It may be the 229th meeting in the Penn-Princeton rivalry, but for Penn basketball, it is only game number one.
That’s because after a disappointing start to nonconference play, the Quakers (2-10) will begin Ivy League play on Saturday against the rival Tigers, essentially making their first 12 games of the year meaningless.
And while Princeton (11-2) has emerged as a strong Ivy contender, the Tigers’ early schedule will not change the fact that there is an eight-way tie for the Ivy lead right now.
But just because nonconference play doesn’t factor into each team’s Ivy record doesn’t mean that the two squad’s first few months haven’t told a pretty solid tale about the rival’s respective title hopes.
After getting picked to finish second in the Ivy League Preseason Media Poll, the Quakers have struggled significantly in nonconference play. The team is in the midst of a seven game losing streak, similar to the six game skid that the Red and Blue took into their first matchup with Princeton last year.
The losses haven’t been pretty. The Quakers have been thoroughly dominated on the boards, getting out-rebounded by most of their opponents to the point that they have lost games against Rider and others thanks to their deficiencies in grabbing late rebounds.
Compounding Penn’s problems was a loss to La Salle on Jan. 4 in which the Quakers fell down by as many as 34 points, making coach Jerome Allen want to move on very quickly.
“I think the best thing we can do is forget about today,” Allen said after the loss. “And that is tough for me because I try and use every outing as a teaching tool.”
A key for Penn may be whether sophomore center Darien Nelson-Henry will be able to play on Saturday after missing Penn’s previous four games with a concussion.
“I can’t say he’ll be ready to play [vs. Princeton],” Allen said. “We are just hoping to get him back as soon as he is ready to go forward, whatever that means.”
On the other end of the Palestra floor will be a Princeton squad that is riding high heading into the biannual rivalry game. The Tigers lead the Ivies in scoring offense thanks to a high-powered three-point attack that makes an average of 10.4 shots from beyond the arc per contest.
Leading that charge has been senior guard T. J Bray. As a junior, the guard dominated Tigers’ first matchup with Penn, leading all scorers with 23 points on 7-for-15 shooting.
And with Princeton losing its leading scorer (Ian Hummer) from last season, Bray has picked up the slack, leading the team with 17.2 points and 6.4 assists per game after missing the team’s first three games.
While the Quakers have lost six games this year by six points or less, the Tigers have excelled in those situations, going 6-1 in their seven games decided by less than six points.
So will the Quakers be able to erase all of their early season struggles with a season-defining win over Princeton? Time will tell. But either way, the game will be a litmus test for either team’s ability to compete with the favored Harvard Crimson for an Ivy title.
All that’s left is for the teams to play the game.
Let the Ivy season begin.