I t looks like there won’t be a return trip to Iowa City after all.
Ten months ago, I flew out to Iowa to cover a game that turned out to be one of the most embarrassing contests in a season full of them for Penn basketball. Matched up against a Hawkeyes team that looked like it belonged in the nation’s top 10, the Red and Blue fell by 31, their largest margin of defeat all year.
Perhaps luckily for my colleagues and me, there will not be a sequel to that nonconference matchup in 2014-15. In fact, at this point, it doesn’t seem like Penn has anything close to a heavyweight opponent on its schedule.
With two months remaining before the Quakers take the court in November, Penn Athletics released the team’s full 28-game schedule as it prepares to kick off the fifth full season of coach Jerome Allen’s tenure. And the reviews thus far are mixed at best.
Whereas the Red and Blue took on two Big Ten squads a year ago — facing off with Penn State at the Palestra before heading to the Midwest to battle Fran McCaffery’s Hawkeyes — the Quakers will play only one team from a Power Five conference. Yet a game over winter break against a Vanderbilt team that finished with a sub-.500 record last year doesn’t exactly fill that void.
Penn will continue to match up with its Big 5 rivals, a series of games highlighted by a home contest against last year’s Big East regular season champion Villanova. But other than seeing Jay Wright’s coaching brilliance in person and two matchups with perennial Ivy powerhouse Harvard, the Quakers’ schedule is anything but easy to get excited about.
Unfortunately, this is the new normal for Penn basketball. Moving forward, Red and Blue fans should expect a less-than stellar schedule, at least until the Quakers show themselves worthy of sharing the court with top-notch opponents.
Four seasons ago, Penn took on a Pitt team ranked in the top five. The following year, one in which the Quakers made astrides in Allen’s second full year at the helm, the Red and Blue hosted Pitt before playing Duke in Durham.
Those days are gone. No longer can Penn or its fans expect successful programs across the country to want to schedule the Quakers based on their history and pedigree. We’ve known for a long time that Matt Maloney and Jerome Allen of the 1990s — or players like them — aren’t coming out of the Palestra locker room. Now major powerhouses have taken note as well.
There is no better way to understand Penn’s fall from grace than by looking around the Ivy League. After a second-place finish in 2013-14 and with sophomore forward Justin Sears returning, Yale has rewarded itself with road matchups with Connecticut, Florida and Vanderbilt. Ball don’t lie.
Up-and-comer Columbia also has a schedule laden with quality opponents. The Lions emerged as a legitimate threat to Harvard’s reign atop the conference last season and will take on both participants of last season’s national championship game — UConn and Kentucky.
And of course, how could anyone forget everyone’s favorite Cinderella? The Crimson will face Boston College again while also playing Arizona State and last year’s ACC champion Virginia. To the victor go the spoils, right?
But maybe for Penn basketball as a program, the right thing to do at this point is to keep the schedule weak. With a youthful team suffering from the departure of eight members of last year’s squad, a schedule lacking big-name nonconference opponents could be exactly what helps the Quakers.
Therefore, this season, one in which Allen needs wins to save his job and the program desperately requires a shot in the arm, perhaps small-time is better. Assuming Penn can capitalize against no-name teams like Niagara, Marist and Delaware State while improving its conference record, that could be the solution for the Red and Blue’s scheduling problem moving forward.
The schedule does not look pretty and it certainly won’t generate a lot of enthusiasm among students. But this isn’t about student apathy. It’s about finding a way to generate wins for a program that hasn’t had many of those in a long time.
For now — and hopefully only for now — worse could be better.