Friday, my beloved Quakers fell, in The Cathedral no less, to bottom feeding Dartmouth; marking only the fourth time since 1957 that Penn had failed to defend its home floor against The Green. With this new loss, I had finally reached the nadir of my fandom. Since the agonizing debacle in Morningside Heights the week before, I hadn’t eaten and had shunned all manner of personal hygiene. With my unshaven face, fetid halitosis, and baggy clothes, I bore a striking resemblance to the Unabomber (except the Unabomber was probably better looking). At about midnight, stunned, bewildered and “ridin’ a high a mile wide” courtesy of my personal physician and our friends at Hoffman-LaRoche
(the makers of Valium and other fine benzodiazepines), I walked briskly out into the cold March night. It was then that I began to seriously question my team, Jerome Allen, and my strong belief that the Quakers were better, much better, than the harsh criticism that has been mercilessly leveled upon them over the last three months. But now it looked like the detractors may have been right all along. On this night, Pennsylvania Basketball had managed to attain something far worse than a mere loss to a bad team– they had finally achieved Ivy irrelevance. After decades of dominance, this stark realization sickened me. To make matters worse, the Tigers, our ancient rivals and a group only a few years removed from their own brief interlude with hoops incompetence, had just beaten the upstart Crimson in their race for yet another championship. As I collapsed onto the icy sidewalk a hefty wave of nausea, no doubt born out of jealousy, overwhelmed me. Then in the midst of my despond, I felt something warm run down my leg. I had urinated in my pants.
Recently, I came across one of my old undergraduate notebooks. It was from a rather derivative course in Philosophical Anthropology, The Death Ritual in Ancient Civilizations: Meaning and Myth. As I flipped through the tattered, yellowed pages, I perused the notes on the practices of the Aztecs during the Feast of Toxcatl.
For one year, a flawless youth was selected by the Ancient Mexicans to live among the tribe as a God. The young man was perfection personified: the avatar of beauty and health. He was given lavish clothes, eight servants and four virgins to attend to his every wish. However, at the end of the year when the feast began, The Chosen One climbed the stairs of the great temple where priests cut his heart out and offered it, still beating, to the sun.*
*Full disclosure: There was never any course in “Philosophical Anthropology.” I’m not even sure such a discipline even exists. I simply lifted the preceding material from an article on Megan Fox in the February edition of Esquire Magazine. The actress’ sultry eyes, dangerous curves, and tattooed skin served as a necessary distraction to keep my eyes averted from the television as the St. Joe’s Hawks opened a “can o’ whup ass” on the Quakers.
I understand this is a basketball article. So what then do these three seemingly disparate entities have to do with each other? Allow me to explain.
RG3, a rookie quarterback, arrives at a formerly woeful organization and, overnight, changes the culture of his team with his confidence and preternatural talent. On the other hand, there is Eli Manning: also a tremendously gifted quarterback, but during his first few years in the Meadowlands, Eli didn’t change very much. With every pass that sailed over a receiver’s head or fluttered toward their feet, the boos rained down from the tough New York crowd. Eli at times looked lost, out of control, overwhelmed, bewildered. Occasionally though, he would have a game that showed that he indeed had great potential: a flash of brilliance amidst the chaos of his first few years. Regardless, the postscript is well known by now: RG3’s career accomplishments, no matter how well he performed this year, remain to be seen, while Eli, the formerly befuddled rookie, has two Super Bowl MVP trophies and is probably on his way to the Hall of Fame.
Long ago in a black and white world, in a time before LEDs, LCDs, flat screens and the electronic mugging that is pay-per-view, big time heavyweight boxing was routinely broadcast on network television. In November 1982, Howard Cosell was the announcer for the mercilessly one-sided match between Larry Holmes and his opponent, Randy “Tex” Cobb of Philadelphia. As Cobb’s blood spattered across the screen in front of millions of Americans that night, I thought I heard Cosell utter, “Oh, this is…it’s just…it’s ‘brutilation.’”
Brutilaton. A classic Cosell malapropism which I think means both brutal and mutilation. (Following the bout, Cosell was so horrified by the fight that he retired from broadcasting boxing permanently.)
After watching the Quakers bludgeon their way to yet another loss against an uncharacteristically poor Villanova squad, I thought of Cosell’s manufactured word. It was indeed
brutilation. They brutalized the Wildcats while mutilating the game. It didn’t even look like basketball. (The cheesy smugness of the announcers didn’t help either. “Well Ross, this game has taken almost as long as one in the NFL, two hours and thirty two minutes. I’m gonna miss my train.”) Another painful contest in which my beloved Quakers struggled mightily with field goal percentage, poor defense, turnovers and, of course, fouls. Penn is now in the top five nationally in committing fouls. They almost beg the opposition to don suits of armor before taking the court. (However, Henry “The Hatchet Man” Brooks somehow made it through Saturday evening’s contestwithout his usual DQ. I suppose during a season like this, one must be thankful for the little things.) Worse still, with Fran Dougherty the sole shining light in this awkward and ungainly season effectively neutralized over the last few games, no one has stepped up to fill the yawning scoring vacuum. The entire team plays but no one scores. There are obviously big problems everywhere and I’m exhausted just thinking about them, so where are we now that Ivy play is less than one month away?
Many years ago, a young man strode confidently onto a verdant campus in West Philadelphia. His eyes sparkled, his body lithe and sinewy, his mind was sharp and able. He had grand thoughts of becoming an engineer; to create wonderful machines to better mankind or perhaps destroy it, whichever job would pay him more. But there were parties to attend, beautiful women to meet and get rejected by, as well as many other diverse forms of collegiate debauchery to engage in. Still, life was good. That is until one semester when he took thermodynamics. Ah yes, thermodynamics, a trial by fire. It really brought the heat.
The Quaker Basketball season began in terrifying fashion. Twenty minutes into a brand new Zach Rosen-less year and down 24 to UMBC (KenPom: 314), the team looked disorganized, confused, lost, and the seemingly stillborn year was spinning hopelessly counterclockwise down the can. Then just as I was about to upchuck on to the shiny Palestra floor, nothing short of a miracle happened. The defense suddenly stiffened, shots started falling, and Captain Miles Cartwright took charge, dropping in 21 points while passing the ball to his teammates with aplomb. The Quakers showed grit, character, moxie and, after finally emerging with a 80-75 win, disaster (not to mention widespread fan alienation) was averted. Never, in all my years of watching Penn Basketball, had I witnessed such a comeback. Amazing.
Then of course came the next five games against Delaware, Fairfield, Drexel, Lehigh and Fordham. Looking at the schedule, I don’t think anyone would consider any of these programs to be particularly sphincter-tightening. In fact, I can’t remember The Quakers having such a relatively easy non-conference line up. Nevertheless, they lost all five games. It was a tough week for Penn Basketball but I still think it’s all good. Here’s why.
A Look Back: Two words: Zack Rosen. Not much else needs to be said (but I”ll say it anyway). Quaker fans were led on a roller coaster ride last season thanks to one of the greatest individual performances in recent Ivy League history. But let”s first recall that most people did not expect too much from Penn last year. Rosen, Bernardini, and Cartwright were talented guards, but this team had no size and Jerome Allen was in just his second full season as head coach.
Flash forward to February when the Cardiac Quakers were officially born. Rosen kicked off a magical month by nailing a dagger three pointer in the waning seconds to defeat a pesky Dartmouth squad at the Palestra. The next weekend, the Quakers handled Cornell behind 25 from Rosen and followed that up with an overtime to knock off Columbia.
Up at Dartmouth, Coach Cormier thinks that a big factor in terms of whether or not the Big Green will be successful this year will be the way upperclassmen react to diminished roles as the talented freshmen begin to acclimate themselves and take minutes from the older players. The Blue Ribbon preview is optimistic, but suggests that the Big Green won’t be able to compete in the top half until these incoming recruits are juniors or seniors. Still, it’s nice to see Dartmouth headed in what seems like the right direction for the first time in years.
“A lot of [the veterans] will start and get time early,” [Cormier] said. “As the freshmen get their feet under them, I think [the veterans will] have to adjust to whatever the playing time happens to be. It’s a very good chance it will be severely reduced, and they’ve got to handle whatever role they get. And if that happens, then I think we could surprise some people.””(Blue Ribbon, ESPN.com)
Out in Providence, Coach Agel is hopeful that this young Brown team will be able to get over the hump. Blue Ribbon noted that the Bears led the league in scoring with Harvard, but came in last in scoring defense. Consistency is the story for Brown because after beating Princeton and leading Harvard by double-digits in both games last year, there’s no doubt that the Bears are talented enough to compete with the league’s best. Can they improve their strength down low and bear down (pun intended) and get stops in the second halves of big games? The answer to that question will go a long way in determining where the Bears finish, as many publications have them finishing anywhere between 4th and 7th.
“If we can start getting more physical and defending, we’re going to be one of those teams that people say is a dark horse,” Agel said. “We’re making strides. We’ve just got to get over the hump in the league. We’ve played extremely well out of conference — better than Brown has ever played out of conference in a two-year period — now we’ve just got to catch a break.” (Blue Ribbon, ESPN.com)
Down in Philadelphia, Coach Allen refuses to be content with the big leap the Quakers made out of the bottom half last year. We know the Quakers will be as good as anyone at the guard spots and on the wing with Rosen, Bernardini and Cartwright, but Allen challenged his stars in the Blue Ribbon preview to improve the weak spots in their game. Of Rosen, he said, “He does a lot for us from the locker room to the court. I wish he was a much better defensive player. But having said that, you couldn’t ask for a better leader among the group.” Of Bernardini, Allen would like to see improvement on the glass. “We all know that he’s a tremendous shooter, but he has some other natural abilities. If he exhausts them this season, it will make us a better team.” Finally, of the young Cartwright, “He’s going to be asked to have more of a leadership role this year on both ends of the floor.” Of course, the big question mark for Penn is the frontcourt where they have struggled with youth and injuries. In the final analysis, Blue Ribbon rated their backcourt an “A”, their frontcourt a “C+”, and suggested that a return to the top tier was not imminent this season.
Blue Ribbon reserved the most praise, expectedly, for Harvard and, perhaps less expectedly, for Yale. The Bulldogs were given a serious shot at winning the title this year thanks to the Mangano/Kreisberg/Morgan trio that looked so dangerous at times last year. The Bulldogs haven’t truly challenged for a title since the ’06-’07 10-4 campaign led by dynamic guard Eric Flato. This time, it’ll be the big man, Mangano, who carries the load for the Elis on the quest for a championship.