Harvard Destroys Penn At Palestra; Is It What It Appears?

The tendency with not just sports journalists, but anyone (although maybe a bit more with sports journalists) is to read way too much into what you just saw.

And so, after watching Harvard dismantle Penn at the Palestra 63-38 Saturday night, the obvious thing to take away from it is that the Crimson are back and the Quakers are going to post at least their worst Ivy League record since 1967-68 (4-10) or maybe ever (they went 3-11 in 1956-57).

There is some truth to what your eyes are telling you, of course. Penn (6-11, 1-2) is a poor offensive team statistically (300th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency), whose relative youth and lack of on-court leadership have helped make the Quakers 347th in turnover rate (25.9%) and 311th in scoring offense (61.5 points per game), which obviously wasn’t helped Saturday.

“It’s like I think I’m a DJ,” Penn coach Jerome Allen said. “The needle’s scratching and I just keep playing the same part of the song over and over again. I’m here to not only hold our guys to the highest standard, but look at myself first and foremost before I start pointing the finger. I have to do a better job of getting these guys ready to play.”

Harvard led start to finish and used a 24-6 jaunt over the final 12 minutes of the first half to lead 36-15 at the break and basically render the second half meaningless. Darien Nelson-Henry scored just two points (his only two of the weekend) and Tony Hicks scored just six on 2-8 shooting.

“They (Harvard) came ready to play, and that could be a function of winning before, they know what it takes,” Allen said. “They’re familiar with the schedule and the back-to-backs. We have to learn how to win, we played a lot of guys a significant amount of minutes who it was their first experience in the Ivy League with that. It still doesn’t make it an excuse, but there was a big difference in the teams at how they came out to play.”

But Penn did beat Dartmouth on Friday night, had knocked off defending Atlantic-10 champion St. Joseph’s last week and was a spirited Princeton comeback three weeks ago away from being 2-1 in the Ivy heading to Cornell and Columbia next weekend. So dismiss it as an outlier or doom Penn to the cellar of the Ivy League? Or maybe somewhere in the middle? (Penn’s 23.7% turnover rate Saturday was actually below its season average.)

Meanwhile, a week after a loss to Dartmouth that signaled to many that the Crimson (13-5, 5-1) might be ripe for the taking in the Ivy, they stand 3-1 and ready for a showdown with 4-0 — provided they win at 0-4 but feisty Brown on Friday. Harvard began the weekend somewhere near Penn in offensive efficiency, relying almost exclusively on their defense, but after a 1.14 points per possession performance against Princeton and a 1.07 ppp Saturday (that surely would have been higher had the benches not been emptied early), the Crimson are starting to look more like the team that was ranked to start the season than the one who lost to Holy Cross, Boston College, and Dartmouth (and scored just 27 points against Virginia).

“It was a Saturday afternoon against Dartmouth, maybe that was the problem,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker joked. “We played fairly well in that game, we knew we were ahead 14 points or whatever it was with 13 minutes to play, but as we know and these kids can attest, you have to play 40 minutes in whatever league you’re in and we know that. You give to give Dartmouth credit, they played exceptionally well. I thought these two games this weekend, we deserved to win and we did.”

As I wrote about Friday, it’s been a brutal offensive season for all-Ivy League point guard Siyani Chambers this season, at least shooting the ball, but Chambers confidently hit his first two shots Saturday and it seemed to settle the team down. Soon after, Wesley Saunders and Steve Moundou-Missi were joining in and Harvard was rolling. While his scoring and shooting numbers have never been outstanding, Chambers is invaluable to Harvard’s offense, and he has shown the ability to not only make shots in the past, but big shots, and he’ll likely be expected to again before the Ivy League is decided.

“My teammates and my coaches continue to tell me to take shots if they’re open and eventually they’ll fall,” Chambers said. “We do a lot of work in practice on those specific shots, so if I get open, they encourage me to take them, and I was lucky enough tonight to make them.”

Jonah Travis added eight points and 10 rebounds for his second straight solid performance off the bench (Corbin Miller was held to five, however). With Kenyatta Smith out, Amaker seems to have settled on a basic seven-man rotation, making Travis and Miller essential pieces as well.

“What we see now is hopefully our team emerging in confidence and growing and becoming a more balanced ball club,” Amaker said. “When we’ve been balanced, we’ve been fairly good and I think this weekend has shown that we played some pretty good basketball the last two nights, and a lot of it is because of our bench and our balance.”

As a former Penn star, Allen doesn’t need the storied history of the Quakers read back to him, and he is well aware there are some people in high places that are watching Penn closely this season to see whether the future of the program includes him or not.

But as he and Penn try their darnedest to avoid being put in the same breath as the 1967-68 squad, Allen can take some solace from the coach of that team, Dick Harter. The next season, Penn went 10-4 in the Ivy, and in the two after that? 28-0, culminating in a run to the 1971 Elite Eight (that was ended by a young Dean Smith and North Carolina). Harter left for Oregon after that and was replaced by an up and coming coach named Chuck Daly.

Allen will settle for just a couple of wins before looking too much further down the road, but it’s important to remember that as bad as Penn looked Saturday (and they looked terrible), it may not have any bearing on what happens next week at Columbia or Cornell.

But there’s certainly plenty to fix between now and then.

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