How Penn shapes up as Ivy contender

Penn's Miles Cartwright is a freshman on the rise.
Penn's Miles Cartwright is a freshman on the rise.
Posted: January 26, 2011

BELIEVE IT OR NOT, Ivy League play does not begin Friday.

Actually, every team in the league except Penn and Princeton already has played two games. Penn and Princeton will play games each Friday and Saturday from here to the end of the regular season, in addition to the two Tuesday games against each other.

For those who are just now tuning in, Harvard, Yale and Columbia are 2-0, having swept Dartmouth, Brown and Cornell, respectively. (Long way from that Sweet 16 for the Big Red, which is 4-12.)

Harvard is 13-3 overall, with wins over Colorado and Boston College. Even after losing Jeremy Lin, who played 17 games with the Golden State Warriors and is now in the D-League, Tommy Amaker's team is really good and, along with Princeton, a favorite to win the league. Harvard shoots 80.9 percent from the foul line. Among 345 Division I teams, only Wisconsin shoots it better (81.9 percent).

Princeton is 12-4. The Tigers don't have any great wins, but they are very good. I saw them against Saint Joseph's on Dec. 5 and was impressed.

Columbia is 11-5. I saw the Lions on Opening Night against La Salle and thought then they could be a factor. They are clearly that.

So where does that leave Penn? Last season, the Quakers finished 5-9 in the league. Can they improve five games to get to 10 wins? I think so. Can they do even better and vie for the championship? Well, if it's just about offense, they can. But Penn (6-8) will have to play much better defense to get up there with Harvard and Princeton and any other team that might become a factor.

Penn does not block shots (just 30, 336th out of 345 teams). With ball pressure, that can be overcome, but Penn has not had enough ball pressure on defense, as the Quakers opponents' shooting (47.3 percent, 328th), attests.

Having said that, it is also reality that the far more difficult part of Penn's schedule is behind it. Which is a big part of the reason why the defensive numbers look so bad. Pittsburgh, Kentucky, Villanova and Temple are not in the Ivy.

Zack Rosen, Jack Eggleston and Tyler Bernardini are a very strong Ivy trifecta, attacking defenses from all angles. Freshman Miles Cartwright is very good and getting better by the game.

I keep thinking this team might be a season away from contention. I also keep thinking I might be wrong. The Quakers might be ready to contend now. They certainly have enough winning players.

The schedule gives them a chance to get off to a great start. The first four games (starting Friday and Saturday against Yale and Brown, followed by Dartmouth and Harvard next weekend) are at home before a Feb. 8 trip to Princeton.

COACH GAL

 I will do my annual review of how all those former Big 5 assistants are doing in head jobs around the country in a week or so. One former assistant, however, needs special mention. And not just because I have known John Gallagher since we met in 1989 at a practice in South Bend, Ind., the night before La Salle played Notre Dame.

Gallagher, who played at Cardinal O'Hara and Saint Joseph's, before becoming an assistant at La Salle, Lafayette, Hartford and Penn, is in his first season as the head coach at Hartford.

You could not make up all the stuff that has gone down in Hartford's 19 games. Suffice to say, it has been crazy.

The Hawks played their first game at a casino. They led Central Connecticut State by 14 and lost by two. They lost by two at Quinnipiac in their second game. They led at Fordham by nine points with 4 1/2 minutes left and lost by four. They lost by five at Yale.

Hartford led at Sacred Heart by 20 with 8 minutes left. And lost by one. It led at Monmouth, 15-0. Monmouth did not make a basket for more than 14 minutes. Hartford's lead eventually ballooned to 19. It lost by four in double overtime.

It lost by three at New Hampshire after leading by 16 in the first half. It led UMBC by nine with 7 minutes left. And lost by four in double overtime.

See, I said you couldn't make this stuff up.

Despite all these wacky losses, it really hasn't been all bad news. Hartford is 7-13 and 4-3 in the America East after last night's 72-51 loss at Vermont. Maine (13-7, 7-1) leads the league. Its only loss? You guessed it - at home by two to Hartford.

On Saturday, Pat Chambers' Boston University team had Hartford down on its home court, 13-0 and 18-2. Naturally, Hartford scored the game's final 14 points and won, 59-55.

Hartford is not getting cheated. Going into last night's game, it had attempted 540 threes, fourth nationally. If only the Hawks were making more. They are shooting 30.7 percent from the arc, 298th nationally.

When I talk to him, "Gal" is always upbeat. And wants to make sure everybody knows the America East Tournament will be held on his team's home court.

A YEAR LATER

Butler lost early games to Louisville, Evansville, Duke and Xavier. The Bulldogs then proceeded to win six in a row, including solid victories against Stanford, Utah, Florida State and Washington State. It looked and felt a lot like last season when Butler was 8-4 at Christmas and proceeded to win its next 25 games before losing to Duke in that unforgettable national championship game.

Only the script has changed. Butler is just 6-3 in the Horizon League (14-7 overall), a game behind Valparaiso and Cleveland State. The Bulldogs have been swept by Milwaukee (10-11, 5-5) and also lost at Wright State (13-8, 6-3).

Brad Stevens is still one of the brightest coaches in America, but this season clearly is not going to be last season. And anybody who expected it to be really hasn't paid close enough attention to this sport.

Duke is a title contender just about every year. Butler is not. Which was why Duke-Butler was so fascinating.

THIS AND THAT

* When TCU joins the Big East in 2012, it will be the school's fifth conference since 1995-96. It had been in the now-defunct Southwest Conference forever. Since then, they have wandered through the Western Athletic Conference, Conference USA and, now, Mountain West. Like all this conference restructuring, this is just about football. The Rose Bowl winners will give the league football cachet it does not now have. Pittsburgh basketball coach Jamie Dixon really wanted his alma mater to join his league. What will the league get with TCU hoops (10-11, 1-5 MWC)? Another victim. And some smiles from DePaul and South Florida.

* Not sure if this says more about Duquesne or the state of the Big 5. For the first time in its history, Duquesne has beaten Temple, Saint Joseph's and La Salle in the same season.

* Villanova shoots 77.6 percent from the foul line, seventh nationally. And, unlike last season, the Wildcats are not fouling. Last season, they committed 22.2 fouls per game. This season, it is down to 16.4 fouls per game. The 'Cats are averaging 1.13 points per possession, 22nd nationally, and give up just 0.92 points per possession, 34th best.

* Even after scoring just 51 points in a loss to Notre Dame, Pittsburgh is second in the country with 1.2 points per possession. Why? The Panthers take good shots and they do not turn it over. They are second in assist/turnover ratio at 1.71/1. Notre Dame is ninth at 1.49-1.

* >Why is Florida State so good? Defense. The Seminoles (15-5, 5-1 ACC) lead the nation in field-goal defense (35.0 percent). Drexel's three-point defense (27.8 percent) is fifth nationally.

* For those into points, VMI (92.2) averages the most while Savannah State (54.4) averages the fewest. Alas, these two powers do not meet in the regular season. Could be a Sweet 16 meeting, however.

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