As the full slate of conference games begins this week, the Quakers are attempting to move up the mountain known as the Ivy League.
But other Ancient Eight foes are climbing that mountain tootimpeding Penn’s progress along the way.
Earlier in the season, coach Mike McLaughlin explicitly stated his thoughts on the rankings of Ivy League women’s basketball.
“[Princeton is] obviously the best team in the league and [has] been for the last three years — at least since I’ve been a part of the league,” McLaughlin said.
The question then becomes, where does that leave Penn?
Each of the past three seasons — the duration of McLaughlin’s tenure — the Quakers have gotten progressively better in the Ivy League. Starting with a 1-13 record in the Ancient Eight his first season, they have moved all the way up to 6-8 last year.
But despite a strong 7-7 record in their non-conference schedule this season, the Red and Blue have a very tough road ahead of them if they want to continue climbing up the Ivy League standings.
That’s because there are fewer teams to leapfrog in the standings. Not only is Princeton returning just as strong as last season, but Harvard is also bringing back two of its three leading scorers from last season’s second-place finishers.
Additionally, Cornell could be another tough challenge for the Quakers. The Big Red, which beat Penn in both meetings last season, have started out 2-0 in Ivy play and are the only other team besides Harvard and Princeton with a winning record out of conference.
And it certainly won’t help that the Quakers’ next four Ivy games are on the road, starting with a back-to-back against Columbia and Cornell this weekend.
So to find improvements, Penn needs to look inward. However, that’s difficult to do when the Quakers mirror last year’s team.
Even though Penn performed very well in its non-conference slate last year, the Quakers still finished in the middle of the Ivy pack.
In fact, this year’s squad finished with the same non-conference record, 7-7, as it did last season.
The parallels to last season don’t stop there. The Quakers are second in scoring defense and fifth in scoring offense in the Ivy League, yet again mirroring last year’s performance.
Also, in each of the last two seasons, Penn has had a starter tear her ACL before Ivy League play began.
But with all of these similarities to last season’s middle-of-the-pack finish, there are still ways to distinguish this team from the past.
While the Red and Blue mostly rely on returning players like junior Alyssa Baron and sophomore Kara Bonenberger, freshman Keiera Ray provides the team with another scoring option that the other Ivy League teams haven’t seen yet.
Indeed, last year’s team featured just one player, Baron, in the top 20 in scoring or top 15 in assists in the Ancient Eight. However, this season, the Quakers have three of the top 20 scorers, and two of the top 15 in assists.
And while last year’s team was blown out by the stronger teams in their early season schedule, Penn has held second half leads over major non-conference opponents such as Villanova and Virginia, who are No. 13 and No. 45 in RPI, respectively.
While it is near impossible to imagine this team challenging a dominant Princeton team for the Ivy title, there just might be enough room for the Quakers to continue climbing up the Ivy League mountaintop.