Last November, Aaron Rodgers boldly predicted his struggling Green Bay Packers would “run the table.” At the time, Rodgers’ squad was 4-6, two games out of first place in its division. By season’s end, the Packers had done exactly that, winning their division and a playoff berth on the last day of the season. The miraculous late season comeback was a classic example of an MVP-caliber veteran putting the team on his back and simply refusing to lose.
Penn men’s basketball team finds itself in a somewhat similar position. Five games into the Ivy League season, the Quakers find themselves empty-handed, frustrated and confused. Like the Packers in November, Steve Donahue’s team has been inconsistent at best, underperforming when it matters, but decidedly better than their record. Both teams found themselves two games out of the playoffs, with massive games looming ahead.
Maybe I’m alone on this, but I am simply too optimistic to write this Penn team off just yet.
The Packers comparison aside, there is little evidence to suggest a sudden turnaround from the Red and Blue. For one, they lack Aaron Rodgers. There hasn’t been a reliable, MVP-caliber Quaker who has proven to be a go-to player when they need it most. At times freshman AJ Brodeur is entirely unstoppable — La Salle anyone? — but he has found little success in Ivy play thus far. Brodeur is decidedly not a cold-blooded veteran presence to say the least, missing key free throws in Saturday’s loss to Dartmouth and registering twice as many turnovers as field goals last night at Harvard. The team’s only senior who receives meaningful minutes, forward Matt Howard, lacks the game changing X-factor to carry the team. Junior Darnell Foreman probably was the best Quaker this weekend, but has yet to prove himself as a reliable go-to player when it counts.
Simply put, the Quakers needed to be better than they were this weekend. You would think a winless team would enter a winnable weekend slate with enough urgency and desperation to scratch out a win. Instead, they lacked nerve and emotion on their way to an awful second half collapse against Harvard, and on Saturday failed to do enough to win against a very beatable Dartmouth team. We know what this team is capable of – quality wins at La Salle, UCF, and Drexel, and spirited performances against Temple and Villanova proved that they could hang with good teams. The first ten or fifteen minutes against Harvard were fantastic. But as these few isolated stretches prove, the Quakers have failed to create any long-lasting success.
Last year, this column would have advised coach Donahue to give more playing time to his youth. Their season would have been over, with nothing to play for but pride. Now, the inaugural Ivy League playoff has given the Quakers a glimmer of hope. Last year’s 4th-place team, Harvard, had eight losses. The year before, Dartmouth had seven. Penn already has five, and with nine games still to play, can’t afford to lose many more.
The Quakers will put their exceedingly slim margin of error to the test entering perhaps the toughest game left on the schedule. On Tuesday, the winless Quakers take on the undefeated Princeton Tigers to celebrate the Palestra’s 90th birthday. The rivalry and occasion immediately give this game special meaning, but after this weekend, the script has changed. It’s no longer simply a historic Ancient Eight battle with pride on the line, it’s not just about protecting the most hallowed ground in college basketball from hated foes; it’s a battle for survival.
If the Quakers lose again Tuesday, it’s safe to say that their season is over. However, a win might just give Penn the momentum it needs to start a win streak. The desperation that seemed to be lacking this weekend needs to be evident. The free throw shooting needs to improve. The Quakers need somebody — anybody — to step up and deliver an MVP performance and a victory. Ivy glory and a ticket to the big dance are on the line in every remaining game, and the Quakers need to play like it.
All that said, I’m still crazy enough to believe.
Who’s ready to run the table?
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