Just a month ago, hope was as plentiful for basketball fans at Princeton as ivy on its buildings and sweater vests on the indigenous blue-bloods. But it's only taken one month for that hope to go the way of the drive-in theater. The optimism of Tigers basketball fans is gone, replaced by a cloud of uncertainty. Just four weeks ago, the Tigers were coming into the fall on the heels of a 17-9 season in which they took second in the Ivy League and were invited to the National Invitational Tournament. Princeton's only graduation casualty was forward Mason Rocca. And the Tigers would get back power forward Chris Krug, who did not play in 1999-2000. Meanwhile, Ivy champ Penn had lost first team All-Ivy guards Michael Jordan and Matt Langel. Hope was alive in Old Nassau. Princeton looked primed to challenge a young but talented Penn team for the 2000-01 title. Until The Exodus, that is. August 30: Gone is All-Ivy center Chris Young. He'll be playing baseball in the Pirates' minor-league system. September 1: Gone is head coach Bill Carmody. He'll be coaching at Northwestern. September 25: Gone is starting two-guard Spencer Gloger. He'll spend the next few years at UCLA. And earlier, No. 1 assistant Joe Scott and swingman Ray Robins had departed. Scott is the head coach at Air Force now, while Robins is taking the year off. So what's left at Princeton? Ahmed El-Nokali, C.J. Chapman, Nate Walton, Krug... And a truckload of question marks. "I think for a lot of people, it's a shock to the system, because every time you think the roller coaster ride is over, something else happens," said Jon Solomon, the list manager of the Princeton Basketball News online mailing list. And those Tigers' fans are feeling the lingering queasiness. "I would say that a pessimism certainly pervades the campus," said Pete Kingston, a Princeton junior. "Most are expecting a disappointing year, especially since comparisons inevitably involve teams that should stand alone in Princeton history." Meanwhile, over in West Philadelphia, pessimism is absent. But the Quakers and their fans aren't exactly overstuffed with ecstasy. "On one hand, it's nice that Princeton doesn't have much of a chance," said Ray Valerio, Penn's senior class president. "But on the other hand, now the Ivy League will lose out, not being as tough of a conference. I'd prefer Princeton to be a little stronger." That seems to be the reaction at Penn. Sure, the players and fans wearing red and blue love to revel in Princeton's misery. But maybe reveling in this misery is akin to laughing at an open grave. "You feel bad for Princeton," Penn forward Josh Sanger said. "You lose your center, and that's basically what their offense revolves around. And then you lose your coach, and that's never good. And then you lose your second-best player. "So you're not really left with much at all." Penn wants to see a good Princeton team out on the court. Not good enough to beat the Quakers, but good enough to make victory something to brag about. "It would have been great to play Princeton this year at the top [of their game] because I think they would have been favored," Penn guard David Klatsky said. "And I think we would have been able to beat them." But there's no guarantee Princeton won't be a good team this year. For seven of the last nine years, Penn and Princeton have been the top two teams in the Ivy League. And despite the Tigers' losses, there's no guarantee that won't happen again this year. Some pundits still seem to be giving Princeton the benefit of the doubt. "Until proven otherwise, you have to put Penn-Princeton one-two," said Solomon, who also owns and operates the Web site princetonbasketball.com. The Tigers do have a touted freshman, guard Ed Persia. And they do have some returning talent. And under new coach John Thompson III, who was an assistant under Carmody, the Tigers will still utilize their signature backdoor-cut-laden offense. "You're going to have to give [Princeton] an opportunity to see what's going to happen this year," Penn coach Fran Dunphy said. But even if the Tigers falter this year, the Penn-Princeton rivalry isn't expected to suffer. "I don't think anything can kill that rivalry," Penn center Geoff Owens said. "You can't ever expect an easy game with Princeton." The Penn-Princeton rivalry is always intense, no matter who is in the orange and black uniforms. "I'm telling you that they're still going to be alright when we play them," Klatsky said. "It doesn't matter how much better we might be or how bad a year they have. When Penn plays Princeton, all that goes away." Still, Princeton's losses mean that the Ivy League race seems a lot more clear-cut. "I think with them losing Young and Gloger, we're definitely the favorites," Klatsky said. "I fear another title for Penn this year," Kingston said. Penn may not have Jordan and Langel. But second team All-Ivy players Owens and Ugonna Onyekwe return. As do sophomores Klatsky and Koko Archibong and senior Lamar Plummer. "You have to make [Penn] the favorite on paper," Solomon said. "That goes without saying." And where does Princeton fit in the Ivy League picture? It's really anyone's guess. "At this point it's really hard to say, just because I'd like to see [the Tigers] play an exhibition game first just to see how everything gels," Solomon said. But Princeton fans aren't exactly brimming with confidence. The 1997-98 season, when the Tigers went 27-2 and rose to as high as No. 8 in the AP rankings, is just a memory. Heck, 17-9 and three Ivy losses -- last year's marks -- seems like a wistful time for Old Nassau denizens. The Tigers' diehard fans still have some optimism stored up for the 2000-01 season, but it comes out in short, almost-winsome spurts. "As far as I'm concerned, I would say that I'm still positive, because I haven't seen what the players that are left can do as a unit," Solomon said. But Solomon sounds more like he's trying to convince himself, trying to turn his hope into confidence. The roaring optimism Princeton fans had just over a month ago is gone. And the once-abundant hope is drying up. But Solomon, who bleeds orange and black, still believes. He has no choice. "Being a fan, by nature, you always try to be positive," Solomon said.Comments powered by Disqus
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