When Kris Jenkins hit a buzzer-beating three to defeat North Carolina and give Villanova the NCAA national championship, the entire city of Philadelphia celebrated. Fast forward eight months, and the Wildcats are 6-0, ranked No. 2 in the country and playing like a team poised for another title run.
On Tuesday night, Penn basketball will take on the defending champions and Big 5 rival at the Palestra for the Quakers’ home opener.
The Red and Blue (2-2) come into the game after playing their first four games on the road, including a tough test against a very talented Miami team.
This past Saturday the Quakers fell to Navy in a game that represented their inconsistent play through their opening few contests. After going down 10 at the end of the first half, Penn went on a 20-6 run to start the second half. However, with under six minutes left to play, the Red and Blue went ice cold, failing to register a single point as the Midshipmen came back to win.
The early challenges have been useful for the Quakers as they continue to prepare for Villanova and the start of Ivy League play.
“I think it’s been a good schedule for us. Basically it has been a long, extended training camp playing together in adverse conditions,” Penn coach Steve Donahue said. “We try to get better, and I think our defense has played well at times, our offense has played well at times, and we have come together as a team. Hopefully we continue to get better in January, in February, and are playing our best at the conference tournament.”
This early in the season, the inconsistent play isn’t all that unexpected or surprising, but it is something that Donahue wants to see fixed as the season moves forward. They know they will need to maintain their highest level for all 40 minutes if they want to compete with Villanova on Tuesday night.
“We’re excited to play in front of our own fans but even more important, play better, try to improve. We’ve played well in stretches and played poorly in stretches, and although it may be hard to work it out against possibly the best team in the country, we are excited for the challenge,” Donahue said.
The matchup with Villanova is more significant than just another game for the Quakers. The Big 5 rivalry between the two schools dates back to its inception in 1955 and takes on an added intensity as the Big 5 includes the defending national champ.
For the lone senior on the team, Matt Howard will be playing his final season opener at the Palestra. The Villanova matchup, however, doesn’t change his mindset.
“It feels good to be back at home. Our mindset is the same,” he said. “We want to come out and play confident. Every Big 5 game is important, and each game has a different feel to it. It’s definitely special to be coming out here for the final home opener, but I don’t want to think about it too much and just focus on the game. ”
Donahue chose to place a little more significance on the history between the two teams and the fact that the Wildcats brought home a title last season.
“There is only one national champion, and what I always say is part of what makes Penn special, and different than the other Ivies, you get to play the Big 5 schools, including a national champion, which just doesn’t happen. We are aware of the Big 5 and its history, and it’s a reason why a lot of guys came here to play.”
From the flashes of brilliant play to the chance to see the defending national champions, the atmosphere for Penn’s home opener Tuesday night should be a raucous one. The Quakers will need a special performance to hand Nova its first loss, but regardless of the outcome, it will be a special night for Penn basketball.