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(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)
On Jan. 12, 2005, Penn lost an overtime decision to Rider at The Palestra. The defeat was Penn's fifth straight and dropped the Quakers to 4-7. It had been more than five weeks since their last win.
At this juncture, the chances of Penn winning its fifth Ivy League crown in seven years seemed remote at best. Never mind that rival Princeton was the overwhelming pick to win the Ancient 8.
Yet, almost as the whispers began about a down year at Penn, the Quakers started winning. Dunphy and company reeled off 11 straight victories and after a loss at Yale on Feb. 19, Penn won five more.
Penn ran away with the Ivy League crown, finishing five games ahead of second-place Cornell, and earned a No. 13 seeding in the NCAA Tournament. And while Boston College ended the season rather abruptly, 85-65, in the first round, it did little to diminish Penn's remarkable turnaround.
"I was a little bit surprised [with winning 16-of-17] but there was something with that group of kids," Dunphy said. "I could tell they were special. We just weren't shooting well early and we should've beaten Temple and Rider beat us at the buzzer. We played some difficult teams during that early stretch, too."
This season, Penn, by most accounts, is a heavy favorite to win Dunphy's 10th Ivy title. The Quakers graduated just two seniors of significance, including Ivy Player of the Year Tim Begley and Jan Fikiel. But several Ivy coaches believe Penn will miss Begley, the dynamic point guard, more than others might realize.
"We're going to miss his leadership as much as his play," Dunphy said. "That's a major, major concern."
True, but Penn does return four starters. And three of them are juniors. It's not hard to envision Penn pulling off a run of three straight Ivy crowns.
The best of the bunch is 6-2 junior guard Ibrahim Jaaber (9.1 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 2.8 apg, 2.9 spg). Perhaps the best all-around player in the Ivy, Jaaber does a little bit of everything. But while he's already regarded as the league's best defensive players and a virtual lock for All-Ivy honors, he needs to improve his shooting and scoring in absence of Begley. Jaaber shot just 27 percent on his 107 three-point attempts in 2004-05. And without that fear of Jaaber dropping a quick three, defenses can also sag more to prevent his penetrating into the lane.
On defense, look for Jaaber to make a serious run at 100 steals this season. Defenders shouldn't even think about trying a cross-over dribble in his general vicinity.
Joining Jaaber in the backcourt is 6-5 senior Eric Osmundson (8.3 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 1.9 apg), who made 39-of-100 three-pointers last season and is without question the teams best outside shooter.
The other two returning starters are 6-7 junior forward/guard Mark Zoller (9.5 ppg, 6.4 rpg) and 6-8 junior forward Steve Danley (9.2 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 1.7 apg).
Zoller shot 51 percent from the field and is just one of those players who gets it. He rarely makes mistakes and seems to have a sixth sense for being in the right place -- with or without the basketball. He could really blossom this season. Danley needs to improve his rebounding and post defense but is a dynamic passer in the mold of those old Princeton big men.
It's unclear who the fifth starter will be, but the favorites include 6-9 junior forward Ryan Pettinella (4.8 ppg, 3.0 rpg), 6-6 senior forward/guard Friedrich Ebede (2.2 ppg, 2.0 rpg) and 6-3 sophomore guard David Whitehurst (2.4 ppg, 1.7 rpg).
Others expected to see action are 6-6 senior guard Adam Franklin, 6-2 junior guard Lorenz Manthey, 6-6 sophomore forward/guard Joe Gill and 6-4 sophomore guard Brian Grandieri.
"We need to stay healthy because we aren't deep up front," Dunphy said. "And while we have a number of guys back, you never know who's going to step up and surprise."
Penn's freshmen class includes 6-2 guard Aaron Cohen (1.0 ppg, 8.0 apg at Abington Friends, Jenkintown, Pa.), 6-3 guard Kevin Egee (16.0 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 5.0 apg at Ridley HS in Folsom, Pa.), 6-8 forward Cameron Lewis (11.7 ppg, 10.0 rpg at Philips Exeter Academy in N.H.), 6-6 forward Tommy McMahon (18.0 ppg, 11.0 rpg at Junipero Serra, San Mateo, Calif.) and 6-7 forward Brennan Votel (17.0 ppg, 11.5 rpg) at Covington Catholic, Park Hills, Ky.).
"I could see at least two of the freshmen contributing this season," Dunphy said.
BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS
Over the last 13 years, only Kentucky, with nine, has won its conference tournament more than Penn. The Quakers have won three of the last four and eight-of-13. And this team enters the 2005-06 heavily favored by most to make it nine NCAA Tournament bids in 14 years.
However, Begley will be sorely missed. Opposing Ivy League coaches considered Princeton a surer bet last season than Penn this winter and look what happened there. So by no means is Penn a lock.
Jaaber should vie for Ivy player-of-the-year honors, but if his three-point shooting isn't drastically improved, the Quakers will be seeing plenty of zone and box-and-one defenses. And while Jaaber does a little of everything, it wouldn't be surprising if Zoller actually led the team in scoring.
The Ivy League, collectively, is at an all-time peak right now. All eight teams won double-digit games last season for the first time ever and at least five of them are improved.
Alas, Penn is not among that group. However, the Quakers were so much better than the rest a season ago that they might still reign supreme.
We say Penn drops three Ivy games and at 11-3, finishes in second place and earns an NIT invitation.
For the most comprehensive previews on all 326 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college basketball, the 25th anniversary edition of Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbook.com or call 1-866-805-BALL (2255).