Over eight months ago, the Penn men's basketball team ended its season in the NCAA Tournament in North Carolina. Tonight, the Quakers return to the Tar Heel State to take part in the CoSida Classic. Penn faces host North Carolina State at 7 p.m. in first-round action, and either North Carolina-Charlotte or Fordham tomorrow evening. "I think it's a great challenge for us, and that's why we chose to be in the tournament -- that we would play two games against very, very good competition," Penn coach Fran Dunphy said. "Obviously N.C. State is very good, I know the challenge will be there." This will be the third consecutive year that Penn (21-8 last year) opens with a major-conference foe, and the Quakers are looking to reverse the results of the past two seasons. In 1998, Penn lost, 61-56, to No. 8 Kansas, and last fall, the Quakers fell, 67-50, to No. 17 Kentucky. Though the Wolfpack may be unranked heading into tonight's season-opener, this up-and-coming ACC team will be as much of a test as the Quakers' previous season-openers. N.C. State (20-14 in '99-00) has gone to the NIT the past four years and is looking to move up to the NCAAs come March. The first step on the road to that destination would be a victory over Penn tonight. "For us, we'll be on our home floor for the first time this season, so I expect we'll come out with a lot of enthusiasm," Wolfpack sophomore forward Damien Wilkens said. In an offseason rife with scandals in the college basketball world, Herb Sendek's squad was not immune to problems. N.C. State enters tonight's game without the services of its leading returning rebounder -- senior power forward Damon Thornton, who pulled down 7.6 boards per game last winter. Thornton was arrested on October 11, on charges of driving while impaired and hit-and-run for backing Wilkins' car into a parked car while his blood alcohol level was over twice the legal limit. Thornton has since been convicted and suspended from playing by N.C. State through this semester. On the other side of the ball, Penn will also be missing key players -- only these losses were expected. In the first game of the post-Michael Jordan and post-Matt Langel era at Penn, all eyes will be on the performance of the Quakers' relatively unproven backcourt. Sophomore point guard David Klatsky saw considerable action in three-guard sets last season, but likely backcourt-mate senior Lamar Plummer is returning from a leave of absence that saw him miss the final 23 games of last season. Klatsky scored nine points and dished out eight assists in an exhibition win on Monday, and his ability to control the tempo of the game will be important tonight. "From what I understand about Penn, they seem to be a sleeper team. They've had success in the NCAA Tournament, and they've always had outstanding outside shooters," said Wilkins, who himself averaged 11 points last year. The focal point of Penn's offense, though, will no doubt lie in the paint. Ivy League Rookie of the Year Ugonna Onyekwe returns with high expectations for his sophomore campaign -- one of which is to improve upon his scoring average of 11.7 points per game. And on the other side of the box from Onyekwe will be fifth-year senior center Geoff Owens, a second team All-Ivy pick from a year ago. The 6'11" Owens will be the tallest player on the court tonight, which could allow Penn's defensive monster (54 blocks last fall) some room to maneuver. But if the Quakers are to make a game of this, Owens -- and 6'10" freshman Adam Chubb, who scored 19 in the exhibition win -- must find their success on the offensive end. "I know they're not quite as tall as us, but they're a little bit stronger. They're 6'8", 6'9" but a lot thicker," said Owens, who weighs in with a somewhat wiry 230 pounds on his 6'11" frame. "It's going to be a little different matchup for us because we don't have guys as thick as they can work with -- but we're going to use our height advantage." The Wolfpack are doubtless favorites on their home court, with three returning starters in the lineup. One question mark for the Wolfpack will be who will face off with Klatsky. Redshirt junior Archie Miller and sophomore Cliff Crawford are expected to split time at the point guard spot for a N.C. State team that graduated a four-year starter in that position in May. Neither point guard impressed last week when the Wolfpack defeated the California All-Stars, 120-87, though Wilkins hit for 22 points on eight-for-12 shooting from the field, including a perfect four-for-four from three-point range. But the shining star of this exhibition, whom Onyekwe and fellow Quakers sophomore forward Koko Archibong must contain, was 6'8" forward Kenny Inge. The senior averaged 10.3 points a year ago, but exploded for 26 on 10-for-11 shooting in the exhibition. "I think all of us are going to have to play a lot better than we did in the scrimmage," said Onyekwe, who himself sat out the 77-66 Penn win with a sprained ankle. "We didn't even get challenged that much. But we just need to work at a few things and just gel a bit better, and all that takes time. "But hopefully we can get it together." Tonight's game will be followed by the UNC-Charlotte-Fordham matchup. Tomorrow, the consolation game will start at 7 p.m., followed at around 9:20 by the championship contest. And if Penn plays its cards right, it might just find itself going for that CoSida title. "I would hope that we would be able to compete," Dunphy said. "That's our desire, although we know that we're going to be facing one of the best frontcourts that we're going to face all year long."Comments powered by Disqus
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