As the old adage goes, “to be the best, you have to beat the best.”
And it seems the 2013-14 Penn women’s basketball team has taken that to heart.
Preceding the release of their entire schedule, the Quakers announced that Notre Dame, a Final Four team in last year’s NCAA tournament, will come to the Palestra on Nov. 23.
For a team that just tasted postseason success for the first time in school history last year — reaching the semifinals of the WBI — this is just one of the Red and Blue’s many chances to take a step forward.
Last year, the Quakers performed well against a relatively weak nonconference schedule, which did not include any NCAA tournament teams outside the Big 5. Their 7-7 record out of conference helped propel them towards their strongest performance in conference since 2003-04.
However, facing a newly-minted ACC power is a sign that coach Mike McLaughlin is not going to hang his hat on Penn’s previous success.
“This is not only a great opportunity for our program to play against some of the best competition in the country,” McLaughlin said in a press release, “but a great moment for our sport.
“We are thrilled to invite one of the nation’s top teams into one of college basketball’s most historic venues.”
While the Fighting Irish will likely be the strongest opponent Penn faces all season, it is merely an early season test for the Quakers’ ultimate goal: overtaking Princeton at the top of the Ivy League.
While the Tigers are losing arguably their best player in Niveen Rasheed, it is certain that coach Courtney Banghart will have her squad ready in pursuit of their fifth consecutive title. Harvard is sure to be a tough team as well, led by star forward Temi Fagbenle.
But it is the Red and Blue that just may have the Ancient Eight’s most complete roster. The Quakers return all five starters from an 18-13 season — including rising senior captain Alyssa Baron — while also getting back point guard Meghan McCullough, recovered from last year’s torn ACL.
So if there was any time for Penn to take on a big conference program like Notre Dame, it is now.
Just two seasons ago, an inexperienced Penn squad visited South Bend and was run out of the gym with a 31-point blowout loss.
For McLaughlin to schedule Notre Dame so soon afterwards is a strong public display of confidence in the strides that his team has taken in the last year, giving off a definitive vibe that this version of the Red and Blue can hang tough with the nation’s best.
That certainly isn’t to say that this Penn team would be favored to defeat the Fighting Irish. After all, even without star point guard Skylar Diggins, Notre Dame is still one of the best teams in the nation.
But the matchup has the potential to be an important learning experience for the Quakers — win or lose — just as close games against Virginia and Villanova last season helped the Red and Blue gain confidence for showdowns against the top squads in their own conference later on.
Ultimately, no matter what happens in nonconference play, this edition of the Red and Blue looks to be a top contender for the Ivy League crown.
And who knows? This year, the Quakers might have the luck of the Irish.
STEVEN TYDINGS is a Wharton rising sophomore from Hopewell, N.J., and is a opinion editor of The Summer Pennsylvanian. He can be reached at dpsports@theDP.com.