By Dave Zeitlin | There have been fleeting moments, Zack Rosen admits, when he thinks about all the other places he could have gone to play college basketball. Perhaps if he had chosen a different school back when he was a highly regarded prospect out of St. Benedict’s Prep in New Jersey, he wouldn’t have had to deal with all of the things he’s endured during his first three seasons at Penn: player defections, coaching changes, and far more losses than anyone who’s ever been a part of the Quakers’ basketball program probably ever thought possible.
But for Rosen, who has become the face of the current Penn basketball team, those moments don’t last very long. And the senior point guard has never entertained thoughts of transferring himself. Rather than try to flee the sinking ship, he has always wanted to get it back upright and sailing in the right direction, even if that’s often seemed like a near-impossible task.
“I’m kind of stubborn in the way I want to fight through,” says Rosen, who earned first-team All-Ivy League plaudits the last two seasons, after being named the Big 5 rookie of the year in 2008-09. “Keep throwing it at me, keep throwing it at me— because I want to prove you wrong. You guys say we can’t win? I’ll tell you we can win.”
Winning hasn’t come easy for the Quakers, who have lost more than 65 percent of their games over the past three seasons (a combined 29-55 record) and have not captured an Ivy League title since winning three straight between 2005 and 2007. At some schools, that might be expected, a typical swoon in the cycle of college basketball. But for Penn, a program that’s won 25 Ivy League championships and ranks 10th nationally in all-time victories, a slump of that duration is about as common as a real-life Quaker starting a fight at Sunday meeting.
Rosen understands the history of success better than most. Along with the Wharton education, it’s the main reason he chose to spurn other high-Division I programs and come to Penn. And he sees it every day at practice, the championship banners hanging over his head serving as an almost-cruel reminder of what he has yet to accomplish. But many of today’s students don’t know about the University’s storied basketball history because they have yet to truly live through it, and Rosen understands it’s his job to change that.
“People on campus don’t realize how many people love this program,” the senior point guard says. “People love Penn basketball. People will travel and drive and fly and cancel appointments to go to Penn basketball games. That’s the beauty of it, right? But it also adds an element of responsibility. Sports are results-driven and people want to win.”
So when the 2011-12 season begins, with a road matchup against University of Maryland-Baltimore County on November 11, Rosen recognizes that he’ll only have one more chance to finish a season above .500, win an Ivy League championship, and reach the destination where every college basketball player wants to be: the NCAA tournament. To do so, Penn will need to navigate through a brutally tough non-conference schedule that includes games against national powers Pittsburgh, Duke, and UCLA, and then rise to the top of the ever-improving Ivy League, where reigning co-champions Harvard and Princeton figure to be the preseason favorites. Last season, the Quakers showed early signs of being a title contender by starting 3-0 in the league and taking Harvard and Princeton right down to the wire in a pair of classic games. But Penn lost in overtime in both of those contests, and then got swept on their New York trip to Cornell and Columbia, essentially dropping out of the Ivy League race at the midway point.
If the Quakers hope to get over the hump this season, they’ll need to rely on Rosen and the rest of the team’s senior class, which includes fifth-year standout Tyler Bernardini—who, like Rosen, has already eclipsed 1,000 career points—and a slew of players (guard Rob Belcore and forwards Mike Howlett, Larry Loughery, and Zack Gordon) who have either been hampered by injuries or inconsistent play during their Penn careers. Because of transfers, the Quakers have no juniors on their roster but they do have a rising star in sophomore guard Miles Cartwright and other highly touted underclassmen.
Head Coach Jerome Allen W’09, in his short time in charge, has already shown the ability to inspire confidence in his players and bring in high-caliber recruits. But for Rosen, Bernardini, and the rest of the seniors—the only remaining holdovers from previous coach Glen Miller’s regime—there is just one more chance. And should the Quakers fail to capture a title this year, Rosen and Bernardini may go down as two of the best players in Penn history never to win a ring, joining last season’s senior standout Jack Eggleston C’11 in a category they surely don’t want to be included in.
“You’re really thinking about how you want to leave it,” Rosen said recently, the start of basketball season hanging in the crisp fall air. “Through all the losing and the turmoil we had for our first three years here, can we turn it around? Can we leave our mark on this historic top 25 program and be able to say, one day, that we contributed to Penn being back on top?”
Very soon, these questions will be answered.
Dave Zeitlin C’03 writes frequently for the Gazette and oversees the magazine’s sports blog.