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.
Following an 0-6 start to Ivy play in 2017, the Penn men’s basketball team went 6-2 through the remainder of the conference schedule to claim the final spot in the inaugural Ivy Tournament. Despite having home court advantage and never trailing to undefeated Princeton during regulation, the Quakers could not find a way to close out the game and lost in the semifinals. Heading into 2017-2018, the expectations were that Penn, while not ready to challenge for the top of the conference, would build upon their immediate success and have a much more comfortable time at securing the four seed. The preseason media poll reflected this idea, with the Red & Blue being picked fourth with 88 points, 28 points behind third ranked Princeton and 31 points ahead of fifth place Columbia.
The Quakers entered the Ivy schedule at 9-5 with highlight wins on the road at Monmouth (in 4 OT) and Dayton. However, Penn’s 85-72 home loss to Toledo (KenPom #113) on December 29th was a troubling way to enter the January 9th conference opener against the Tigers. Penn put any concerns to rest, snapping an eight-game losing streak to Princeton on its way to a 7-0 start to the league schedule. Following a loss at Harvard, the Quakers won its next four, including a three point home win against the Crimson. A controversial last second 80-79 loss at Yale left Penn tied with Harvard going into the regular season finale. A 99-93 over Brown gave the Red & Blue (24-9 overall, 12-2 Ivy, 1-3 Big Five) a share of the Ivy title, its 26th overall championship and first since 2007.
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.
After two weeks of league competition, Penn has lost its first three contests, including two at the Palestra. The most surprising was a loss to Brown, the eighth-place team in the league’s preseason poll, which was Bears’ first road conference win in almost two years. (Brown very nearly upset Yale Friday night in Providence, but that doesn’t change Penn’s current 0-3 hole in league play.)
Looking at where things stand, were Quakers fans viewing the team through Red and Blue-colored glasses as the Ivy League slate began?
This one Ivy League season has been worthy of a shrug. The funk began when Yale junior guard and Ivy Player of the Year candidate Makai Mason was declared out for the season due to injury, and it deepened when it became obvious that Harvard coach Tommy Amaker had more tinkering than expected to do with his impact freshman-heavy roster. Preseason favorite Princeton, meanwhile, got clipped at Lehigh and is 0-3 against higher-ranked teams in KenPom. And league losses to Binghamton (Cornell), Army (Columbia), Longwood (Dartmouth), Navy (Penn) and Bryant (Yale) have suggested that the league has a lot of room for improvement. As a result, the Ivy League has fallen from 14th in KenPom’s preseason Division I conference rankings to 18th in just three weeks.
So far I believe most Penn hoops fans should be encouraged. There are many positives to take away from this young season both from within the team and from the status (bad) of the Ivy League. So let’s take a peek at them both, shall we?
1. Yale (2-1)
Who outside of New Haven expected Yale to have this kind of start when then-Ivy Player of the Year candidate Makai Mason was declared out for this season with a foot injury?
And who expected Yale to gel so quickly after Ivy Rookie of the Year candidate Jordan Bruner reportedly suffered an ACL sprain earlier this month?
What happened last year (11-17, 5-9): Last year, Penn fans got pretty much all they could expect from the Quakers in Steve Donahue’s first year as head coach of the Quakers. Penn got off to a 4-1 nonconference start and even climbed to 5-5 in league play before dropping the last four games of the season.
Two white-knuckle losses to Princeton (including blowing a 97.6 percent win probability after leading 64-55 with 3:02 left in the first matchup at the Palestra), perhaps even more than Penn’s conference wins, provided a glimpse of what the Quakers could be more consistently under Donahue going forward:
It comes in many forms. Caterpillar to chrysalis to beautiful butterfly: Whether it’s an insect, person, business, or athletic team, it is a necessary transformation for survival. No entity on the planet is exempt: evolve or perish.
This will be a curiously critical year for Quaker Basketball because it will show whether Steve Donahue, with his first true recruiting class, can be competitive in the increasingly upwardly mobile Ivy League. Evidence of institutional growth, something that consistently eluded Jerome Allen’s teams and consequently vexed and frustrated the Penn fan base, will soon be on full display as the season progresses. True, the Quakers will be a young squad (11 of the 19 players will be either freshmen or sophomores), but that should not significantly mask whether they will be able to take that next crucial step back toward Ivy hoops relevance. Of course, there will be growing pains but I, unlike the perpetually lugubrious Penn Basketball message boards, am unusually sanguine about this team.