is the deepest team in conference on the women’s side, focus on Cornell’s “shocking” win over Brown, Yale’s first weekend road sweep in five years, the vital presence of Leslie Robinson for the Tigers, looming Ivy League Tournament tiebreakers, two potentially significant injuries on the women’s side and more:
Mike Martin reflects on Brown’s multiple game-winning shots this Ivy season, what went wrong Friday night versus Cornell, Desmond Cambridge’s progress following an injury sustained Saturday night, the dynamic duo of Matt Morgan and Stone Gettings, keys to besting Harvard at Lavietes Pavilion, his Espresso awakening and much more:
Mike McLaughlin talks about the Philadelphia Eagles ‘ Super Bowl parade, Penn’s win over Villanova and the void Eleah Parker helped fill while also reflecting on the program’s rise from his two-win first season in 2009-10, what makes Princeton so tough, his time with the Washington Generals and more:
1. Penn (13-6, 3-0 Ivy)
After Penn let Temple slip away at the Palestra last weekend, it got Big 5 revenge Saturday with a 67-56 win over St. Joseph’s, displaying a stout defense that had Steve Donahue singing its praises after the game.
“The story of our team, and our season, is our defense,” Donahue said according to The Daily Pennsylvanian. “Playing two bigs, with the defensive numbers we have right now … we’re way different than last year, and way ahead.”
Jonathan Tannenwald’s been an insightful reporter on Ivy League and Big 5 basketball for Philly.com, and before that, The Daily Pennsylvanian, for 15 years. He’s been a guest multiple times on our On the Vine podcast and he’s been a generous resource, mentor and friend to many at The DP, Penn’s student newspaper, over the years.