Penn men’s basketball is entering a whole new territory.
After defeating Princeton for the first time in nine tries, the Quakers (10-5, 1-0 Ivy) find themselves heading into the second week of Ivy play with a newly earned status in the Ancient Eight: contenders.
Last Saturday marked the first Ivy League game the Tigers have lost since the 2015-2016 season. That means something even without the rivalry. And it’s hard to forget the last time Penn and Princeton took the floor with each other — an Ivy League Tournament game that the Quakers lost in overtime after not trailing for the entirety of regulation.
Despite the symbolic importance of the win, sophomore guard Ryan Betley, who scored 21 points against the Tigers, does not think it will change how the Red and Blue will approach opponents moving forward.
“I think in general we’re a pretty confident team. We’ve had some good wins this season, so I don’t think [beating Princeton is] just going to change how we play as a team," he said. “We’re just going to keep trying to improve.”
But with their newly elevated status, the Red and Blue also find themselves facing an even higher level of expectations. That doesn’t seem to bother the team very much heading into back-to-back games at home against Cornell (6-7, 0-0) and Columbia (3-10, 0-0) this weekend.
“We know what this means,” senior guard Darnell Foreman said. “We know what every weekend means and how important it is, and how important it is to come out and play your best, especially at this time.”
Against Cornell on Friday, Penn’s defense will be especially put to the test. Junior guard Matt Morgan leads the entire Ivy League in scoring with 24.9 points per game, and as a team, the Big Red are averaging 77.2 points each time they take the floor.
It will be especially interesting to watch how Penn’s guards defend Morgan after they struggled somewhat against the Tigers’ backcourt.
While Foreman and junior guard Antonio Woods held their own offensively with a combined 24 points, the two struggled at times to stay in front of Princeton’s starting guards. Junior guard Devin Cannady made several challenging, well-defended shots and torched Penn’s defense for 21 points, while senior Amir Bell also added 12 to lead the Tigers.
When going up against Cornell, Foreman stressed the importance of every player on the floor being aware of Morgan’s movements.
“He’s a tough guard. He can score at all three levels, he’s good off the ball. It’s going to be a challenge,” Foreman said. “It’s going to take the whole of five guys out on the court, not just the one guy that’s guarding him.”
Coach Steve Donahue also did not hold back any praise when discussing the challenge of containing Morgan.
“This is my 27th year since I started in the league, and he’s as good a scorer as I’ve ever seen in so many different ways,” Donahue said.
Even if the Quakers are able to hold Morgan in check, things won’t get much easier on Saturday when they take on Columbia. The Lions are also led in scoring by a dynamic guard: 5-foot-11 sophomore Mike Smith averages over 18 points per game.
Last year at Columbia, Smith lit Penn up for a game-high 20 points to help end the Quakers' five-game winning streak and put the Red and Blue in serious jeopardy of missing the inaugural Ivy League Tournament.
As costly as that loss had the potential to be at the time, Penn overcame it and gained some valuable experience along the way.
“All of the things that we did last year — going 0-6, getting back in it, then competing on this stage in the Ivy League Playoffs — I think those are all things that will benefit us now,” Donahue said.
It won’t be clear just how good these Quakers are for a few more weeks, but if they can build on their performance against Princeton this weekend, the rest of the Ivies will officially be on notice.
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