In a heartbreaking loss at Ivy League favorite Princeton on Saturday, Penn men’s basketball proved that it could compete with the league’s finest.
The next step for coach Steve Donahue’s squad? Showing it can beat the best.
This weekend, the Quakers will have an opportunity to do just that in their first Ivy League doubleheader of the season, hosting defending champion Yale on Friday before welcoming Brown to the Palestra on Saturday.
“When you have home games, you want to control your home court, and that’s important to us,” Donahue said. “Even more than that, we’ve gotta prove it to ourselves that we can beat teams back-to-back in this league.”
In last weekend’s defeat, a Penn (6-6, 0-1 Ivy) team riding a three-game win streak finally cooled off, allowing a 17-8 game-ending run by the Tigers and leaving an awfully bitter taste in the Quakers’ mouths.
“It was a disappointing loss; it just makes us want to go harder, since we know that we can beat any team in front of us,” senior forward Matt Howard said. “We know how good we can be, since we didn’t even play that well and still ran with one of the top teams in the league.”
But unfortunately for the Red and Blue, things might not be much easier against a Yale (8-5, 0-0) team that has defied expectations despite seeing its personnel from last year’s championship squad decimated by the graduation of four starters and a season-ending injury to NCAA Tournament breakout star Makai Mason.
The Bulldogs, who have compiled a 24-4 record in league play over the last two seasons, have shown that there’s been no rebuilding necessary for coach James Jones’ program – only reloading.
Star freshmen Miye Oni and Jordan Bruner have made immediate impacts, both averaging double figures scoring. But the most unprecedented breakout has come from sophomore guard Alex Copeland, who scored only 16 total points against Division I opponents a season ago but has since emerged with a team-leading 13.3 points per game.
“They’ve proven that they’re still good; the young kids that played minor roles last year are much better than people anticipated,” Donahue said. “They’ve always been a top team, and that’s no different.”
Regardless of Friday’s result, it will be important for the Quakers to avoid a letdown on Saturday against Brown (9-7, 0-0). Though the Bears were predicted to finish last in the preseason media poll, returning stars Steven Spieth and Tavon Blackmon have led the way for a squad that has already surpassed last year’s win total.
“They’re always a very good offensive team,” Donahue said. “But we also have to score and do well on offense. That’s probably been our Achilles heel – like when we lost the other night, having those five or ten-minute droughts – and we can’t afford to do that.”
Additionally, the weekend will pose a new challenge as the first Ivy doubleheader in the career of Penn’s newcomers like freshmen AJ Brodeur and Ryan Betley and transfers Matt MacDonald and Caleb Wood.
“We probably gotta watch the minutes in terms of not giving guys long stretches in that Friday game,” Donahue admitted. “But there’s no other way to do it but light a fire, see what your body feels like the next day and get the job done.”
While the conference’s new tournament means the Red and Blue can’t necessarily move into or out of the title race this weekend, Donahue’s squad can certainly make a major statement. And if all goes as planned, the rest of the league will see that there’s a new threat ready to break into contender status.