Pennsylvania (20-9, 13-1 Ivy, 2004-05 Ivy League Champions)
There are only three certain things in life: death, taxes, and a first-round Penn exit from the NCAA tourney in March. A 24-4 Boston College run midway through the first half sealed the 14th-seeded Quakers’ inevitable bowing out last week in Cleveland. The days of Ivy League glory in the Big Dance appear to be more and more distant with every passing March, with Penn’s first round shocker over Nebraska in 1994 now over a decade ago and their improbable 1979 run to the Final Four as good as ancient history.
The Quakers took the court at the Wolstein Center Thursday afternoon against a BC squad that had been a perfect 20-0 through Feb. 8. The Eagles were put to shame by an early departure from the Big East playoffs at the hands of West Virginia and were out to prove that they were better than their unexpectedly low No. 4 seed. Soon after the first Penn-BC tipoff since 1969, the game soon turned into a runaway, and the Eagles led by a cozy 20 points at halftime.
After the break, Ivy League Player of the Year Tim Begley, playing in what would be his final game in Quaker blue, took the team on his back as he brought the deficit to 54-45 with a three from the backfield, barely beating the shot clock. But Penn could hardly keep pace for the rest of the game and finished off its season as 85-65 losers.
None of Thursday’s events should take away from a remarkable 2004-05 season in which the Quakers towered high over the rest of the Ancient Eight, finishing five games ahead of second-place Cornell. A 13-1 finish in league play, near perfection in its home Palestra, the top offense in the Ivies, and a string of individual accolades — including Begley’s Player of the Year honors and sophomore Ibrahim Jaaber’s team record 3.0 steals per game — round out an impressive list of accomplishments over the past few months. It wasn’t always smooth sailing for the Quakers, as they were inconsistent at best through the first stretch of nonleague games. They suffered embarrassing drubbings at the hands of marquee programs at Wisconsin and Providence in November, dropped five in a row through December, and were hapless on the road until a pair of wins in mid-January. With lowered expectations, Penn kicked off the Ivy season with a 65-41 hammering of Yale Jan. 28. The Quakers went on to reel off 12 more wins in their next 13 games, almost all of them laughers with final margins well into the double-digits. The lone bump in the road for the Quakers was an unexpected pounding at Payne Whitney Feb. 19, when the Bulldogs pounced on the eventual champs in a 78-60 win.
Cornell (13-14, 8-6 Ivy)
A single notch above .500 was all it took to claim second place in the Ivy League this season. Like seemingly every Ivy program except Penn and the woeful Columbia Lions, the Big Red will be remembered for their weakness in nonleague play and inconsistency once the Ivy season commenced. Save an expectedly lopsided loss against then-No. 8 Syracuse, Cornell hung close in every nonleague game but only managed a 5-8 record. The Big Red, led by senior center Lenny Collins and junior forward Eric Taylor, began the Ivy League season with a memorable statement. After a close loss against then-dominant Columbia in Morningside Heights in the first league game, Cornell played rude host the next game, destroying the Lions 77-47 and sending them into a tailspin from which they would never recover. The Big Red had their most exciting stretch in early February, when in the span of a week, they eked past Brown 76-75 on a pair of last-second free throws, looked to Collins for a whopping 11 overtime points in a nail-biter against Yale, then prolonged a Princeton losing streak via a 20-0 second half run that turned a nine-point halftime deficit into an easy victory. Cornell struggled down the stretch, losing to Penn and suffering double-digit losses at Yale and Dartmouth, but managed to mount a 49-point second-half in a win at Brown to close out the season.
Harvard (12-15, 7-7 Ivy)
Speaking of inconsistency, where to begin for a team that scores 44 points in the second half in its impressive Ivy season opener against Dartmouth in Boston, then nets only two more points in the entire game in the rematch the next weekend in Hanover? Harvard’s nonleague season included a highly touted match against national powerhouse Notre Dame, in which the Crimson stuck around until the finish but ultimately buckled 66-59. After the split with Dartmouth to begin the 2005 calendar year and a prolonged break for exams, Harvard could never line up more than two consecutive wins, playing a prolonged game of musical chairs with the Bulldogs and Big Green for the role of the team that would finish second to Penn.
This season saw the emergence of juniors Brian Cusworth and Matt Stehle as the premier rebounders in the Ivy League. Besides being a seven-foot force under the boards, Cusworth, with 8.9 RPG, also slid into the top five in scoring with 14.0 PPG.
Dartmouth (10-17, 7-7 Ivy)
Dartmouth’s record seems unremarkable until you consider this: Over the course of the entire season the Big Green won only once away from home. Despite going a woeful 1-13 on the road, the northernmost entry to the Ancient Eight somehow pulled off a .500 season in Ivy League play. Dartmouth seemed destined for the basement after losing 10 of 13 nonleague games, and it stumbled into February as the Ivy League laughingstock, with only one win — a measly 49-46 squeaker past Harvard — to its name. Yet that first, and ultimately only road win against Brown on Feb. 12 electrified the Dartmouth squad. The Big Green reeled off another four wins in a row at home, including a thriller over Yale in which Dartmouth blew a 14-point halftime lead, only to valiantly reclaim it on a layup at the buzzer. A 27-point blowout loss at Penn the next weekend killed any momentum, but in a season with minimal expectations, where no Green player finished in the top five in scoring, rebounding or assists, Dartmouth concluded the 2004-05 campaign with a respectable 7-7 record.
Princeton (15-13, 6-8 Ivy)
The expectations were monumentally high for the 2003-04 Ivy League Champions. They got even bigger after the nonleague stretch of the season, as the Tigers tore through its schedule and managed to stick close against top-ten opponents Syracuse and Duke. Safe to say, the shock was harsh when Princeton, picked to finish first in the conference, found itself in dead last in the league on Feb. 11. The losing reached historic proportions midway through the season for Princeton as its 66-58 loss to Cornell — its fourth loss in a row — brought the 1-5 Tigers to their worst start in 27 seasons. There can be some solace taken from the 5-3 salvage effort to round out the Ivy League season, bringing Princeton back to a respectable 6-8. But in the end, this year’s squad, fronted by seniors Will Venable and Judson Wallace, will likely be remembered as the only one in Princeton history with a losing league record.
Brown (12-16, 5-9 Ivy)
Two things can be sure after Brown’s unremarkable 2004-05 season: the Bears absolutely own Yale basketball, and Jason Forte is the most dominant player in the Ivy League. After a .500 nonleague season, the Bears had an early season victory against Princeton but had trouble putting together consecutive wins the rest of the way. Forte was a scoring machine, never trailing in the race for Ivy leading scorer and, at 18.4 PPG, topped off the season almost three full average points ahead of second-place Edwin Draughan ’05. The 2003-04 Player of the Year put on a show in his Brown finale, sinking 29 against the Bulldogs in front of an appreciative and ecstatic Providence crowd in the eventual 75-65 win.
Columbia (12-15, 3-11 Ivy)
Columbia’s roller-coaster season began with a November statement by new Athletic Director M. Diane Murphy that blasted the university’s “tradition of losing.” Almost immediately, the Tigers seemed to respond by taking nine of 13 nonleague games, and heading into league play as the unlikely favorites. Then the tragic collapse began. The Lions would never win again outside the friendly confines of Morningside Heights, and, after eking past Harvard Jan. 30, would never win again at all. Keeping to “tradition,” Columbia fell 10 straight times to round out the season.