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Coach Steve Donahue and Penn men's basketball will have a busy winter break, taking on two non-conference opponents before beginning conference play against Princeton.

Credit: Alex Fisher

Penn men’s basketball will take a vacation over the next few weeks, with its next game coming December 28 against Drexel at the Palestra. Christmas came early for the Quakers, though, after they stunned UCF with a 58-49 upset in Orlando on Monday night.

Senior forward Matt Howard has continued to shine and has averaged 13.1 points and 6.5 rebounds per game while logging 13 steals in the team’s first eight games. However, it is the emergent freshman forward A.J. Brodeur who leads the Red and Blue in scoring, with 14.4 points to go with 6.1 rebounds, figuring to be a key contributor down low the rest of the way in the first season since Darien Nelson-Henry graduated.

In the Quakers’ first three victories, they won big, with margins of victory of 17, 22 and 29 over Robert Morris, Central Connecticut and Lafayette. The Quakers (4-5) have also seen winnable games fall beyond their grasp, falling to Navy by two and recently, surrendering a 13-0 run to George Mason late in the second half.

Losses to Miami, Villanova and Temple were likely, though they featured positives. Against Miami, the Red and Blue were competitive in the first half before the Hurricanes went on a tear in the second half, and against Temple, Penn cut a once-17-point lead down to two in a valiant comeback effort.

Coach Steve Donahue is a proponent of giving the players the time off to deal with final exams and the holidays.

“I’ve always thought the two-and-a-half weeks off is a good thing for these kids,” Donahue said. “First of all, their academics, stress level is off the charts, and I also think it’s good for basketball. We have nine games of tape to evaluate.”

After the Quakers return to work, they will host Drexel and Fairfield at the Palestra.

The Dragons have started 4-5 and will not have the same time off as the Quakers. Drexel will play Rider, D-III Kean and Quinnipiac before having seven days off between Dec. 21 and Dec. 28. For the Dragons, forward Rodney Williams and rookie guard Kurk Lee each average 16 points per game, who have scored at least 71 points in each of their last seven games and average 75.1 points per game on the season. On the defensive side, they’ve surrendered 77.3 points per game and have allowed opponents to shoot 40.7 percent from three.

Fairfield (5-3) has dropped two straight after taking five of its first six games. Its most recent game was on December 6, and the Stags will play a pair of ACC schools in North Carolina State on December 18 and Boston College on December 21 before taking a recess. The Fairfield offense runs through guard Tyler Nelson, who averages a team-high 19.9 points per game, with guard Curtis Cobb adding 13.8 points per game.

The team has received a boost this year with the return of forward Amadou Sidibe, who missed last season due to injury and is playing as a graduate. Although he averaged just 5.7 points and 6.5 rebounds per game across his first three seasons, he is currently well above those figures at 9.8 and 11.9. Thus far, the Stags have been turnover-prone, coughing it up 16.4 times per game and allowing 8.3 steals per game. On average, they have outscored opponents 73.5 to 70.8.

Donahue noted the importance of the coming weeks for preparing for the looming Ivy League season.

“We’re building this program,” Donahue said. “We don’t start our league until February, so the next 6-8 weeks are a great area for our team to figure out who are the best eight or nine [guys], and it could be that some aren’t playing.”

On Jan. 7, Penn will play its first conference game of the season at Princeton. The Tigers are 4-4 but boast a robust 61st rank on college basketball analytics site due to facing the 31st-toughest schedule in the country. Three of Princeton’s losses came at the hands of highly-regarded teams BYU (56th), VCU (49th) and Cal (50th). The Tigers have a packed schedule, playing Saint Joseph’s, Monmouth, Bucknell, Hampton and Cal Poly before the end of 2016. Forward Steven Cook has scored 13.5 points per game, including 36 in his last two en route to picking up Ivy League Player of the Week. Guard Devin Cannady has added 11.0 points per game for the Tigers. Princeton has outscored opponents 72.8 to 66.0 on average, although the number is skewed considering its 108-46 win over D-III Rowan.

Penn fans won’t have to wait much longer to witness conference play at the Palestra, as Yale and Brown visit the next week for the first doubleheader weekend of the season. That will be followed by a pair of Big 5 matchups against Saint Joe’s and La Salle, before it is doubleheaders from then on out.