Penn has been great, but don’t count out Elis

Halfway through the Ivy League men’s basketball season, the University of Pennsylvania seems to be running away from the field by such a wide margin that the discrepancy resembles the kind of referendum once organized by Saddam Hussein’s disciples.

Yes, Penn has now distanced itself from the pack like Paul McCartney from Michael Jackson, and yes, Penn is this week’s unanimous selection for the top spot in the ivybasketball.com PowerPoll. But it’s important to remember that Penn still has a tough road to travel and that the people who have a vote for the PowerPoll are not necessarily the respected authorities on the league one would presume.

Personally, my faith in the rankings plummeted when I became aware that a certain Yale Daily News “expert” possessed one of the coveted 28 votes, which means that considerations such as the acne on the face of various Dartmouth players factors in as much as Penn’s home/road split. But nonetheless, it is what it is, and what it is at the moment is Penn sitting at 7-0 while all but two other teams in the parity-rife conference have at least four league losses already. Merely assessing the race for the league’s NCAA Tournament berth at mid-stream here, it looks like Penn followed by a bunch of also-rans.`

The Quakers flew under the radar in the pre-season, ceding the spotlight almost entirely to a Princeton team that won the league comfortably last year and returned essentially its entire team. But the Tigers have imploded in league play under first-year coach Joe Scott while Penn has methodically handled all comers, dispatching each of their league rivals once thus far in an array of manners, including a comeback from 18 down with under eight to play against the Tigers.

But Penn has had the luxury of playing five of its first seven games at the Palestra, where it is now 10-1 on the season. Winning road games in the Ivy League is never an easy task, so when Penn visits Yale, Brown, Cornell and Columbia over the next two weekends, the Quakers will undoubtedly be tested and will almost certainly lose at least one of those games. The real question then becomes whether Cornell or Yale — the two teams best positioned right now to make a run — can not only beat Penn but avoid another slip-up against one of the league’s weaker opponents.

Just two weekends ago, it would have been difficult to envision a Yale-Cornell game having such implications for both teams. With the Big Red pulling out a squeaker in two overtimes, however, they left themselves in the thick of the race while preventing a Yale team that was just 1-2 at the time in the league from positioning itself as Penn’s most prominent competition. Cornell, which started off 5-0 in the league last year before falling apart and finishing 6-8, has thrived despite the graduation of centerpiece Ka’Ron Barnes, thanks in part to the perimeter play of Cody Toppert and Lenny Collins. But Cornell too must play four of its last six league games on the road, and a home loss earlier to Harvard might be its ultimate downfall.

For the most part, though, the league has been less steady than Ben Roethlisberger in his two playoff games. Princeton beat Yale which beat Dartmouth which beat Harvard which beat Brown which beat Columbia which beat Cornell which beat Princeton and so it goes. As much as I’m loathe to cite the PowerPoll that gave my vote to a quasi-beat writer, it does give a good indication of how unstable the league has been. After getting swept at home this weekend by Dartmouth and Harvard, Brown plummeted from third to eighth in the rankings. After sweeping those same teams, Yale vaulted from seventh to third. As for what really counts, each team besides the dirty Penn has between three and five losses (with Princeton stunningly alone in the cellar). And by this point, the only two teams in the league that haven’t squared off are Yale and Brown.

Surprisingly, after most people wrote off these Elis after the opening weekend debacle at Penn and Princeton, Yale has emerged as perhaps Penn’s only realistic impediment on its way to another coronation. With its toughest road trips already behind it, Yale plays five of its final eight games on its home court. The homestand starts with a ridiculously important five-day stretch beginning Friday when the Elis will host Princeton, Penn and perennial roadblock Brown.

What changed? Usually a mid-season youth movement is tantamount to a waving of a white flag, a nod toward the future, a tacit capitulation. But as coach James Jones has relied more heavily on his freshmen, the team has instead found new life. Yale has been bolstered by the play of Caleb Holmes and Eric Flato, the past two Ivy League Rookies of the Week. Since the first half of the Columbia game two weeks ago, Holmes has asserted himself as the spot-up shooter the team appeared to be sorely lacking, With Nick Holmes providing some solid minutes as well, it looks like the infusion of a little youthful spark has rejuvenated the team’s veterans, some of whom might have been starting to believe that maybe their run three years ago had indeed been a flash in the pan.

A run to the Ivy League title is still a real long shot for this Yale squad that has left itself no margin for error. But if the team does catch fire, everything is lined up perfectly for the Elis. Just as the team is gelling, the schedule tilts in its favor. They get Princeton while the Tigers are still reeling and potentially a chance to capitalize on a world of momentum against Penn the following night. Brown, the team that always seems to quash Yale’s championship hopes before they even get off the ground, has fallen on hard times since its victory over Princeton in the league opener. Brown’s league opener — which came at a time when the Bears were playing solid ball — should have come against Yale, but snow prevented that from happening.

Needless to say, this home stretch is the defining point of Yale’s season and perhaps of the coaching tenure of Jones, who desperately needs to prove that 2001-02 was not the top of the mountain for him and his troops. Having held serve in the first two contests, the Elis have set themselves up for a run here that would re-energize the fan base and at least have Penn looking over its shoulder. It would be hard to believe the significance of this weekend is lost on anyone with an interest in the program.

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