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By David Porter

Take your eye off them for too long and Penn men’s basketball team won’t be the same group when you look back. It’s a sure sign of a program in transition, albeit one that has been fortunate to receive an influx of young, talented, and hungry players this season who have allowed coach Fran Dunphy a remarkable degree of flexibility in his substitution schemes. Yet unlike the last two years’ teams that were capable of making a mockery of the rest of the Ivy League on the days they played up to their considerable potential, it was impossible even after the first two weekends of Ivy League games to know where to set the bar for the current group.

A hint came after an opening weekend that featured losses at Yale and Brown, both in winnable games that were decided in the final seconds. That raised the specter of a must-win game the next weekend against Harvard at the Palestra, surely a peculiar concept for most inhabitants of Red and Blue Nation to grasp so early in the season. But they came out in force—expect a spike in ticket sales while this team continues to find itself—and left after a 104-69 shellacking of the Crimson, convinced for the time being that some semblance of normalcy had returned. A marginally more difficult but no less important 18-point win over Dartmouth the next night further set the stage for the first meeting with Princeton and a truer test—in which they came away from Jadwin Gym with a 67-52 win to continue their rebound.

The predicament in which the Quakers found themselves after the two losses spurred the obligatory references to the 2001-02 season, when Penn lost three of its first five Ivy games before reeling off 10 straight victories and earning an NCAA bid in a one-game playoff against an overmatched Yale team. “It’s a reference for us, definitely,” senior guard Jeff Schiffner said after the Harvard game. “This is a different team, so the guys who were here [two years ago] have to let the younger guys know that it’s a step-by-step process.”

Perhaps a closer comparison can be made with the Penn team from the 2000-01 season, a talented but flawed group that started out losing eight games, five by a total of 16 points. Andrew Toole C’03 had yet to gain eligibility after his transfer from Elon, and Ugonna Onyekwe W’03 and Koko Archibong C’03 were sophomores on a team that lacked consistent guard play. By the next season, however, the lessons had been learned and Penn went 7-1 to start the season, with four of the victories by less than 10 points. The role those early successes played in the 10-game winning streak that followed should not be overstated.

As Schiffner noted, though, this is a different team, and it faces a steeper learning curve if it hopes to climb back into the Ivy League race. “We’re in the soup,” Dunphy admitted after the debacle in Providence and New Haven. “We’re going to see. We talked about how we’ve put ourselves in a position with no margin for error.”

Whether or not this team matches the feat of its predecessor, there is cause for optimism looking to next season and beyond. Freshmen Ibrahim Jaaber, Steven Danley, Mark Zoller, and Ryan Pettinella seem to energize the Quakers whenever they are on the floor, and Zoller in particular has been a revelation for Dunphy. The curly-haired, 6-foot-6 forward from St. Joseph’s Prep in Philadelphia scored 12 points in Penn’s 49-47 win over Manhattan in the title game of the Holiday Classic at Madison Square Garden, and had 14 points and 10 rebounds in the Quakers’ 71-47 drubbing of La Salle. “There were people who were telling me all the reasons why he couldn’t play here,” Dunphy said after the La Salle game, “that he was too small for one position and too slow for another. But ultimately he was too good not to have in the program, and he’s added a lot to our team.”

Penn’s women’s basketball team found itself in much better shape than the men after the first segment of the Ivy League schedule. The Quakers had won their first five league games and stood atop the Ivies at 5-0 after a 71-58 win at Dartmouth. In that game, senior Jewel Clark scored 23 points to surpass the 1,500-point mark for her career. Only two other players have accomplished that: Diana Caramanico W’01 (2,415) and Kristin Brendel C’91 (1,656). 

It was an auspicious start for a team that would like to reverse a trend of finishing second in the Ivy League, something it has done in three of the last four years. The fourth year was the 2000-01 season, when the Caramanico-led Quakers had their best season ever and went undefeated in the Ivies. In Clark, a two-time Ivy League first-team selection, Penn has a player capable of carrying the team in the same vein.

Wrestling has been a part of Penn’s athletic program seemingly for as long as Penn has had an athletic program, and the first intercollegiate championships were held at Weightman Hall in 1905. To commemorate the 100th year of the championships, the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association holds its tournament at the Palestra on March 6 and 7.

Penn dominated the EIWAs in the late 1990s. This year’s team is led by defending EIWA 285-pound champion Matthew Feast, a junior, who had a 19-4 record at the beginning of February and was ranked No. 3 in the country; 2003 EIWA 125-pound runner-up Matt Valenti (20-4, No. 7), and 174-pounder Matt Herrington (19-4, No. 10), both sophomores. 

In their quest for their seventh outright Ivy title since 1994 (they’ve also shared two), the Quakers dropped a tough, 17-15 decision to Cornell on January 31, but followed that with wins over Columbia, Brown, and Harvard.

David Porter C’82 writes for the Associated Press.

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