DURHAM, N.C. — Throwing them right into the fire. It’s an interesting strategy.
It’s also been a hallmark of Penn women’s basketball coach Mike McLaughlin’s tenure. For the past four years, Penn has started the season with its toughest game of the whole season.
Well, maybe not its toughest — championship-deciding games against Princeton and match-ups with Texas and Washington in the NCAA Tournament take that cake — but Notre Dame, Tennessee and Duke have proven to be incredible challenges for Penn teams to measure themselves against.
As a coach, you know your team is going to have some kinks to work out early in the season. Practice might come close to simulating a game at times, but there’s no real replacement for that experience or the length and speed that these teams have boasted. You might think about easing a team into the season before pitting them against a highly-talented team.
So why start off on the wrong foot? It can’t be incredibly inspiring to come down to Knoxville, Tenn. for a 45-point rout.
To me, that answer is simple. This program has pushed itself, from the beginning of McLaughlin’s term, to be the best team in the Ivy League and a competitive team on the national stage. And you don’t get better by playing weak non-conference teams every weekend.
Obviously there have been a lot of factors in the team’s resurgence, recruiting paramount among them, but scheduling has been key.
Look back to 2011. In just his second year as coach, McLaughlin schedules Notre Dame, on the road, midway through the non-conference season. His team is coming off of an 11-17 season and a sixth-place Ivy League finish.
The Quakers get routed, 69-38, but they have that chance to visit South Bend and compete against a team that finished as the national runner-up. That 2011-12 squad would go on to finish 13-15, but on it were players like Alyssa Baron and Kara Bonenberger, who would later be instrumental to McLaughlin’s first championship squad.
The next time the team faced off with Notre Dame, it’s in the cozy confines of the Palestra — a landmark that McLaughlin has pointed to as a contributing factor in scheduling elite visiting teams — and more so than in 2011, Penn pushed Notre Dame.
It was a 22-point “blowout” loss, but it wasproof that this team could grind with the best teams in the nation. They stifled Jewell Loyd, an All-American that year, limiting her to just 12 points. The Quakers fell to 0-2, but won their first Ivy League title in a decade and challenged Texas in the first round of the tournament.
On the honeymoon of that championship, Penn travelled south to Knoxville to face top-five Tennessee, a perennial women’s basketball powerhouse.
It’s a trip I’ll never forget — not just because of the adventure I took with two other editors traveling to the game — but because Penn got man-handled. It wasn’t really a shock, so much as it was clear that this was a team that was still finding its footing after Baron’s graduation.
The Quakers still managed to complete a 21-win season and make it to the second round of the WNIT, though they were overshadowed by nationally-ranked Princeton.
The next year at the Palestra against then-No. 14 Duke, Penn was right in it. Down the stretch, they had the lead, but the athleticism and depth of the Blue Devils was too much to handle. They ended up falling by seven, but the result was still positive. The Quakers had it figured out and rolled to a 24-5 season.
This year’s team enters the season with championship hopes, and it’s not crazy to think it may be the team to garner the program’s first NCAA Tournament win.
They travelled to Durham to face off with Duke again, got knocked around for the first two minutes, rallied and played dead-even ball for the final 38 minutes in a 68-55 loss. The Quakers didn't play a perfect game, but they battled hard with a team on the bubble of the national rankings.
So why play against top teams early on? It’s a measuring stick for a team that has grown over McLaughlin’s tenure.
And on Sunday, the Quakers measured up.