Talk about a tough turnaround.
After five games in eight days, including an epic quadruple-overtime win over Monmouth on Saturday night, Penn men’s basketball hits the road again. This time the ride will be easier, yet the opponent will be anything but.
That’s right. It’s Nova week.
The Quakers will put their shiny 5-3 record to the test against the No. 4 Wildcats (6-0), a squad littered with national champions and All-Americans.
But, if the Red and Blue proved anything over Thanksgiving break, it’s that they don’t back down easily.
Despite being outscored 33-19 in the second half and trailing by as many as five points in the final overtime period, Penn proved its mettle and left Monmouth with a thrilling 101-96 victory. The Quakers were led by sophomore and Ivy League Player of the Week Ryan Betley, who scored 26 points in the contest.
But the offense came from all over, with freshman Eddie Scott contributing 21 points, while junior Antonio Woods added 23.
The Quakers will need all of this newfound offensive firepower and then some if they hope to defeat perennial power and Big 5 rival Villanova. There will be no room for empty possessions and sloppy turnovers against a Wildcats team that simply doesn’t make many mistakes.
“You can’t mess around with the ball,” coach Steve Donahue said. “They’re incredible. They turn you over more than most, yet they don’t foul. That’s a hell of a combination. You have to be great with the basketball. You have to do everything that we preach that much better.”
One thing that Donahue certainly preaches is defense, and considering that the Quakers will have to corral All-American candidates Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges, each of whom is averaging over 18 points per game, Penn needs to be locked in at that end of the floor.
Brunson in particular has had a phenomenal start to the year, leading his team in assists while shooting over 47 percent from three-point range. As a result, the junior guard has garnered legitimate Player of the Year hype in the season’s early going.
“[Brunson’s] been unbelievable, and we get to see him a lot when they play with our guys,” Donahue said. “He’s gotten better every year. He’s more athletic than he was, so he can get his shots off. What he does with the ball with his confidence and his poise, we’re going to have to mix it up.”
Tasked with slowing the star’s progress will be Penn’s corps of guards led by senior Darnell Foreman and Woods. The duo has been impressive this year, but they, as well as the rest of the Penn defense, will have to raise their level even further against a team aiming for a second national title in three years.
However, from Donahue's perspective, Villanova is more than just a vaunted opponent. For Penn, the Wildcats are also a model to follow.
“I think you have to be at your best with everything that you do in terms of preparation. All of our effort will be needed. We need to compete just like they do. Their program’s built. We’re building ours. They’re a great barometer for our team.”
Adding to the game’s intrigue is its standing as a Big 5 contest. Between the history and proximity that such a distinction entails, the matchup means so much more than just another early season, non-conference game.
“These Big 5 games are great,” Donahue said. “We still want to win the Big 5. We’re trying to beat Villanova. This is a big game for bragging rights. These guys play each other a lot. There’s a sense of competitiveness all the time, but honestly Big 5 means a lot. We’re building this program to be a Big 5 champion.”
The first step on that ambitious path is a win Wednesday night, a win that would shock the entire basketball landscape.
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