"If you know you have an experienced team and you know you'll challenge for the conference lead, you'll want a tough schedule and try to play some of the top teams."
That's what Dartmouth men's basketball coach Dave Faucher said about the art of schedule-making. The words come as something of a surprise, given the schedule that Faucher made for his squad for the 1999-2000 season. After finishing third in the Ivy League, Dartmouth returned all of its starters last year, and was expected to repeat its
performance, if not grapple with Ancient Eight titans Penn and Princeton at the top of the standings.
Faucher's team played the 27th weakest schedule in the land, and proceeded to fall flat on its face in Ivy League play, losing its first 6 out of 8 and finishing a disappointing 5-9 in the league, tied for a dismal fifth place with Yale.
The Penn women's basketball team finished tied for second in the Ivy League last year at 9-5 (18-10 overall). The Quakers battled with Harvard and Dartmouth for a trip to the NCAA Tournament until the season's end, before falling a bounce or two short at the wire.
Of Penn's five Ivy losses, two were to the eventual league champion and bitter rival Dartmouth, which escaped a late-season duel at the Palestra with a mere four-point victory.
The other three losses were heartbreakers for the Red and Blue -- Mandy West's buzzer-beater at Columbia rimmed out for a three point loss in Morningside Heights, and the Quakers suffered a hellish weekend in New England on the season's final road trip when they lost to Brown in overtime before turning around and dropping a one-point decision the next night at Yale.
Ivy League weekends, especially on the road, are very difficult mentally for both players and coaches. The task is to prepare for and try to win two games in less than 30 hours, with a long bus trip thrown in between them for good measure.
For Penn last season, this challenge was made even more cumbersome by the fact that the Ivy League teams were among the toughest competition the Quakers faced all year.
The Red and Blue played the 14th weakest schedule in all of Division I last season, according to the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI), which ranks each team and the strength of its schedule. Penn's slate included a night in Brooklyn at No. 310 (out of 315) St. Francis.
That night, Diana Caramanico scored 26 points in 23 minutes as the Quakers romped, 82-56. The Quakers also squared off twice against No. 289 Lafayette.
Penn ended the season at No. 169 in the RPI, but the Quakers' average opponent's ranking was No. 219. The season's biggest mental challenge should not also be the toughest game physically, but because they faced so little stress early, the Red and Blue found just that sort of double trouble down the stretch.
This year, with West as the only starter not back at the Palestra, Kelly Greenberg's troops will be better prepared for conference combat.
The second-year coach has wisely pitted Penn against some perilous patches of opponents, most notably a December tournament at Northwestern and a six-day, three-school swing in January that begins a stretch when the Quakers will play 8-of-9 on the road, including their first four Ivy League contests.
The slate of opponents the Quakers will face this year finished last season with an average RPI of 180, as opposed to last season's opponent average of 219. Even though the jump from 219 to 180 may not seem big, it is.
Last year's 219th-ranked team, Albany, is Penn's 10th-toughest out-of-conference opponent this year, while No. 180 Stony Brook stands as Penn's seventh most challenging foe according to last season's RPI. Last year's average Ivy League team checked in at No. 208, meaning that Penn's average out-of-conference foe this year has gone from being on par with a below average Ivy League team to being competitive with the league's elite.
"There's no question that you want to play teams that are comparable [in talent] if not better," Greenberg said. "The Northwestern tournament -- with the teams out there [Northwestern, Northeastern and UNLV] -- It's a very strong tournament. I think we have a legitimate shot of winning, which would be unbelievable."
Win or not, the Quakers will not be lulled into the season as they were last year with an easy win over Temple at home. They will face Red and Blue bugaboo St. Joseph's to open the year, followed by the trip to Northwestern. All that the Quakers get upon returning home is three more no-holds-barred turf wars in the Big 5. The opening month of the season may be Penn's most physically difficult, just as it usually is for Greenberg's fellow La Salle alum and Penn men's basketball coach Fran Dunphy.
What seems to be a brief respite at the end of December really isn't. Penn gets a warm up for its big mental test with two home games in three days during the week between Christmas and New Year's Day.
Then comes the road trip.
Lehigh. Siena. Albany. Three games, six days. It is as close to the maelstrom of mental preparation necessary for Ivy League play as a team can get, save perhaps for consulting a Zen master.
"That stretch of away games, it seems like we're playing a lot of games in little time," Greenberg said. "We need to be able to prepare for teams in little time, to be able to go back-to-back in the Ivy League. I hope that that prepares our team more so mentally than physically."
Going once again by last year's RPI, January 3-8 should resemble something like playing against Brown, Harvard and Cornell. The only comfort that Penn will have for those six days is that Siena and Albany are near to senior guard Erin Ladley's house.
Just four days later, Penn will be back at Columbia, in the gym where it all started to bounce away last year. This time, assuming that they find a way to deal with the loss of West, the Quakers will almost certainly be in a better position -- both mentally and physically -- to contend for their first Ivy championship.Comments powered by Disqus
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