Penn had a shot. Not to win the Ivy League, but to at least keep a glimmer of hope alive.
Sure, any rational thinker wrote the Quakers off after their double-digit loss to Princeton. Or after they blew a game in overtime to Wagner. Or possibly after Zack Rosen turned the tassel on his graduation hat from right to left.
But this Ivy League is more wide open than it appeared to be when the 14-game tournament began almost a month ago.
Despite the Crimson’s undefeated record going into the weekend, Harvard looked incredibly shaky in almost every contest in which it had played, going to overtime against the lowly likes of Dartmouth and Brown, and defeating Yale by just three points.
After another heart-stopper against Cornell on Friday, a 67-65 victory, the dominoes finally toppled against Columbia, who beat the Crimson by 15 points.
And it isn’t just Harvard who has shown weaknesses. Princeton, who many believe to be at the top of the Ivy class, fell to Yale on Saturday night.
Had the Quakers defeated the Bulldogs on Friday, they would have had just two losses in Ivy League play, enough to believe they could compete.
With three losses, Penn coach Jerome Allen’s mantra that the next game is the most important one because it’s the next game on the schedule is finally realized, since that’s honestly all that’s left.
Now these Quakers are playing simply for pride, rather than to gain valuable experience competing in the Ancient Eight race or going up to Harvard with the intent of making a move in the standings.
Junior guard Miles Cartwright knows what it means to be in an Ivy race, and the time he spent on the floor last season — when every game wasn’t just the next game on the schedule but a must-win — was invaluable.
Of course, with everyone but Princeton and Harvard realistically out of the race, you can’t be too critical of the position in which the Quakers find themselves, considering the youth they carry on their roster.
But it does make Allen’s job a lot harder going forward. Until this weekend, there was a chance that a magical run was possible, and thus, the incentive to win was clear without anyone — Allen or otherwise — having to say a word.
For a team that has stretches of offensive lulls and dooms itself with mental errors more often than with physical ones, Allen needs to take this opportunity to truly define his identity as a coach.
Players take on the identity of the person who leads them onto the floor night in and night out, and if Allen is able to motivate this squad in the same capacity that he was able to against Brown on Saturday, then they’re in good hands.
So many of these young players, like freshmen Tony Hicks and Darien Nelson-Henry as well as sophomore Patrick Lucas-Perry, show great potential.
But for as many nights as Hicks goes off for 15 points, he’ll put in a clunker just as often. The same holds true for every young player on this squad.
And when that’s the case, it ultimately comes back to coaching. Allen must find this team’s character.
Until this weekend, Allen would always say that his team would be up to play because his men wear the Penn uniform, and that with that comes the thirst to win.
But now, with the Quakers logjammed in the standings along with the rest of the Ivy middlemen, it’s time for Allen to make a move.
JOHN PHILLIPS is a junior English major from Philadelphia, and is an associate sports editor of The Daily Pennsylvanian. He can be reached at dpsports@theDP.com.