It’s only December, but Penn men’s basketball has already shown that this year’s team could be special.
At 8-4, Penn is off to its best start since the 2002-03 season, when the Fran Dunphy-led Quakers finished undefeated in Ivy League play. That’s notable in itself, but what’s even more impressive is that the Red and Blue have been doing nearly all of their damage away from the Palestra.
One has to go back more than three weeks on the calendar just to find the last time Penn played at home, but since that game, the Quakers are 6-2 — and one of those losses was to Villanova, the country’s current No. 1 ranked team.
The Red and Blue have been solid throughout their eight-game road swing, but two wins have stood out as particularly memorable.
On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, Penn took down Monmouth in the Quakers’ first quadruple overtime game in nearly 100 years and most recently, Penn dispatched Dayton — a team that has gone to the NCAA Tournament each of the last four years.
Each of those victories saw unlikely heroes step up, and both games also forced the Red and Blue to overcome adversity.
Against Monmouth, freshman Eddie Scott exploded for 21 points on a perfect eight-for-eight night from the field that included a pair of highlight reel dunks. Outside of that game, Scott has scored only 12 points in the entire season.
The Quakers beat the Hawks despite blowing a 15-point lead in the second half and trailing by five in the final overtime period.
“I don’t even remember everything — I don’t know how you could,” coach Steve Donahue said after the game. “We did so many things that were out of character; we just wondered how we were gonna pull this off on the road. This is wild, just crazy.”
In Saturday’s win over Dayton, it was senior Sam Jones who stepped up. The Arizona native has bounced in and out of the rotation throughout his four years in University City, but he’s never let his playing time affect his performance. Against the Flyers, Jones took all six of his shots from behind the arc, and he drilled five of them to finish with a season-high 15 points in just 13 minutes of action.
While Penn trailed for less than two minutes of the game against Dayton, the Quakers were forced to rally after several big Dayton runs. The most threatening came midway through the first half; after jumping out to an early 21-7 lead, Penn fell behind after allowing the Flyers to score 16 straight points.
But instead of succumbing to a team that has lost only four games at home in the last three seasons, the Red and Blue responded, finishing strong to leave Ohio triumphantly.
The win was perhaps the most impressive of Donahue’s tenure with Penn, but after the game, both him and Jones were quick to suggest that wins like this could be a new normal for the Quakers.
“This was our eighth straight away from home, and we’ve done a lot of good things, but we haven’t played our best game yet,” Donahue said.
“It didn’t feel like an upset. It felt like we were supposed to win that game,” Jones added.
If Penn can continue to get contributions from players deeper in the rotation like Jones and Scott, opponents will only have a tougher time matching up with the Quakers' proven stars.
Sophomore forward AJ Brodeur is one who stands to especially benefit. Brodeur led the Quakers in scoring last year as a freshmen, and as a result, he's seen his fair share of double teams this year in the post.
Brodeur's scoring has been down a bit this season, but if supporting role players can step in to make shots along with starters like sophomore guard Ryan Betley and junior guard Antonio Woods, he will only have more room to operate down low as opposing defenses are forced to respect Penn's other weapons. When defenses still insist on doubling Brodeur, he's shown the ability to pass the ball to open shooters like he did against Dayton, finishing the game with a career-high seven assists.
Brodeur with space down low and shooters surrounding him is a scary thought if you couple that with the improved perimeter game he has shown glimpses of this season starting alongside fellow big man Max Rothschild.
Looking ahead, it will be interesting to see how opposing Ivy coaches game plan for the combination of Brodeur's expanded game and the Quakers' other weapons surrounding him, both new and old.
And if it’s true, as Donahue says, that the Quakers' best basketball is still ahead of them, Penn fans have plenty to be excited for — and the rest of the Ivy League has a lot to be afraid of.
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