TydingsColumn_Donahue

Coach Steve Donahue has led Penn men's basketball back to the top of the Ivy League after a decade away. 

Credit: Chase Sutton

Have you ever seen someone sit on a basketball rim? 

You don't quite know how they got there and you're danged if they know what they're doing. But it's a beautiful thing to see, particularly when that person has just led your team to a conference title and has the remnants of the hoops adorning him like a necklace of basketball royalty. 

See, that was a quaint time known as March 2007, when Penn men's basketball was the undisputed Ivy League champs while Princeton and the rest of the Ancient Eight fell on down times. I'll never forget rushing the court at the ripe age of 14, already indoctrinated into my mother's and soon-to-be my alma mater's colors and basketball traditions. I've reminded too many people that I was there the last time Penn won an Ivy crown, seeing Ibi Jaaber atop a makeshift Palestra throne celebrating like at an Eagles Super Bowl parade.

But it's been a while since then. Penn's gone through two coaches and one delightful Zack Rosen career. Princeton has risen, fallen and come back stronger yet again. Cornell had the best non-Penn/Princeton run in Ivy history and Harvard found a way to top it. Even Yale got into the Big Dance. 

While students these days may not remember, this was a two-team league for the longest time: Penn and Princeton. Maybe Brown or one of the other six would challenge now and then but those threats wouldn't get far past half-court. So whichever team had the upper hand in the Princeton-Penn rivalry basically had an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament.

The Quakers simply haven't been close recently. Believe me, I attended Penn from 2012-16 and I saw exactly one win over Princeton. One! Last year, I covered all three Penn-Princeton games for CSN Philly (now NBCS Philly). Result? All three losses. You gain a certain perspective after all that losing, even if you were well aware of the winning past like I was. 

So needless to say, two wins over Princeton in less than a month means something. More than just improving to 126-113 in the Ivy rivalry, it signals that the Ancient Eight may finally have the return of a familiar face after an excruciating 11-year hiatus. 

My goodness, the losses over those 11 years. The 0-for-forever start in 09-10. The Rosen-filled hope of 2012 before the Tigers summarily snuffed it out on the last day of the regular season. Ugly home losses to Dartmouth. And Brown. And Yale. A 27-point loss to Columbia. Don't even get me started on the 2013 Rider game or I might scream. 

When Steve Donahue took over, there was a dash of nostalgia with two cups of a stabilizing force. He'd won in this league at Cornell and was an assistant for a plethora of Penn titles. Still, even he knew there was hard work ahead.

“Obviously, right now, that vision is not where we want to be,” Donahue said at his introductory press conference. “We need to be back on top because that’s where we belong. I will roll up my sleeves and work as hard as I can to make sure that happens.”

The end of the 2016-17 season gave off a sense that Donahue had brought the Quakers to the doorstep of the Ivy Promised Land, just as he did with the Big Red. The team showed a fight that had hemmed and hawed all season and brought Penn to the inaugural Ivy League Tournament. Even in the three losses to Princeton last year, there was no give-up in the Quakers, and there was even the talent to hang with a then-superior Tigers squad.

Ultimately, it was easy to settle for a good game in the Ivy tourney and the knowledge that the program wasn't far from a full restoration. 

So now the Quakers appear ready for the next step. It figures that a team that returned all but one player could make a leap led by a senior like Darnell Foreman and a sophomore class with Ryan Betley and A.J. Brodeur (I’d mention the entire roster, but there are only so many column inches).

While optimism abounds, there's still room for plenty of caution. The last Penn team to beat Princeton, prior to this season's victories, traveled up for a weekend in Hanover and Cambridge and came back home with two losses. This season, even with Harvard struggling, the Crimson sport a top-notch defense, while Dartmouth has taken every Ivy opponent so far to the wire. 

The 6-0 conference record should get Penn most of the way to an Ivy Tournament bid, if not all the way there. However, there's still the matter of fighting for that coveted No. 1 seed heading into March 10-11 at the Palestra (you can't be above an automatic NIT bid). Six of the team's last eight games are on the road and despite Penn's success this year, this conference is still much better than the last time Penn won the whole thing. 

Dang though, two wins over Princeton feels mighty nice. Forgive me if I begin thinking about the Quakers cutting down nets and sitting on top the Palestra rim once again. That spectacle may be back soon.


STEVEN TYDINGS is Senior Sports Editor Emeritus who graduated as a member of Wharton's Class of '16. He currently works for MLB Advanced Media, and can be reached at dpsports@thedp.com. 

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