Hope has blossomed into opportunity for Penn men’s basketball, but the Quakers still have to seize it.
Two weeks ago, hope was the only thing the Red and Blue (11-12, 4-6 Ivy) had: at 0-6 and last place in the conference, they seemed all but eliminated. Since, Penn has looked unstoppable in four straight wins, three of them wire-to-wire. Now, the fourth-place Quakers have an opportunity to play their way into the Ivy League tournament and a potential NCAA bid.
This weekend gives Penn the opportunity to continue the streak against the teams it started against two weeks ago: Cornell (7-18, 3-7 Ivy) and fellow fourth-place Columbia (10-13, 4-6 Ivy). It also represents the Quakers’ only chance to earn a season sweep of an Ivy team.
“After going 0-6, we just got tired of losing,” freshman guard Devon Goodman said. “We’re coming out with more of an attitude, we’re angry... and we feel like we have something to prove every single game.”
“We just put it in our minds that we were going to turn it around and figure out a way to win,” senior Matt Howard added. “We’re not going to get complacent with this little winning streak. We did that earlier in the season and that turned into an 0-6 losing streak. We’re going to stay hungry and humble.”
The Quakers, or at least their veteran leader and coach, downplayed the narrative thrust upon them. They don’t see themselves as having miraculously transformed into a championship team.
“We’re still in a rough position ... and the only way to get out of that is to keep playing and getting better,” coach Steve Donahue said.
Both Howard and Donahue cited the closeness of the first six games and the Quakers’ defensive performances as evidence of the team’s quality before the streak. Neither accepted that the magnitudes of this weekend’s games are any greater than normal. Instead of subscribing to the hype a winning streak creates, Donahue stressed the importance of improving in practice. Donahue, like any coach, is loath to admit to standings watching or considering hypothetical tiebreaker scenarios.
“All those things that [the media] thinks about, and fans, and alumni ... it’s all fun, but it doesn’t do us any good, so we don’t think like that,” Donahue said.
As an example of a fun fact Donahue wouldn’t claim to know: the Quakers could clinch an Ivy tournament spot this weekend.
Coach-speak notwithstanding, the Quakers have a glorious chance to shut the door on Columbia and take full control of fourth place. As it stands now, Penn has the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Lions in the race for the last seed of the conference tournament — but this fact could change instantly during Saturday night’s matchup in New York City, giving the showdown massive playoff implications. Still, Donahue doesn’t see it that way.
“Cornell could win out and get in. We could win out and get in. Columbia could lose every game ... there’s so much more that could happen to start thinking like that,” he said. “Everybody’s in the race essentially ... These are all extremely important [games]. We got to beat Cornell, and then we’ll move on to the next one.”
This weekend’s slate will be a tough battle for the Quakers. The back-to-back opens with a visit to Ithaca to play Cornell, then the de facto playoff play-in game at Columbia. Both matchups will feature hungry teams looking to keep tournament dreams alive and avenge previous losses. The rest of the conference has had time to prepare and adapt for the new-look Quakers.
When Penn takes the court, it won’t see the same teams it beat earlier in the year; the Quakers likely see completely new defensive schemes, increased intensity, and hostile environments. Winning on the road isn’t easy, especially not at this point of season.
“It’s been a long season. A lot of guys have injuries or are hurting. You just got to dig down deep and give everything you got in these last weeks,” Howard said.
“I expect Cornell to play a great basketball game, they’re a good offensive team, and I thought they’ve played well with the exception of our game. I thought they played really well the night before at Princeton,” Donahue added. “We’ve got to be ready to play the way we’ve been playing.”
The way the Quakers have been playing should be good enough. Penn hasn’t trailed in a game for its last 129 minutes of game time spread across four games. The average margin of victory in those games has been almost 17 points.
As great as the sudden change of fortune has been, Donahue knows another reversal could happen just as quickly. The Quakers still have a losing record. Yes, they’re back from the brink, but they haven’t earned anything yet. This weekend presents an opportunity to do just that.
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