Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Sydney Johnson vs. Jerome Allen, Part II

So as of yesterday, Jerome Allen is now the head men's basketball coach at Penn, at least until the end of the year. For those who don't remember, Allen is perhaps the best Ivy League basketball player of the last 25 years, or at the very least, one of the five best by any possible selection process.

TigerBlog began covering Ivy League basketball in 1989, and Allen is the best player from the league he's seen play against Princeton.

The current Princeton coach is Sydney Johnson, obviously. If you're making up a list of the best Ivy League basketball players of the last 25 years, Sydney Johnson isn't in the Top 5, but he is in the Top 50. Maybe even the Top 25.

And if you're looking for clutch players TigerBlog has seen play basketball in the Ivy League, Johnson is in the Top 5, probably even in the Top 1.

Between the Penn coach and the Princeton coach, you now have three Ivy League Player of the Year awards (two for Allen, one for Johnson) and five first-team All-Ivy League selections. You also have five Ivy League championships and NCAA tournament appearances, as well as two NCAA tournament wins.

Penn-Princeton basketball dates back to Valentine's Day 1903, and the teams have met at least twice a year every year since. During almost all of the 50+ years of formal Ivy League play, Princeton and Penn dominated men's basketball, like no other two schools dominated any other conference.

From 1963 through 2007, Princeton or Penn represented the Ivy League in the NCAA tournament every year except for three: 1968, 1986 and 1988. From 1989, the year Princeton almost defeated Georgetown in first round, through 2007, only Princeton and Penn went to the tournament from the league.

The chronology went like this: Princeton from 1989-92, Penn from 1993-95, Princeton from 1996-98, Penn in 1999 and 2000, Princeton in 2001, Penn in 2002 and 2003, Princeton in 2004 and Penn from 2005-07.

The 1990s saw Princeton or Penn have nationally ranked teams more often (six times) than not (four times), and Allen and Johnson were the catalysts for some of those teams.

Allen graduated from Penn in 1995; Johnson graduated in 1997. Allen's teams went 42-0 in the Ivy League his last three years, when the Quakers featured a backcourt of future NBA players Allen and Matt Maloney. Johnson's teams went 12-2 and 14-0 in the league his final two seasons (Pete Carril's last and Bill Carmody's first), and it was Johnson who made the biggest plays in Princeton's win over Penn in the 1996 playoff after the teams tied for the title.

Johnson and Allen went head-to-head four times, during the 1993-94 and 1994-95 seasons. TigerBlog went back and dug up the binders from those seasons, which wasn't all that long ago in some ways and was a different dinosaur in others (no school webpages, hand-written box scores instead of computer stats).

Penn, who clearly had the better team in those two years, went 4-0 in those games, but Allen and Johnson had very similar stats: 42 points, 19 rebounds and seven assists for Allen, compared to 41 points, 16 rebounds and seven assists for Johnson. TigerBlog can't be 100% sure, but he's pretty sure that it was Johnson who hounded Allen into a 1 for 12 shooting night at Jadwin Gym in 1994.

Johnson was known for his defense, and he remains the only player ever to be named Ivy League Player of the Year without averaging double figures in scoring. Still, he did score 1,044 points in his career, and he does hold the Princeton record for consecutive three-pointers made (11).

For his part, Allen ranks seven all-time at Penn with 1,518 points. Since he graduated, two players – Ugonna Onyekwe and Michael Jordan - passed Allen and a third - Ibby Jaaber - tied Allen on the all-time scoring list. All three were Ivy League Player of the Year, but TigerBlog thinks Allen was the best of those four.

Maybe the one thing in which TigerBlog most feels cheated through the years of watching Princeton basketball is that the Allen/Maloney Penn teams didn't overlap directly with the best years of Princeton's great teams from that era (1990-91 or 1996-98). It was fairly obvious in the preseason of 1989 and 1990 that Princeton was going to win the league, that Penn would do so in the next three preseasons and that Princeton would in 1997 and 1998. Only 1996 (and 1999, two years after Johnson graduated) were question marks, and look how those two years turned out.

Imagine if the Allen/Maloney teams came along two years later. Would you have wanted to see a game with these starting fives:
Penn (1995) - Allen, Maloney, Eric Moore, Scott Kegler and Shawn Trice as seniors
Princeton (1997) - Johnson (senior), Steve Goodrich (junior), Mitch Henderson (junior), Brian Earl (sophomore), Gabe Lewullis (sophomore)

You wouldn't have watched those teams play? Granted, someone would have had to lose, but who knows? Maybe if they'd come along at the same time, the Ivy League could have gotten two teams in the tournament.

Now the two players who most drove the rivalry (actually the three players, including current Princeton assistant Brian Earl) who most drove the Princeton-Penn rivalry are charged with building back to its prominence (though in Allen's case, it may be on an interim basis only).

TigerBlog hopes they both succeed. Ivy League athletics isn't quite the same without a dominant Princeton-Penn men's basketball rivalry.

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