With the non-conference schedule over for the Quakers, it’s easy to look at their Ivy League chances and laugh.
Another 0-fer in the Big 5, embarrassing losses to Wagner and Lafayette and just one win in the last 10 games — a close one against NJIT — seem to have all but doomed Penn to a year of mediocrity.
But what if the Quakers aren’t as bad as they seem?
Last week, Philly hoops destroyed numerous highly ranked foes. La Salle took down No. 9 Butler and No. 19 VCU, two powerhouses of the rebuilt Atlantic 10, while Villanova defeated two top-ranked foes in Syracuse and Louisville.
All of a sudden, ESPN’s bracketologist Joe Lunardi has two, possibly three teams from the Philly area going dancing if the tournament started today, with Villanova and Temple in and LaSalle working its way there.
When Penn took on ‘Nova at the Palestra on Dec. 8 and fell by 13 points, the loss didn’t look great, as ’Nova found themselves in a supposed rebuilding stage.
Sure, the Wildcats didn’t have sophomore Darrun Hilliard, who notched 25 points and seven rebounds against No. 3 Syracuse on Saturday, but that’s still a game that is an acceptable one for the Quakers to lose by that margin.
The Red and Blue fought against Butler in Indianapolis, and hung around late in the contest despite not having junior Fran Dougherty. That’s a Butler squad that Temple and St. Joseph’s couldn’t handle either.
Speaking of the Hawks, St. Joe’s is a force in its own right. While a 20-point loss never looks good for Penn, Phil Martelli’s squad has proven this year that they are better than Ivy League competition, beating Harvard and Yale by 19 and 26 points respectively.
Against Temple, the Quakers played quality basketball for most of the night, and if it weren’t for a chance three-ball from the Owls’ Khalif Wyatt and Penn’s poor defensive rebounding down the stretch, the Red and Blue could have easily won that game.
And Temple’s no pushover either. The Owls also beat then No. 3 Syracuse, and three of their six losses have come at the hands of top-10 opponents.
Now, that’s not to absolve the Quakers of all their issues. Losing against Wagner and Lafayette is inexcusable, and Penn’s lack of heart against Princeton was disconcerting.
They still lack the ability to close out games, and their lack of size and deficiency at the point will be their undoing.
But, remember too, that eight of the last 10 games have been played without Dougherty, and the argument could be made that, had he been in the lineup, Butler and Temple could have been wins, as well as Wagner and Lafayette.
The collegiate season watches teams rise and fall almost on a weekly basis. If the Quakers can learn anything from La Salle and Villanova, it is that a team is as good as its last big win, and once the momentum gets going, it’s hard to stop.
Penn wasn’t that far away from having a respectable non-conference record, and the young squad has learned how to play together for long stretches. In addition, they’ll get Dougherty back just in time for the remainder of the Ivy schedule.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter that the Quakers didn’t win a game in the Big 5. To coach Allen’s credit, he has his squad understanding that it’s about the Ivy League.
No, Penn is not on Temple’s level, nor Villanova’s. But the Quakers are capable of playing every team in the Ancient Eight close, and they have the experience they’ve gained in the non-conference to thank for that.
Now, the Quakers face two straight home Ivy weekends against mid-to-low level competition in conference. Win those four games, and Penn would hear applause rather than laughter.
JOHN PHILLIPS is a junior English major from Philadelphia. He can be reached at dpsports@theDP.com.