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Penn was the original No. 9 to captivate the nation

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Friday, April 5, 2013, at 1:56 p.m.
  • Updated Sunday, August 25, 2013, at 9:02 a.m.

Used to be, Bob Weinhauer expected calls whenever a lowly seeded team from an unheralded conference fought its way into the Final Four.

As coach of the 1979 Pennsylvania basketball team, which reached the Final Four as a No. 9 seed without the help of athletic scholarships, they came with the territory. Many have labeled the Quakers as the original Cinderella of the NCAA Tournament.

The bracket was made up of 40 teams back then, and Penn was one of the lowest-seeded teams. But behind Tony Price, Tim Smith and James Salters, it beat Iona, top-seeded North Carolina, Syracuse and St. John’s to win the tournament’s East Regional. It then advanced to a star-studded Final Four that included Mark Aguirre of DePaul, Magic Johnson of Michigan State and Larry Bird of Indiana State.

When George Mason reached the Final Four as a No. 11 seed in 2006, he talked about the comparisons for a week. Ditto with No. 5 seed Butler in 2010. But after Butler and Virginia Commonwealth both reached the national semifinals in 2011, the novelty began to wear off.

Few have asked for his thoughts on Wichita State this week, despite the Shockers becoming the first No. 9 seed to reach the Final Four since Weinhauer took Penn there 34 years ago.

“Since those other teams cracked the Cinderella role a few years ago, fewer and fewer calls have been coming in,” Weinhauer said by phone from his home in Savannah, Ga. “But that doesn’t make what Wichita State has done any less special. As soon as I saw they were a 9-seed, I started thinking about our team and our run. They will make the Final Four more exciting.”

Weinhauer attends the Final Four every year, and he will be at the Georgia Dome this weekend. He says he will be rooting for Wichita State.

As a former Ivy League coach, he always cheers for teams outside of the power conferences.

“It’s nice to see that it’s not always the top seeds that are moving on,” Weinhauer said. “It’s great for the people to recognize there are other teams in the country that are also extremely talented and have the opportunity to play at very high level. That’s what Wichita State has done.

“I think, quite honestly, I would like to see the power conferences not having six, seven and eight teams in the tournament. Teams that are .500 in their league should not be going. I would like to see more of the mid-majors get in. You can tell by their recent success they are very good basketball teams. They just don’t get the TV exposure that the major conferences get.”

Weinhauer didn’t feel like his time was undervalued heading into the Final Four. Sure, the Quakers were there with two No. 2 seeds, a No. 1 seed and two of the best players to ever step on a basketball court, but he thought they were respected.

ESPN didn’t exist. Neither did the Internet. And regular-season games were rarely televised. The attention DePaul, Michigan State and Indiana State received didn’t seem like a big deal.

Penn played a difficult schedule, won the Ivy League and beat quality teams on its way to the Final Four. It expected to keep winning.

“The Cinderella tag is over when you get to the Sweet 16 and you win,” Weinhauer said. “Everyone is equal. There is no more Cinderella. We didn’t feel like we were any different than the other three teams. We were the best team coming out of the East. We did not play our best game against Michigan State and we finished fourth, but that happens. It had nothing to do with Cinderella.”

So what did lead to a pair of losses that weekend?

Michigan State smashed Penn 101-67 in the semifinals, and DePaul escaped with a 96-93 victory in the third-place game. Weinhauer still regrets the start of the Michigan State game, saying, “Our worst possible performance happened to show up in the first half of that game.”

In the third-place game, Aguirre caused too many matchup problems.

With a better week of preparation, Weinhauer is confident things could have gone differently. But he remembers Penn being unable to practice in The Palestra, its normal arena, because it was hosting a women’s tennis tournament, and coaches had virtually no scouting video of Michigan State.

“That week between the regional finals and the Final Four can either make you or break you,” Weinhauer said. “You have to prepare well. We thought we used our preparation time well, but we had never seen Michigan State play outside of a single game film I got from Dean Smith. We knew Magic Johnson was good, but we didn’t know how good he was. It is a different ballgame now.”

Weinhauer expects Wichita State to be ready. He watched the Shockers play a few times during the regular season, and was impressed by their athleticism and toughness.

But if he could give any advice to Gregg Marshall, it would be this: Expect to win.

“Wichita State is more talented man for man than we were,” Weinhauer said. “That’s not putting us down. We were a very good team. But they should go in thinking they are going to win. We won four very important, quality basketball games to get to the Final Four. We had confidence that we were good enough to win it. They should too, because they are.”

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