For each of the past four seasons, Princeton women’s basketball has come into the Ivy season as definitive favorites to win the conference.
And despite the graduation of two-time Ivy Player of the Year Niveen Rasheed, the Tigers look poised to pursue a five-peat after sprinting out to a 9-5 record against tough opponents.
But unlike previous years, coach Courtney Banghart’s squad has some stiff competition for the title.
After finishing second last season, Harvard has started off strong in 2013-14, winning nine games while leading the Ancient Eight in rebounds per game.
Yet the Tigers will face their top competitor this Saturday at the Palestra: the Penn Quakers.
The owners of an eight game winning streak, the Red and Blue appear ready to challenge for the first Ivy crown in the Mike McLaughlin era.
McLaughlin’s Quakers have shown signs of being a championship-quality squad in nonconference play and, in many ways, it’s because they look so much like the four-time champion Tigers.
While the Quakers and Tigers have distinct looks right now (Princeton sports the Ivy’s top scoring offense while Penn has the top scoring defense), Penn, with McLaughlin in his fifth year as coach, has a surprising number of similarities with the Princeton teams that took the Ivy League by storm.
For the last four seasons, Princeton was led by Rasheed, a dominant small forward who could rack up points and assists with ease while making life impossible for opposing team’s players on defense.
And after coming into Penn primarily as a scorer, senior captain Alyssa Baron has turned into a well-rounded player along the lines of Rasheed, leading the Quakers in points, assists and steals per game.
“She leads us by the way she competes,” McLaughlin said of his two-time captain after Wednesday’s win over Morgan State.
Another characteristic of those championship Tigers squads was a frontcourt focus that led to Princeton leading the Ancient Eight in rebounding margin each of the last four seasons.
While Penn isn’t quite at that level, the addition of freshman center Sydney Stipanovich to a junior-laden frontcourt with Katy Allen and Kara Bonenberger has given Penn the ability to match up with anyone thanks to the added depth and height.
But on top of the physical rosters of Banghart and McLaughlin’s team is the fact that each team has played a similar schedule to prepare for Ivy play.
Over the last five seasons, Banghart has challenged her teams with a schedule full of major-conference opponents, both local and national, and the results are undeniable. The Tigers have beaten Alabama, Wake Forest, Villanova, Rutgers and Drexel, giving the team some quality wins that have helped the team get ready for Ivy games and NCAA Tournament opponents.
And McLaughlin has followed Banghart’s lead, taking on a challenging schedule that some predicted Penn would struggle with in nonconference play.
But instead the Red and Blue have thrived. After losing to No. 5 Notre Dame, the Quakers have won in whatever fashion they have desired, blowing out lesser opponents while squeezing out close victories against Drexel and the ACC’s Miami.
Whether or not it was by design, one thing is clear: Penn now looks like Princeton’s biggest foe on the way to a title while following the Tigers’ model for success.
So now the only question left is, can Penn distinguish itself from the very team it seems to be emulating?
That answer lies with the coaches.
Because on top of similarities within the rosters and schedules of the two rival schools, each coach has shown the ability to both recruit and mold a team to their desires, creating a team that both can beat anyone.
“It’s a huge game for us to show that we’re able to be at the top of this league,” Baron said. “We’re definitely going to be ready.”
So when the rival squads face off on Saturday, all eyes will be on McLaughlin and Banghart going head-to-head, looking to complete the first leg of the race to Ivy glory.