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M.Basketball vs. Delaware State Credit: Thomas Munson , Thomas Munson

Following the Quakers’ 83-77 loss to Lafayette Saturday night, Penn basketball coach Jerome Allen said the 2014-15 edition of the Quakers is sorting out who they are.

This comment surprises exactly no one who has been around the past two seasons, during which identity crises have been a common refrain for the Red and Blue. Virtually any team that records back-to-back single-digit win seasons will deny having found its identity because losing is tied to identity as much as anything else.

Merely possessing an identity isn’t the problem for the Quakers. Two seasons ago, the Red and Blue were largely defined by turning over the ball and filling the stat sheet with unsightly numbers of personal fouls. Last season featured much of the same. Penn doesn’t just need an identity — it needs an identity that will make it a winner.

Admittedly, it is an encouraging sign to see that the Quakers have averaged nearly two fewer turnovers per game to start this season. Even more impressive, the Red and Blue have pulled down 35.3 rebounds per game in their first three games — almost four more than two seasons ago. The uptick in production on the boards is largely a result of the team snatching an Ivy League best 15.3 offensive rebounds per game, which has helped jumpstart its offense.

But you’ll notice that where it counts — in the win column — Penn has laid a goose egg. Fortunately, it doesn’t take Billy Beane or Phil Jackson to notice that the squad has conceded 77.7 points per game, and unless the team’s identity involves shooting lights out every time it hits the floor (hint: it doesn’t), it will be rather difficult for the Quakers to win any games at all. The Red and Blue’s record over the past three seasons when their opponent scores 77 or more points is an abysmal 1-16. When Penn has won in that span, its opponents scored fewer than 77 points 94.1 percent of the time.

This trend played out in front of the Palestra crowd Saturday night, when Penn’s efforts fell short despite shooting 50 percent from the field and tallying 15 offensive rebounds because the Leopards put up 83 points to the Quakers’ 77.

On the matter of identity, Allen said, “Right now we think we can play a sexy game, and that’s just not us.” I’m not sure whether Penn can play a “sexy” game or not either.

However, it is true that good defense is rarely pretty. Good defense is imposing, physically and mentally. It disrupts rhythm and incites panic in an offense. Good defense makes its opponents work hard for every pass, contests shots and puts pressure on ball handlers. And perhaps most of all, good defense involves an entire team’s commitment to playing with tenacity.

Penn has shown the ability to bully and out-hustle its opponents on the offensive boards, but it needs to demonstrate the same grittiness on the defensive end as well. Otherwise even the lowliest of NCAA teams will make it pay when they repeatedly reach the paint off the dribble, get to the free throw 30 or more times in a game and find open shooters on the perimeter against Penn.

This Red and Blue squad has plenty to learn before Ivy League play starts in January and ample time to define its identity. No matter how it gets the job done — pretty or ugly — the team needs to get defensive stops. And if it can’t be pretty, then by all means make it ugly and win.

The fans will be more than happy with that identity.

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