It's Miller time in Philly; will move be Scott-free?
If those who forget history are doomed to repeat it, count new Penn coach Glen Miller as a man who would like to wipe much of his mental slate clean.
After seven seasons of chasing the Quakers and their archrival, Princeton, as the head coach at Brown, Miller now is the man in charge for Penn in West Philly -- and the Ivy's status quo is now just fine by him.
Miller is well aware of the opportunity he has as he tries to fill the shoes of Fran Dunphy, who claimed 10 Ivy League titles (and nine NCAA Tournament berths) in 17 seasons before moving to the north side of town to replace the legendary John Chaney at Temple.
"You have the Palestra, the national reputation of the program ... a lot of people think it's a top-50 job in the U.S. Whether it is or isn't, isn't important. [It's just great] going into the Palestra every day, walking around, looking at the pictures, looking at the banners in the rafters. Expectations are sky-high."
With good reason. Penn returns loaded after cruising to the Ivy title last season -- its sixth championship in the last eight years.
Penn, though, is also coming off yet another competitive first-round NCAA loss, and for all of Dunphy's success, he also holds an ignominious mark -- a record eight straight NCAA Tournament defeats. Now it's up to Miller, who did an admirable job at Brown, historically one of the league's bottom-feeders, not only to protect Penn's recent top-dog status but also to find a way to win a couple of games here and there in mid-March.
And unlike his tenure at Brown, where the nonconference games could be used as a platform to build toward the Ivy season, Miller knows that the quest for Penn's first tourney win since 1994 begins in November.
"Obviously, the Ivy League is the ticket to the NCAAs, but if I am to have the same or more success as coach Dunphy, then winning in the NCAA Tournament is [necessary]. To get a better seed than a 15 or 16, those [nonconference] games are crucial."
There is some recent history, though, that Miller might not want to forget. His move to Penn in some ways mirrors what happened at Princeton just two seasons ago.
In 2004-05, Princeton returned its starting five from a team that had won the Ivy at 13-1 the year before. Even better, the Tigers had lured Air Force savior Joe Scott, a former Princeton player and assistant coach, back to the Ivy to take over for John Thompson III, who took his three league titles and two NCAA appearances in four seasons to Georgetown.
What Thompson III also took with him was a reformed version of the Princeton Offense -- and, in retrospect, perhaps Princeton's chances of another mini-dynasty of its own. While Scott attempted to reimplement a more rigid version of the offense, his upperclassmen ultimately balked, and the conflict led to a shocking sixth-place league finish.
Last season, without much of the previous year's talent but with better buy-in, Scott's Tigers overcame a difficult nonconference season to finish second in the Ivy behind Penn. Now entering Year Three, Scott is philosophical about his program's unexpected struggles.
"I feel good about where we are. It's been a journey," Scott said. "We made tons of progress in the second half of last season, we have a strong nucleus coming back -- about seven or eight guys that we feel really good about -- and we're adding a good freshman class to that group.
"We're in good shape. I feel good about the struggle. When you struggle, you value things more. Our guys value what we're striving to become. ... They value Princeton basketball -- what we're trying to make it. It's part of the process. I'm hopeful that helps us in some way. I went through it at Air Force. [Going through] the bad times, if you stick with it and stay with what you're doing, hopefully, when you get there, it means so much more and it does a lot to enable you [to enjoy that moment]."
Scott does acknowledge that Miller's move from within the league will aid his adjustment to life at Penn.
"It definitely has to help," Scott said. "When I was away for four years, you get away and you lose whatever we were doing at Princeton. You lose focus on what is required to be successful [at your former program] and you adjust to where you are. Knowing the league, knowing the players, whatever formula he has, he should be able to implement it more easily [at Penn]."
Advantages or not, the obvious question for Miller is how he can take over at Penn without suffering the same setbacks Scott has at Princeton.
"A lot's been made of Joe coming back to a team that had all five starters back from a team that went 13-1 in the league and finishing in sixth place," Miller said. "The only thing it tells me is that you have to keep your players hungry. You can't take success for granted.
"I'll tell my team that if you want to win it again, you have to work extremely hard. We'll make sure our approach to practice is solid. I know we'll be favored, but we respect all of our opponents and you never know year to year about chemistry [or] injuries, you never know who will develop."
When he was hired, Miller acknowledged, perhaps somewhat jokingly, that he was experiencing "resistance" from Penn's three core seniors. That statement, on the heels of Miller's very high attrition rate at Brown, had some Penn insiders nervous.
According to Miller, though, that phase already has passed -- and guard Ibby Jaaber, the reigning league Player of the Year, and forwards Mark Zoller and Steve Danley have helped greatly in his early transition. Miller also realizes that he doesn't want his new seniors to have to adjust too much to him.
"We'll take a simplistic approach," he said, "so we can play solid basketball as quickly as possible [and not] waste time with adjustments from coach Dunphy to myself."
One difference you will see this season is that Miller's Quakers should push the tempo more than Dunphy's squads.
"I just think we'll be on the attack more on both ends," Miller said. "On offense and on defense for 40 minutes. You'll see more guys involved in playing. It's tough to say. Fran's teams played so hard and they played so well. We'll play more guys and extend the floor a bit more than Fran's teams -- offensively with the break and defensively with pressure. A lot depends on how guys respond, whether they're suited to that style. I think they will be."
In a few short months, Penn fans will start to learn whether Miller can be a capable replacement for a coach who left ranking second all-time in the Ivy League in career wins (310), league wins (190) and league championships (10). No pressure there, right?
"I don't feel the pressure. I put enough pressure on myself, " Miller said. "I worked at UConn for Jim Calhoun, and I don't think you can experience higher expectations than working for [him]. I've also run my own program and I put a lot of pressure on myself there, too. I'll just do the best job I can, and I think that will be good enough."
Good sign: The modern Ivy League usually is at its best when the league's better players are guards. Now, after a few years where forwards seemed to rule the roost, backcourt play once again seems to be in vogue. Impressive sophomores like Cornell's Adam Gore, Harvard's Drew Housman and Penn's Brian Grandieri already have made big contributions, and several of the Ivy clubs have excellent guard classes entering this season, which should make for more entertaining hoops.
Red flag: Since placing three teams in the postseason on its way to achieving an all-time conference RPI high of No. 13 in 2002, the Ivy League has regressed badly. Other than finishing at No. 18 in 2004, the league hasn't been higher than 23rd since and was No. 25 last season. A big part of the reason is poor nonconference performance across the board. The Ivy went 44-65 in nonconference play last season, including losses to Maryland-Eastern Shore, Army, Wagner (twice), Hartford, Quinnipiac (twice), Division III Carnegie Mellon and Birmingham-Southern (which has since announced a drop to Division III). Until the league consistently starts beating teams at the bottom of comparable conferences, you won't hear any talk about at-large bids or good NCAA seedings.
Safe bet: There is no bet in the land safer than predicting the Ivy champ. With Penn likely the consensus preseason pick to defend its title and Princeton having finished second last season with a win over Penn in the season finale, it looks very likely that one or the other will claim the Ivy League's automatic NCAA bid for the 19th straight season. The last "non-P" Ivy team to make it to the NCAA Tournament was Cornell in 1988 under former SMU coach Mike Dement.
Worth watching: Can another Ivy team besides Princeton be successful running the Princeton Offense? Brown, under new coach Craig Robinson, will try. It's yet to be seen exactly how "orthodox" Robinson's interpretation of the system will be, but if history is any guide, he would be better off running a more freelancing variation of it (like former Princeton coach John Thompson III). The pure Princeton system requires a certain level of talent to run it well and, historically, Princeton gets most of those players if they go Ivy. Columbia's dreadful 2-25 campaign in 2002-03 is ample evidence of what the system can look like when the talent isn't there.
Brown: The Bears may have lost their coach to Penn, but at least they didn't lose their best player to the Quakers, too. Rising junior Keenan Jeppesen, who averaged a team-high 11.1 points per game last season, wanted to follow Miller to West Philadelphia, but after much consideration, Penn declined to consider his transfer application (as did Cornell). Now the questions become whether Jeppesen explores other options and whether Jeppesen's teammates will be eager to welcome him back if he elects to stay.
Columbia: The huge problem for the Lions last season was the lack of competent guard play to support rising junior big men John Baumann and Ben Nwachukwu. That should change this season. Reports out of Morningside Heights have junior guard Mack Montgomery looking vastly improved. Add instant offense from Justin Armstrong (10.4 ppg last season) and 3-point specialist K.J. Matsui -- alongside well-regarded recruits Kevin Bulger, Patrick Foley and Niko Scott -- and this looms as the "year before the year" for the Lions. If Columbia can get its backcourt in order, there's hope for an upper-division finish this season, which would set the Lions up as a dark-horse title hopeful for 2007-08.
Cornell: Quietly, the Big Red are becoming a consistent upper-division Ivy team under Steve Donahue, and the improved talent across the board in Ithaca is the reason why. In addition to solid upperclass big men Jason Hartford and Andrew Naeve, Cornell has sharpshooting sophomore Adam Gore and a talented incoming class that could see as many as three members get serious minutes this season. If Hartford, who may miss the first month of the season with a leg injury, comes back healthy in time for Ivy play, and if the freshmen develop as expected, there's no reason to think the Big Red can't once again make a push toward double-digit Ivy wins. As an aside, there's great news on former Big Red guard Khaliq Gant, who broke his neck in a practice collision last season. According to the school, Gant was back on campus late this spring and was walking without a cane -- a remarkable recovery given that there was significant concern after the injury that Gant would never walk again.
Dartmouth: The Big Green should feel pretty good about a two-three-four combo of junior Leon Pattman and sophs Alex Barnett and Dan Biber, and now they might have filled their hole at the five with 6-9 former Arizona State walk-on Kurt Graeber. The big issue for Dartmouth, though, is finding a point guard to run the show. Right now, it looks like the job will fall to sophomore Marlon Sanders or freshmen Robby Pride or Brandon Ware. If the Big Green can get off to a more confident start in nonleague play and can find a consistent starter at the point, they should much more closely resemble the outfit that went a surprising 7-7 in the 2005 Ivy season than the club that struggled to a 4-10 finish last season.
Harvard: The Crimson are still looking for their first-ever Ivy hoops title, and this season's faint hopes likely will be dashed by Brian Cusworth's decision to use his last semester of eligibility in the fall instead of waiting for the spring and the bulk of league play. The logic? Since Harvard has semester exams in late January (after its winter break), Cusworth will be able to play in the first 18 games instead of just the final 10 of the season. That said, the departure of the 7-footer, who averaged 13.3 ppg and 7.6 rpg last season, will leave the Crimson with a gaping hole in their lineup come the heart of Ivy play. To stay competitive, Harvard will have to get a lot out of guards Jim Goffredo, a senior who led the team in scoring last season, and sophomore point Drew Housman.
Penn: While losing out on Jeppesen might have weakened the Quakers for the 2007-08 season, Penn has suffered a much more immediate setback with junior guard David Whitehurst being declared academically ineligible. Whitehurst, a defensive standout who averaged over 26 minutes per game last season and drilled five 3s in a game at Cameron Indoor, was expected to start. His absence now opens up minutes for sophomore Kevin Egee, junior Mike Kach (who is returning to the program after leaving during his freshman year) and freshman Darren Smith.
Princeton: A strong Ivy finish and a win over Penn in the season finale have many Tigers fans believing the program is back on track. The main reason for the midseason turnaround was the insertion of 6-4 Justin Conway into the lineup as the point center. While he lacks the size of former PU post standouts like Kit Mueller and Steve Goodrich, he makes up for it in strength, hustle and heart. Conway, a former walk-on who broke into the varsity team only last January, has been named team captain for this season -- about as unlikely an upward path as you'll see in D-I. "Ultimately, when you get to college, it doesn't matter if you get recruited," head coach Joe Scott said. "It's about who's playing to win. The guys doing that are the guys who can play. If everyone played like that, we'd all be a lot better. It's an unbelievable story what [Conway] has done."
Yale: Yale has become the new Harvard, which isn't a great thing in Ivy basketball circles. Since their surprise run to a share of the league crown in 2002, the Bulldogs have proceeded to go 8-6, 7-7, 7-7 and 7-7 the past four seasons, despite having talent on the roster equal to or better than that of any other "non-P" in the league. Can the Bulldogs get some bite back? It will be hard without graduated leading scorer Dominick Martin and top recruit Nate Rohnert, who ultimately landed at the University of Denver. Yale will need big things from forwards Sam Kaplan and Casey Hughes.
Would you pick against a team that has won the league for two straight years and returns three talented seniors? Joe Lunardi's not.
In his early (early, early) look at the 2007 NCAA Tournament field, our resident bracketologist has Penn "threepeating" as Ivy champs and landing a 15-seed.
|Team||League record||Overall record|
|Leading returning scorers|
|Player (Team)||2005-06 PPG|
|Ibrahim Jaaber (Penn)||18.2|
|Jim Goffredo (Harvard)||14.9|
|John Baumann (Columbia)||13.7|
|Adam Gore (Cornell)||12.9|
|Mark Zoller (Penn)||12.7|
Andy Glockner is the men's college basketball editor for ESPN.com. E-mail him here.
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