Game 002:Pennsylvania 74, Quinnipiac 60 Tuesday, November 16, 2004 The Palestra - Philadelphia, PA
A couple of weeks ago, the Official Wife Of The Mid-Majority and I were out a-walking hand-in-hand across the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. We paused to admire the blocky brick facade of the Palestra, and were able to step inside for a moment, finding it unlocked, unguarded, empty.
The air inside was thick with impending excitement, the anticipation of a new basketball season soon to begin. That proverbial calm before the storm. The air also carried with it a waft of a slightly acrid smell... a fresh coat of paint.
The grand old barn needed it, too. Years of Big Five butts had scrubbed the numbers off the pale blue bleachers, leading to innumerable "yo, that's my seat" tussles. Now they were a dark, rich navy blue with cream-white numerals. The long press box on the north end, once reading "Pennsylvania" in large block letters, was now a elegant and unadorned deep red color.
The building's primary inhabitant, the Pennsylvania Quakers men's basketball team, also has a new look and new attitude. In a league where it's them, Princeton and six other Ivies who provide little more than mere opposition, tying for second with Brown last season and missing out on the postseason altogether was simply unacceptable. Three of their top five scorers from last year have graduated, and longtime bench players are stepping into the forefront. A hungry (and very smart) recruiting class has arrived. And perhaps most importantly, Penn has a new mascot.
Yes, gone are the sagging cheeks, pancake-flat nose, and outdated dress of the tired old septuagenarian Quaker. He's been replaced with a mischeviously grinning ladykiller with flowing blonde hair and a readiness to meet the 21st Century head on. A Quaker who's equal parts Brad Pitt and Ashton Kutcher.
Last night, the Red and Blue were led by their new mascot into the arena, into the 2004-05 season, for a Preseason NIT matchup against Quinnipiac, a Northeast Conference school located just north of New Haven, Connecticut.
Quinnipiac, to put it as kindly as possible, is not a good basketball team right now. They finished well short of the cutoff for the NEC's conference tournament last year with a 5-13 record, and realistic expectations for this year might include an conference tournament 8-seed and a quick vacation courtesy of their friends at Monmouth University.
The Bobcats employ that most dreary of late-Nineties NBA concoctions, the offense built around a point guard who takes one-third of the shots. 5-10 senior Rob Monroe has lost the dreadlocks for a more aerodynamic look and has seemingly increased the ink content on his arms, and is the undisputed leader of this squad. Granted, he is a player and will likely end up making money playing ball in the future (even if it's for a European club team with a 40-letter name), but he has to keep his head cool and defer responsibility to others when things start going wrong. He gave the Quaker faithful ample opportunity to use the "Airrr-ball! Airrr-ball! You! Suck!" chant, and finished up with nine points on abysmal 3 for 15 shooting.
The final score of this game isn't indicative of much - Penn broke out to a 43-22 halftime lead aided by a ten-minute stretch of shutout field-goal defense, and spent much of the second half dawdling. But Quinnipiac seemed to find its footing when they ditched their failing set offense and started driving at the hoop, kamikaze-style, hoping for the best. A lot of times, the best ended up happening on the first, second, or even third try. I hope that coach Joe DeSantis was taking notes.
The Quakers' dawdling never came close to costing them the game, but they did show their weaknesses. While senior guard Tim Begley turned in a sterling 22-point effort and the team ended up with a 48-32 rebounding edge, Penn was unable to establish a dominant presence down low against a clearly inferior and size-challenged opponent. They seemed to develop butterfingers or ankle lock whenever the ball went into the post.
Jan Fikiel, the 6-10 fan favorite at the four position who carries with him most of his team's fortunes, missed three easy shots and disappeared from view early on. Mark Zoller, a 6-6 sophomore who looks just like Justin Guarani, had a double-double off the bench, but a few of his 15 rebounds may have come due to the ball's natural attraction to his killer 'fro. Six-nine sophomore Ryan Pettinella was given a lot of second-half minutes and could never find the ball's handle.
But in all fairness, the new experimental rules being used likely played a part. I caught a lot of players cheating and looking down, trying to make sure they weren't standing in the expanded lane.
The other side of this Preseason NIT "regional" was the ESPN-televised game between Niagara and Providence. It was announced over the P.A. system that in the event of a Niagara win, Thursday's second round game would be held at the Palestra. Our game ended early, but hundreds of fans and the entire Penn band stuck around dutifully, there in that freshly painted basketball cathedral. They waited for fifteen minutes until Thursday's opponent was confirmed.
"Yo, Johnny, what's the score?" they called out to P.A. announcer John McAdams."C'mon, tell us the score!"
In the end, Niagara was stuck at 76 for too long, and Providence pulled it out of the fire - alas, no extra home game at the Palestra. The Quakers will make their way to a place called the "Dunkin' Donuts Center" on Thursday, and will likely have their hands full with the Friars' athleticism and muscle.
But there's a certain freshman widebody that comes to mind who might be able to help... a dynamic and energetic stud of a man with fire, passion, and a jaw built for clearing the lane. I wonder what his eligibility situation is?