As Penns basketball team prepared for its first tussle with Princeton, it was worth comparing the teams fortunes at the same juncture a year ago. Then, the Quakers were facing a major reclamation project after losing three of their first five Ivy League games. What happened over the next five weeks is now a part of Penn lore, and deservedly so: the 10-game winning streak to close out the season and earn an NCAA berth may have been the best extended display of grace under pressure in the programs history.
Though this years Quakers did not find themselves in a similar predicament at the same point of this season, no less heroic an effort was going to be required to achieve the same result. Parity in Ivy League basketball seems to be here to stay, which must be viewed as a good thing even if it may have a less than beneficial effect on the collective sanity of those who had become used to worrying about Princeton twice a year and dismissing the other six Ivies as wannabes. Gone are the days when a senior-laden contender like Dartmouth, for instance, could travel down the New Jersey Turnpike and slink back to Hanover two days later after losing to Penn and Princeton by a combined 55 points.
Perception and expectation tend to lag behind these and other realities, of courseif they didnt, no one would ever lose money in the stock market or at the racetrack, presumablywhich means most inhabitants of Red and Blue Nation still expect what they expect every season, which translates to something very close to perfection. Consequently, wins by only three points at Cornell and seven points at Columbia, as was the final tally from the weekend of February 7-8, are viewed as ominous signs, rather than as evidence that Cornell has a young, hungry team that may actually become a contender in a year or two, and that Penns annual visit to Columbias high-school-sized gym usually produces no small share of anxiety. With six games left against surprising Brown (6-0), Princeton (4-0) and Yale (4-2) between February 11 and March 11, not to mention a visit to Cambridge where they lost to Harvard a year ago, the Quakers (4-0) had a lot of company near the top of the standings and a challenging road ahead.
This is a new year, and we have to get it done, Coach Fran Dunphy said on the eve of the Quakers trip to Cornell and Columbia. Expectations are high, and well see how we respond to those expectations.
Individually, no Penn player entered the season carrying greater expectations than 6-foot-8-inch forward Ugonna Onyekwe, last years Ivy Player of the Year and the subject of early-season feature articles by, among other publications, The New York Times and ESPN.com. It was a shock, then, to see Onyekwe dropped from the starting lineup by Dunphy eight games into the season, after an 80-57 loss to Colorado in Boulder in which the senior shot 2-for-7 to go along with four rebounds and four personal fouls. The move was unprecedented in Dunphys 14 seasons at Penn, and the coach admitted as much after Penns next game, a workmanlike (if uninspiring) 66-55 win over American University at the Palestra.
Ugonna just has to give more, Dunphy said at the time. Its as simple as that. Against Villanova, he was phenomenal. Against Colorado and Providence, he was nowhere to be found. Hes a great guy. Hes got some talent. But we need to get more out of him These guys are seniors. This run is going to be over in a few months. Theyll have nothing to look back on but memories. I want those memories to be good. Lets take advantage of every opportunity. I want them to play well. I think we can do better.
Though Dunphy never verbalized it publicly, the suspicion here is that his objective was two-fold: in addition to letting Onyekwe know that he needed to get his head back in the game, the other players saw that no one on the team was exempt from being held accountable for lackluster play. The tough-love message hit home, as Penn won four of the five games in which Onyekwe came off the bench, and played five consecutive halves of near-perfect basketball spanning routs of USC (99-61) and Monmouth (98-54) and the first half of a win over Lafayette, all on the road. Onyekwe elevated his performance as well, shooting a blistering 61 percent (33-for-54) from the field in the five games. He marked his return to the starting lineup with 22 points and 11 rebounds in a 79-66 win over La Salle on January 28 that Dunphy called a character game, after an 18-point loss to St. Josephs three days earlier.
I dont think it matters [whether he starts or not], Dunphy said after the La Salle game. Hes a good kid, though there are times he drives you crazy. He has a lot of athletic ability, and hes getting his basketball ability to where it should be.
Onyekwe also said all the right things. It really doesnt make a difference, he said. You just do the best you can. Also, you can see the flow of the game better when youre on the bench, before you go come in.
It is worth taking a step back and appreciating what Onyekwe has brought to this program: an unparalleled level of grace and athleticism, and a tendency to produce his best performances against better competition, which is a true mark of greatness. As of this writing, he had passed Ron Haigler and moved into fourth place on Penns all-time scoring list with 1,556 points, and, barring injury, was on target to leap-frog Michael Jordan C00 and Keven McDonald C78 into second place, behind all-time leader Ernie Beck W53 (1,827). If even a player of Onyekwes stature falls short of Becks mark, it is hard to envision anyone ever surpassing it.
David Porter C82 is the Gazettes sports columnist and author of Fixed: How Goodfellas Bought Boston College Basketball.
From Dec. 2 to Feb. 9
Womens Basketball (9-9)
Mens Fencing (12-1)
Womens Fencing (13-1)
Mens Indoor Track
Womens Indoor Track
Mens Squash (9-5)
Womens Squash (8-3)
Mens Tennis (3-1)
Womens Tennis (2-2)