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joe sullivan | ON college basketball

‘This team has really surprised me’: How Penn has become the Ivy League favorite

The Quakers made an impression last week when they upset Villanova.
The Quakers made an impression last week when they upset Villanova. Matt Slocum/Associated Press

Launching a few college basketball thoughts from behind the arc while wishing all local college basketball teams good health in the new year. They need it.

■  Thinking locally

The Ivy League has a clear-cut favorite now and it isn’t the league’s preseason choice, Harvard. Instead, it’s Penn, under former BC coach Steve Donahue, that assumes the role after the Quakers’ inspiring upset of Villanova last week.

The loss ended Villanova’s 25-game winning streak against Big Five schools in Philadelphia and also ended with the Penn students storming the court.

It’s not the only good victory for Penn as the Quakers beat Miami decisively early in the season. Projected to finished second in the Ivy, they’ve exceeded expectations with those two victories and a 9-2 record. Even Donahue agrees.

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“This team has really surprised me in what they’ve been able to accomplish,’’ he said. “We lost two of our most talented kids [from last season’s NCAA tournament team], but we have guys who have been in the program the last two or three years and we’ve raised our level of play. It’s more two-way than in the past. That’s enabled them to exceed my expectations.’’

Donahue accepts that his team is now the Ivy favorite but he also thinks the league is better than it’s been in a long time.

“I don’t remember a year when so many teams have had winning records,’’ he said. “It’s surprising because we all play guarantee games and hard games out of the conference. From top to the bottom, it’s going to be a helluva league. Everyone improved over last year.’’

He then recited some numbers off the top of his head that the league had 34 of 40 starters returning and every single all-league player returning.

Donahue’s time at Penn is the opposite experience from what happened at BC. He had great success at Cornell (even reaching the Sweet 16) but he couldn’t replicate that at BC and was let go after four seasons (54-76).

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“I had an incredible experience in Boston and BC,’’ he said. “I have great ties there; the people at BC were great. Unfortunately, we didn’t get it done. It was a great learning experience. I’ve become a much better coach from that experience. There are numerous things I reflect on from that time and I made sure I got better.’’

In the Ivy League, five teams (Penn, Brown, Yale, Dartmouth, and Princeton) have winning records. Surprisingly, Harvard at 4-5 is not one of them.

The Crimson were the preseason favorite in the Ivy League but star players Bryce Aiken, a 6-foot junior guard and Seth Towns, a 6-7 junior forward, haven’t recovered from knee injuries suffered last season. Without those two, it will be hard for Harvard to contend.

“We haven’t done our part,’’ said Harvard coach Tommy Amaker. “The fact that we’re missing some of our best players hasn’t helped us but we have a chance to be a good team when league play begins.

“I wait for them to tell me when they’re ready and they have haven’t told me that yet. I have no timetable. I don’t want it to look as if I’m pushing for them to come back.’’

Even if or when Aiken and Towns, return, the competition will be tough in this version of the Ivy League.

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“I know our league is good,’’ said Amaker. “It’s been good. Last year we were the youngest league in the country. When all the good players in the conference are returning it bodes well for a league becoming good the following year.

“People, the coaches and ADs you’ve been around a long time like Gary Walters at Princeton, have said they’ve never seen the league as strong as it’s been from top to bottom.’’

Amaker has also lost his best big man, 6-9, 235-pound junior Chris Lewis, and 6-2 junior guard Christian Juzang for some games. To compete in this year’s Ivy race, he’ll need all four players back.

Jarius Hamilton was a big recruit for BC but he started the season slowly. At 6 feet 8 inches, 220 pounds, he looks like a finished product physically but he’s not there yet. He is coming on, however.

He started his first game against Columbia Tuesday night and had 8 points and four rebounds in 17 minutes. Unlike in earlier games, he actually had an effect on the game.

“He’s playing much better,’’ said BC coach Jim Christian. “He may not think so, but I see it.’’

Christian feels it takes until January for most freshmen to fully integrate in a team. Hamilton is starting to get there.

One thing he can do spectacularly is dunk. In fact, he’d be a lot better off if he contained himself to shots near the basket. He’s only made five of 21 three-pointers as opposed to 19 of 33 two-pointers.

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■  Thinking nationally:

Gonzaga may have lost consecutive games to Tennessee and North Carolina but don’t be too hard on the Zags. Remember, they’re still missing one of their best players in 6-10 junior forward Killian Tillie.

UCLA lost to Belmont Saturday and now the Bruins have to go on the road to play at Cincinnati and Ohio State. Things could get worse. In the old days, the only way John Wooden would have played consecutive opponents like that would have been on a neutral court.

This is a huge week for undefeated Buffalo. The Bulls may be nationally ranked but they still have to prove their worth continuously. They can do it with road games at Syracuse Tuesday and Marquette Friday. Both are winnable, but a split would be a good result.

■  Thinking logistically:

In the final minute of the Villanova victory, Penn ran a play that I’ve never seen before. Fran Fraschilla, doing the game for ESPN, said he’s never seen it before either.

Villanova had just scored and called timeout. Penn was up 3, needed to get the ball inbounds to a good free throw shooter. Following the time out, four players lined up right on the baseline, maybe a step between them. The inbounder was on the other side of the court.

“I stole it from Greg Kampe, the coach at Oakland,’’ said Donahue. “I was at a clinic at Drexel last spring with a bunch of coaches talking basketball and someone said we have trouble getting the ball in bounds at the end when you know you’re going to get fouled.

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“Greg was there and said, ‘This is what we do.’

“He never played basketball, he’s a football guy. I said, ‘Wow.’ I’ve run it when all five guys are out of bounds. It’s like a triple wing T in football. One guy runs a fly pattern, another runs a post and one runs a flag pattern. It’s worked for us a couple of times because of the confusion factor.’’

Oakland University inbounds play design
A look at the Oakland inbounds play design.

Kampe is proud of his invention. “In 20 years, it’s never not worked,’’ he said. “We’ve always gotten the ball in bounds.

“In the last minute of game, if the other team scores and we’re ahead, we just yell, ‘Football,’ and we run it.’’

It will be interesting after the national exposure the play got last week to see if other teams adopt it.

■  Forward thinking:

Upcoming games I’m interested in:

TUESDAY

Radford at UNC Greensboro: Two of the better low majors.

WEDNESDAY

Auburn at NC State: NC State has played mostly softies so this will probably be a rude awakening.

Western Kentucky at Belmont: Best of Conference USA vs. best of the Ohio Valley Conference with Belmont coming off a victory at UCLA. Incidentally, Belmont coach Rick Byrd said when his team toured the UCLA Hall of Fame at Pauley Pavilion his players didn’t know who John Wooden was.

Wofford at Mississippi State: Can Fletcher Magee hit enough threes for Wofford to produce an upset?

FRIDAY

Furman at LSU: The undefeated Paladins take on another difficult road game but smart, unselfish play will triumph. LSU has a big knucklehead factor.

SATURDAY

Saint Louis at Florida State: The low-flying A10 needs a win like this for its best team.

Stanford at San Francisco: The Dons are a Sully’s Court favorite and to validate this so-far great season they need a win over a Pac-12 team.

Kentucky over North Carolina: Coach John Calipari doesn’t not have things figured out so he’s not going to win in Chapel Hill.

Kansas at Arizona State: The Sun Devils are exceeding expectations but it’s too much to ask for a win over the Jayhawks.