Saturday, February 26, 2005

First Team in the Tournament: Penn

In all the talk about bubble teams and #1 seeds, most people forgot about the first team that made the 2005 NCAA Tournament: the Pennsylvania Quakers. After their 80-72 victory at Columbia, the Quakers clinched the Ivy League title, and the conference's automatic bid. The Ivy League is the only conference without a conference tournament to decide the league's representative to the NCAA Tournament. Penn improved to 17-8 overall and 10-1 within the Ivy. After they lost to second-place Yale two weeks ago, there was some question as to whether Penn could hold on to win the regular season title. However, with their win on Saturday coupled with other top teams losing, the Quakers are going to the Big Dance.

If things continue the way they are going, Penn will likely end up with a #14 seed playing a powerhouse from one of the major conferences. The road they took here was up and down during the non-conference portion of the year. After winning their opener vs. Quinnipiac, they lost at Providence and Wisconsin by thirty-plus points. The next three games were some of the biggest wins of the season for Penn: home contests against Drexel, Bucknell, and LaSalle, all in convincing fashion. Just when it seemed like they would go on a run, however, they lost five in a row to drop to 4-7. The Quakers bounced back with road victories at Siena and Lafayette, followed by their most impressive win thus far, home vs. St. Joseph's. They ended the non-league season 7-7 heading into Ivy League play. The momentum they finished non-conference play with must have carried over to the league because once they started conference games, they really hit their stride. Penn broke off eight straight wins, including an improbable overtime victory vs. Princeton, in which they came back from down 18 points with 7:35 left. Their streak hit 11 before they lost to Yale, but rebounded with road wins at Cornell and Columbia to clinch the championship.

Penn is not a very deep team, with only seven players averaging more than ten minutes per game. In addition, they only have one player that is in the top 5 in the main statistical categories in the Ivy League. However, they have some very talented guys that can cause problems for a higher seed. Tim Begley leads the way, averaging almost 14 points, 6 rebounds, and 5 assists from his guard position. He can get to the lane on almost any defender and create plays for his teammates. His backcourt partner, Ibrahim Jaaber, is a solid all-around player who is the only other Quaker to average double figures. He also leads the conference in steals at almost three per game. Eric Odmundson scored 20 at Temple earlier in the season and he is a consistent producer. David Whitehurst has played more minutes the past few games. Steve Danley is the main man on the inside, averaging almost ten points per game in the post. Mark Zoller gives them height on the wing and has been heating up lately, putting up over 15 points per game the past three games. Jan Fikiel and Ryan Pettinella give solid depth in the paint.

Overall, Penn is a decent mid-major team that is not overly talented at any position, but has nice inside-outside balance. They also have a go-to player in Begley that might be able to carry them in the Tournament. However, I just do not think that the Quakers have enough firepower to pull an upset in the first round.

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