Penn and Villanova may both be in the Big Five, but this weekend the Wildcats made a case for being in a class of their own.
Playing on the road, the Quakers (2-4) will take on a 7-0 Villanova squad that made national headlines with wins over then-no. 2 Kansas and then-no. 23 Iowa to capture the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament championship, vaulting the squad from unranked to No. 14 in the Associated Press poll.
Meanwhile, Penn continues to sink further into irrelevancy, most recently toasting with mediocrity by losing to previously winless Lafayette, a team wallowing at the bottom of Patriot League standings.
If Villanova has a secret to its success, it’s the way the Wildcats hit the boards: hard. Villanova’s victories in the Bahamas seemed to prove Pat Summitt’s adage that rebounding wins championships, as the squad currently ranks 10th in the nation with 43.6 rebounds per game, up from 36.3 boards per contest a season ago.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the Wildcats compete so well on the glass, given the size and length of their starting lineup, which features four players 6-foot-6 or taller.
The Quakers have had no such luck rebounding the ball this season, often playing with small, three-guard lineups of Tony Hicks, Miles Cartwright and Jamal Lewis on the floor simultaneously. After being outrebounded, 40-28, in last year’s showdown, Penn’s hopes for staying with Villanova start with grabbing rebounds and keeping leading scorers JayVaughn Pinkston and James Bell out of the paint.
“They’re a team that if you get caught sleeping, they will rebound all over you,” sophomore forward Julian Harrell said. At times the Quakers can shore up the rebounding differential with a zone defense and a taller lineup, adding forwards like Harrell, Greg Louis and Henry Brooks to complement big men Fran Dougherty and Darien Nelson-Henry.
But this type of lineup is not without its weaknesses. While Harrell, Louis and Brooks can help to even the rebounding battle, they may also struggle to keep up with the agility of Villanova’s guards on the perimeter.
“We’re definitely searching for that right combination of guys out there and exactly how to make our offense and defense work together — just kind of looking for the pieces to fit the puzzle,” Dougherty said.
Last season’s matchup between Penn and Villanova was a foul-filled affair at the Palestra featuring a combined 71 free throw attempts. Though the Wildcats had lost four of their last five games, including an embarrassing rout at the hands of Columbia, the Quakers struggled in every aspect of the game, leading to a 68-55 victory for the Wildcats.
Penn’s best showing of this season came against Niagara, when the Quakers secured an early lead and dominated the rebounding battle, 43-30, leading to a 85-66 victory. That success came about in large part from performances by Harrell and Louis, who grabbed seven rebounds in 20 minutes of playing time and six rebounds in 15 minutes, respectively.
Early losses haven’t caused Penn to lose its confidence. In particular, comeback efforts against Temple and Penn State showed they “can play with anybody,” according to Harrell.
“It’s just a matter of doing it for 40 minutes instead of 10 minutes or 12 minutes or spotting a team 25 points and trying to come back,” Harrell said.
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