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Men's Basketball vs Merist Credit: Thomas Munson , Thomas Munson

It isn’t every night that Penn basketball gets to play in front of a sold-out crowd, but Saturday’s game against No. 5 Villanova isn’t an ordinary night.

Where to even start? It’s a Big 5 matchup against a local rival that has started 16-1 on the season, including three wins over other top 25 teams and a 3-0 start in the Big 5. And the game will take place back where the Big 5 started: in the historic Palestra.

For a Penn team (4-8) that has struggled so far this year, it will be the most difficult matchup of the season by far. Villanova features a diverse offense with five scorers averaging double figures and having outscored opponents by 16.6 points per game this season entering Wednesday’s contest against Xavier.

The Wildcats are led in scoring by senior guard Darrun Hilliard, who has played well despite missing a game against NJIT after suffering a potential concussion in mid-December against Syracuse. Hilliard earned the Big East Most Improved Player Award last season after scoring 14.6 points per game and has continued his strong shooting with a solid 13.5 ppg average. He scored 21 points and hit four treys in ‘Nova’s 17-point win over DePaul on Saturday.

Penn junior center Darien Nelson-Henry will have his hands full in the paint against junior Daniel Ochefu, who shared the aforementioned Improved Player Award with Hilliard. Ochefu leads the Wildcats in rebounding and blocks and will be matched up with Nelson-Henry throughout.

The Quakers are coming off of a win against Niagara on Tuesday, a lone bright spot in the team’s recent stretch of games. Sophomore guard Matt Howard and senior forward Greg Louis put together efficient games in the win, combining to shoot 10-for-15 from the floor in just 28 combined minutes.

While Penn’s offense is often catalyzed by leading scorer Tony Hicks and Nelson-Henry, the team will need auxiliary scorers like Louis and Howard to step up against a stifling ‘Nova defense.

While the Quakers have managed to shoot a respectable 45.7% from the field this season, the Wildcats have held opponents to just 40.3% shooting and 60.5 points per game.

Last season’s matchup against Villanova saw the emergence of then-freshman guard Tony Bagtas, who is no longer with the program, as he distributed 9 assists in a 77-54 loss. The win was the Wildcats’ 11thstraight against the Quakers.

It will be tough for Penn to upset the Wildcats, but there is a silver lining to the game. The trying nonconference matchup should help the Red and Blue prepare for a fast-approaching Ivy slate that looks rather daunting following this weekend’s loss to Princeton.

To add to the excitement, the Taney Dragons Little League team — which captured the national spotlight during the Little League World Series thanks to a series of stellar pitching performances from Mo’ne Davis — will be in attendance for the battle between the Philadelphia opponents.

They may not see the most even matchup, but there are few things as rooted in Philadelphia sports history as the Big 5 and the Palestra.

And though the odds may seem beyond long, a Quakers win could zoom right to the forefront of Big 5 lore.

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