By David Porter
Coming from anyone else, Glen Miller’s assessment of the upcoming Ivy League men’s basketball season might sound odd at best and delusional at worst. “In some ways, there’s pressure on some of the other teams in the league, given the losses we’ve had,” Miller said, referring to the graduation of two-time Ivy player of the year Ibrahim Jaaber C’07 and four-year standouts Mark Zoller C’07 and Steve Danley C’07. “This is their opportunity, and if they can’t cash in this year, it’s going to be a big blow.”
Having coached one of those “other” teams for seven years, Miller can be considered an authority on the mentality of the rest of the Ivy League when it comes to toppling the Penn-Princeton duopoly. His Brown teams, who often possessed enviable talent, always fell just short of the Quakers or Princeton even when one or both of the Big Two was struggling, much as alleged contenders Yale and Dartmouth have done before them over the last 10 years.
This year’s trendy picks are a talented Cornell team that finished 16-12, and Yale (14-13), which handed the Quakers their only league loss on February 3 in New Haven. Columbia, a surprising 16-12 a year ago, also could be in the mix.
But will they? Will anybody break the 19-year stranglehold Penn and Princeton have had on the Ivy title (Yale’s shared crown in 2002 notwithstanding)? Those have been the eternal questions in Ivy League basketball and are at least as pertinent as the questions surrounding the Quakers this season as they prepare for life without Jaaber, Zoller, and Danley, who accounted for 43 points and 16 rebounds per game last season.
“We have a bunch of guys who are unproven and young,” Miller conceded. “They’ve had a terrific preseason, but I don’t have those guys who stand out with the skills and the experience level. Mark, Ibby, and Steve accounted for 60 percent of our points, so we’re going to make that up with numbers: we’ll attack, we’ll press more on defense. I’m anticipating playing 10 or 11 guys every night.”
Penn’s predicament seems less dire when it is considered that one of those players is senior Brian Grandieri, a player who does a little bit of everything and most of it exceedingly well. Last year the 6 feet-4 inch guard/forward was third on the team in scoring (11.7 points), second in rebounding (5.2) and shot an even 50 percent from 3-point range (22 of 44). A similar performance this season would be welcomed, but Miller hinted that he expects Grandieri—one of only three seniors on the roster and by far the most experienced returning player—to do more.
Though the absence of Jaaber, the Ivies’ all-time steals leader, certainly will allow the rest of the league’s guards to stop compulsively looking behind them, Penn’s backcourt figures to be a strength again by virtue of sheer numbers. In addition to Grandieri, the trio of sophomore Darren Smith and juniors Kevin Egee and Tommy McMahon had a combined 29 starts between them last season and played an average of 14 to 18 minutes per game. Senior Michael Kach shot 48 percent from the field, best among all bench players.
They’ll be challenged by highly touted freshman Tyler Bernardini of Carlsbad, California, a 6-feet-6-inch, 205-pounder who has been impressive in the preseason.
“He’s very skilled and has good size for a guard,” Miller said. “I would anticipate he’d be the guy that stands out as far as his potential to make an immediate impact.”
The frontcourt is an entirely different story, as Miller will have to mix and match to replace the imposing figures of Zoller and Danley. The top returning player, junior Brennan Votel, averaged two points in nine minutes per game last season; behind him are several players with size but little game experience. On paper, it is the team’s most obvious weakness.
Opening night is November 9 at the Palestra against Drexel.
It took four games, but Penn’s football team finally dominated an opponent where it counts, on the scoreboard, and found its groove with two straight wins. Unfortunately, the run ended with a nerve-wracking overtime loss to Yale in the Homecoming game on October 20 that continued a recent pattern for the Quakers in games decided in extra time.
Agonizing losses to Lafayette (8-7) and Dartmouth (21-13) sandwiched around a defeat at the hands of Villanova left coach Al Bagnoli’s squad 0-3 before a 42-13 thrashing of winless Georgetown on October 6. Junior quarterback Robert Irvin and senior running back Joe Sandberg, the offense’s two bulwarks, both missed time with injuries during the early part of the season, and it showed. Then, everything clicked against Georgetown and in a 59-28 throttling of Columbia the following Saturday.
“It’s a weight off our shoulders,” quarterback Bryan Walker, a senior, said after Penn beat Georgetown. “I felt things had been going well, but the only thing that matters is whether you win or lose.”
The Yale game at Franklin Field featured an entire season’s worth of thrills. Elis star running back Mike McLeod had a big first quarter but was stymied for most of the rest of the game as the Quakers held onto a 10-7 lead through three quarters against the nation’s No. 16-ranked team.
McLeod pushed into the end zone in the first overtime (television replays showed he may have been stopped short), but Penn caught a break on its possession when Walker’s pass fell incomplete on fourth down but Yale was called for interference. Walker found sophomore Marcus Lawrence for the tying touchdown.
After the teams traded field goals, Yale scored to start the third overtime, and Penn got to the Elis’ 1-yard line but failed to score on three straight runs. Then came a play that looked like it came straight out of a backyard game of two-hand touch as Sandberg ran left, saw his path blocked and reversed direction, then found senior fullback Nick Cisler in the end zone to tie the game. Unfortunately, one of Penn’s linemen was downfield illegally, so the inspired bit of improvisation went for naught. Walker’s pass on fourth down tipped off senior Braden Lepisto’s fingertips in the end zone.
It has been an uncharacteristically lean time for Bagnoli, who entered this season with a career record of 104 wins and 44 losses (.702). The loss to Yale was the Quakers’ fourth overtime defeat dating back to last season.
“Our won-loss record is not reflective of our talent,” Bagnoli said after the Georgetown game. “That means I have to do a better job. We’ve been starting to get closer. [Against Dartmouth] our stats were solid but we didn’t score enough points. I just don’t think we’ve come close to the level that we’re capable of.”
David Porter C’82 writes for the Associated Press.