Technically, the Penn basketball team played in its first postseason since 2007, won its first postseason game since 1994 and hosted its first postseason game since 1978.
But the Quakers seemed to recognize that their invitation to the College Basketball Invitational – a newish postseason tournament for teams that don’t make the NCAA tournament or the NIT – didn’t carry nearly the same weight as the program’s 23 trips to Big Dance.
Following Penn’s loss to Butler in the second round of the CBI on Monday (which came a few days after the Quakers’ first-round win over Quinnipiac), senior Rob Belcore offered some candid thoughts on what marked his final game at the Palestra.
“I always imagined my last game here was walking off after spanking Yale. The Ivy League meant so much to me this year and to lose that hurt a lot. These games for me were about having fun, going out and getting the chance to compete again. I’m not going to dwell on this loss too much. I’ll still say losing to Princeton was the final game of my college career. These were almost like exhibition games. They were fun. I came out, competed, got to play with my best friend and roommate for four years [Zack Rosen]. But I’m not going to say 30 years from now, ‘Dang, I lost my last game at the Palestra to Butler.”
Belcore makes a fair point, and in some ways the CBI games, at least the one vs. Quinnpiac, had an exhibition-like feel to it. That, perhaps, is only natural after the letdown of missing out on the Ivy League championship by one game. But for athletic director Steve Bilsky W’71, it was important to give the basketball team the opportunity to continue its season, even if it meant paying to guarantee home games (as is the custom in the CBI). Here are Bilsky’s thoughts:
“We did it for one reason really and that’s for the players. I talked to [head coach] Jerome [Allen] right after the Princeton game and asked him to think about whether he wants to continue to play. It’s not a wrong answer to say no. This team has been in a playoff mentality for almost the entire second half of this season, so the wear and tear emotionally and physically is real. A lot of teams choose not to continue playing and I don’t think that’s a reflection of disrespect. They just feel like anything more would be counterproductive. In Jerome’s case, he didn’t think very long. He wanted to continue playing for two reasons. One, because he feels his seniors earned that right. And two, the more you play the better you get.”
Perhaps the best part for the Quakers was that they were able to put a few underclassmen who played sparingly throughout the season (guys like freshman Simeon Esprit and sophomore Marin Kukoc) on the floor against good competition. That kind of game experience is one of the greatest benefits of these kinds of postseason tournaments. Here’s what Allen had to say about that:
“Ultimately our goal isn’t to play in the CBI but we had the opportunity in this tournament and it was kind of like a celebration to the type of season we did have. For returning players, they have to connect to the process in terms of what it’s going to take to ultimately be champions. I think that’s why you play the game and why you play in the postseason and to have this taste of the postseason I think will do these guys well. There’s never an offseason. I think this will do them well in terms of preparing for next season.”
Ahh yes – next season. Who’s ready for it?