Steele | Tough games breed success

· July 9, 2014, 6:09 pm   ·  Updated July 10, 2014, 5:33 pm

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In the spirit of this summer’s NBA free agency period, maybe it’s wise to let the best basketball player on the planet do the talking. It’s not like his name has been in the news enough this week.

“The way we’re gonna challenge each other to get better in practice, once the game starts, I mean it’s gonna be easy,” Lebron James said as he was introduced as a member of the Miami Heat for the first time in 2010.

Oops.

Alright, maybe Lebron put the cart before the horse while inserting foot into mouth. But the idea made sense to a degree: if the most-talented basketball team in the country practiced as hard against one another as it would play in games, the other 29 NBA teams with inferior talent would be helpless to stop the Heat.

Let’s look past the absurdity of the notion that winning basketball games on a consistent basis could be “easy”.

In doing so, it’s possible to see that there is a parallel between Lebron’s comments on becoming a better team in practice and what Mike McLaughlin is doing with Penn women’s basketball’s nonconference schedule.

Still riding high off last season’s Ivy League championship and NCAA Tournament appearance, Penn Athletics announced on Tuesday that the Quakers’ first game of the 2014-15 season will take place on Nov. 14 against defending SEC champion Tennessee.

With that decision, McLaughlin and his assistants continue to demonstrate their willingness to match the Red and Blue up with some of the nation’s best teams.

And that’s the right move.

A season ago, the Quakers hosted then-No. 5 Notre Dame in their second game of the season. The Red and Blue fell by 22 in a game taking place on the same day that Penn football ended its regular season against Cornell. It’s safe to say that not enough people paid attention.

But years from now, that game may mark the turning point for McLaughlin’s program. Sure, Penn lost. But it hung in against a juggernaut, one that would go undefeated until the national championship game.

It also marked the first test in a brutal nonconference season for the Quakers. Five weeks later, on New Year’s Day, Penn stunned Miami in Coral Gables as Katy Allen’s layup with five seconds remaining gave McLaughlin’s squad its first win against an ACC opponent. Ever.

And by the time the Quakers kicked off the bulk of their Ivy matchups, Penn had two Big 5 wins under its belt for the second time in program history.

By now you’re probably aware of how successful 2013-14 was for the Red and Blue. In the words of one Biggie Smalls, “if you didn’t know, now you know.”

For Penn fans, there should be one takeaway from last season more than anything else: without the nonconference schedule, there would have been no Ancient Eight title.

The reality of the situation is that nonconference wins are equally as valuable as Ivy victories for the Quakers in the long run. By matching up with tougher teams — squads that are nationally ranked and hardened by their own conferences — that experience in turn molds “mid-major” teams. It helps make teams like Penn resilient.

It prepares them.

When the Quakers fell to Dartmouth on Feb. 22, they put themselves in a precarious position. Sitting atop the Ivy League tied with Princeton, Penn had one option: win their final five games — including a contest against the Tigers the road to end the regular season — or go home.

It’s not a stretch to say that there’s no way Penn could have handled the pressure of playing essentially six consecutive single-elimination games against Brown, Yale, Columbia, Cornell, Princeton and Texas without its nonconference experience.

Looking back, Lebron was probably wrong. After all, if it had been easy, the Heat likely wouldn’t have lost in the NBA Finals. Twice.

But the sentiment isn’t far off. When teams do everything to push themselves and get better, champions are formed. For Penn, it’s the games against Notre Dame, Miami, the Big 5 and Tennessee that are just the tip of the iceberg. By winning those games, that’s when playing against Ivy opponents becomes “easy.”

McLaughlin has mastered the art of toughening his teams. And if he can ride those experiences for the next few years, maybe the Quakers will be in a position to win “not two, not three, not four...” Ivy titles.

RILEY STEELE is a rising College junior from Dorado, Puerto Rico, and is a senior sports writer of The Daily Pennsylvanian. He can be reached at dpsports@thedp.com.

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