It may be just a week into the semester, but Penn men’s basketball is already taking a break. At least, a break from Ivy League play.
After a winless start to conference competition, the Red and Blue are trying their luck this Saturday at the Palestra against Saint Joe’s in its penultimate Big 5 matchup of the season.
The nonconference fixture is a welcome reprieve for Penn (6-8, 0-3 Ivy), who had a disappointing weekend with two bad losses against Yale and Brown. The Quakers lost by eight and then 12 points, respectively, to teams most considered to be around their talent level.
Those two games, paired with the Ivy-opening loss to Princeton, revealed that this team might not be ready for the fierce competition of Ancient Eight play — in fact, in each of the three contests, Penn never led outside of the first few minutes.
But that doesn’t mean that the Quakers are out of contention in the league. With the Ivy Tournament, now, the impetus is at least to finish fourth — something the team is fully capable of, given that last year’s team that finished a game shy of fourth place. If Penn can use the next three weeks of break from the Ivy League to their advantage, then it can hit the ground running once the main sleight of games begins.
“We’re just trying to find our identity as a team,” senior forward Matt Howard said. “The things we do great, the things we don’t do well, and hopefully focusing on the things we do great.”
“We need to grow. We need more consistency on offense,” coach Steve Donahue echoed. “I hope these games help us figure out how to get better on offense, whether it’s personnel or tactical.”
In order to grow, they need to start playing better. But in Saint Joe’s (8-9, 2-4 Atlantic 10), the Quakers have no pushover. The Hawks beat Princeton by 10, while Penn lost to the Tigers by nine. Donahue is not taking preparation for Saturday’s game lightly.
“They’re very physical at every position. They have good athletes,” he said. “We’ve got to understand that going in, so we’re not surprised by that.”
That being said, the Hawks are on a little bit of a slide — they’ve dropped four of their last five games on the trot, including a 30-point loss to Rhode Island. They also only snuck past Drexel by one point in a win earlier this season, while Penn blew past them in an eight-point victory.
In addition to recent form, size might not be one issue bothering the Quakers this game around, which is something that has plagued them in recent weeks, and in the Yale game especially. Saint Joe’s doesn’t have a center listed on its roster, and only one of their regular starters is above 6-foot-6. Everything on paper indicates that this should be a pretty close match.
“This whole team believes in ourselves,” Howard said. “We’re not down on ourselves at all, and we’re ready to make some noise.”
One item of note is that Saturday night’s game at the Palestra actually counts as an away game for the Red and Blue, while the Hawks play the role of hosts. It’s unclear yet whether that will have any real impact, but because of the cross-city rivalry, both sides will surely have crowds there to neutralize any home court advantage for either side.
Given Penn’s recent form, maybe that’s exactly what it needs — a neutral game for a fresh start to their season. With any luck, the Quakers will get the restart they need.
All comments eligible for publication in Daily Pennsylvanian, Inc. publications.