A Milestone for Dunphy
By David Porter | If ever there was a sure bet when the current college basketball season began, it was that the Philadelphia sports media would gravitate toward West Philadelphia around the middle of the season as soon as Penn men’s basketball coach Fran Dunphy reached career victory No. 299and that Dunphy would do his best to downplay the accomplishment when he made it to 300.
When he reached that milestone on January 25 against La Salle, even the normally reserved Dunphy couldn’t help but get into the spirit just a little bit for what turned out to be a perfect storm of circumstances: a home game in the Palestra, the building where he’d come of age as a player and coach, and against La Salle, his alma mater and the school that nearly wooed him away last season.
After the 73-65 win went in the books, there was a sigh of relief from Philadelphia college hoops’ native son, but also a dose of perspective.
“It feels great to get it over with,” Dunphy told a packed press room after the game, a statement one had little difficulty believing. “There were way too many people asking way too many questions about it. I appreciate it, don’t get me wrong. The longer you’re at this stuff, you’re going to have some good numbers. If I reflected on anything, it was when I looked down the bench at [assistant coaches] Shawn Trice [C’95] and Matt Langel [W’00], who were more responsible than I was for about half those wins. The number 300, I couldn’t care less about. It’s looking back at the great groups of guys I’ve had here. If you had said 17 years ago that I’d still be here and still be coaching college basketball, then I’d have said I’d be very lucky.”
Trice is particularly well-suited to offer some perspective of his own on Dunphy. He was a member of the teams led by Jerome Allen W’01 and Matt Maloney C’95 in the mid-1990s and has experienced some of Dunphy’s legendary tongue-lashings during those long mid-week afternoon practices in the Palestra.
“As a player, you’d sometimes ask yourself why we were doing certain things, but as a coach you see the bigger picture,” he said. As for Dunphy’s intensity level, Trice would only say, “He’s mellowed a whole lot. I’m always telling the players now, ‘You’ve got it easy!’ I think he’s become wiser at picking and choosing his spots.”
The La Salle game marked the “return” of center Mark Zoller, which could only bode well for Penn as it entered the meat of its Ivy League schedule with seven of its final 10 games away from the Palestra. The junior had only missed one game but had been dogged by injuries early in the season that limited his effectiveness. Against the Explorers, Zoller was an efficient 10-for-17 from the field including four 3-pointers, more than half as many as he’d had all season to that point. Though it didn’t show up in the box score, one of his biggest contributions came near the end of the game when he held his defensive position and drew an offensive foul when the Explorers were threatening.
“He’s really just starting to play this season,” said Dunphy. “He’s a great competitor, one of the hardest competitors I’ve ever had here.”
Another milestone was reached against La Salle that should not go unnoticed. With five steals junior guard Ibrahim Jaaber passed Jerome Allen and became Penn’s all-time leader in that category. The startled looks on the faces of opponents as he steps in to intercept their passes have become a common occurrence on game nights.
The victory over La Salle was a relief in another way for Dunphy, as it prevented the Quakers from being winless in the Big Five this season. The other losses were tough to swallow: by four points to Temple, three points to St. Joseph’s and seven points to then-No. 3 Villanova. They obviously had some positive effect, however, for Penn won its first four Ivy League games by an average margin of 28 points and bludgeoned Lafayette 105-73 on January 16. The last time a Penn team had scored that many points against a Division I opponent was in 1978.
“All five guys on the floor can score, pass and put the ball on the floor,” Brown coach Glen Miller said after the Bears absorbed a 68-51 loss at the Palestra on February 3. “They play well together, they have good chemistry and they all know their roles. And they play defense.”
That statement could sum up just about any of Dunphy’s teams at Penn over the last 15 years. This edition is propelled by the quick hands of Jaaber, the ballhandling and 3-point shooting of fellow guard Eric Osmundson, a senior, and the grind-it-out tenaciousness of Zoller and junior Steve Danley up front. With the Ivy League in a down cycle compared to recent years, the Quakers were in their usual spot in the driver’s seat as they passed the one-third point of the league schedulea time when it is always tempting, and usually dangerous, to speculate on what factors would have to fall into place to produce another undefeated Ivy League season, which would be Dunphy’s sixth. Better to focus on the negatives: a schedule that placed the Quakers on the road for seven of their final 10 league games, the usual home refereeing advantage at Yale and a suddenly resurgent Princeton team that won three of its first four Ivy games after going 2-12 to begin the season.
A league title would give Dunphy 10 at Penn, another round number that would be hard to dismiss.
“He’s doing a great job with this group,” Trice said. “I think he’s at the top of his game right now.”
David Porter C’82 writes for the Associated Press.
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