In sports, you often hear that the most important game is the next one, but you might not always believe it to be the case.
For Penn men’s basketball, however, the cliché couldn’t be more true.
In what’s likely the most anticipated sporting event on campus this year — this decade? — the Quakers will welcome hated Princeton to the Palestra on Tuesday night, engaging in the 236th edition of the Ivy League’s undisputed best basketball rivalry in what’s become a must-win for the Red and Blue to stay in conference tournament contention.
“[There’s extra excitement] on our side for sure; we’re really hungry for a win, and that’s the first part of this,” Penn coach Steve Donahue said. “We’re in a skid and we’re trying to get out of it, fight any way we can — and it just happens to be against our rival, which adds to it even more.”
If the concept of this showdown sounds unfamiliar to fans, it’s not without good reason. Due primarily to final exam conflicts, the two longtime rivals haven’t played during Penn’s school year since January 2012, with the inconveniently placed games consistently resulting in sparse attendance from student fans on both ends.
Needless to say, this will be no issue on Tuesday, with a sold out crowd almost guaranteed in what should be one of the wildest atmospheres to strike University City in years.
“[That’s] my favorite part about the schedule,” Donahue said when the game was first announced. “It is vitally important to me that our students get to experience one of the best rivalries in all of college sports.”
As if this wasn’t enough to bring some passion to the Cathedral of College Basketball, the night will find extra excitement from the action that comes outside the whistles.
The game will include a formal celebration of the 90th anniversary of the Palestra, named the most “hallowed hall” in the sport by the NCAA in 2014. For the occasion, Penn is selling student tickets for 55 cents — the same price they were back during the arena’s inaugural season — and non-student ones for $19.27, honoring the year of the stadium’s debut. Additionally, the pregame festivities will include the team’s second “Fan Fest” of the year.
Of course, while the rampant emotion surrounding the contest can only help Penn, the Red and Blue (7-11, 0-5 Ivy) will still have their hands full with a strong Princeton squad once the opening whistle sounds.
Despite losing senior starters Hans Brase and Henry Caruso to season-ending injuries, the Tigers (12-6, 5-0) haven’t lost a step remotely, standing as the lone remaining unbeaten squad in Ancient Eight play.
Entering Tuesday on an absolute tear, Princeton has won eight consecutive games since a tight loss to MAAC-leading Monmouth in December. In the middle of that ongoing streak was a wild win over Penn over winter break, when the Quakers incredibly managed to tie the game after trailing 39-18 in the second half before ultimately fading in a 61-52 loss.
The setback was a sign of things to come for the Red and Blue, who have severely struggled on offense throughout their winless start to conference play. Junior guard Darnell Foreman is the team’s lone player averaging double figures scoring in Ivy play, as the Quakers have been held to 60 points or fewer in three of their five losses.
“There’s been some inconsistencies and it’s a little different each game, and it’s never been awful; for the most part we’re taking care of the ball and getting decent shots, but each game there’s four or five possessions where you’re like ‘that cost us,’” Donahue said. “It’s the little things; we’re in every game, but it comes down to the last five minutes, and we just haven’t gone a good job of really executing when we have to.”
Similarly, the January win was also an omen for the Tigers, who have absolutely shut down everyone in their tracks. Led by senior forwards Steven Cook and Spencer Weisz, Princeton is limiting its Ivy foes to a conference-low 59.2 points per game, meaning that Penn will have to bring out something spectacular in order to take its first win over the Tigers since 2014.
“It’d be fun to get one in my first time playing them and my last time playing them, so I definitely want to see that happen tomorrow,” said senior forward Matt Howard, the team’s lone rotation player to have been on the roster during Penn’s last win over Princeton. “It’s a number of things [we’ve struggled with], but we just have to play harder and smarter and just go out there and get a win.”
With the Quakers inching closer to playoff elimination, there will be no room for error for Donahue’s squad; basketball analyst Mike James’ statistical model gives Penn a 16 percent chance of qualifying for the inaugural conference tournament, but even that figure seems generous given the Quakers’ recent performances.
Following Saturday’s stunning loss at Dartmouth, Penn is now the only winless squad in the Ancient Eight — and if literally running the table isn’t quite necessary for the Red and Blue to sneak into the postseason, they’ll have to come awfully close.
“[We’re] definitely not [out of the playoff mix], we’re thinking we’re going to turn this ship around,” Howard said. “No one’s in the locker room discouraged at all about how things have started; we’re just worried about how we’re going to finish the season.”
Ultimately, if Penn is to shock the nation and snag its first conference win of the year, the Quakers couldn’t pick a much better setting. With the conference’s best rivalry commencing, accompanied by a celebration of the sport’s most historic arena, a must-win situation for the hosts, and — best of all — an actual crowd for the first time in five years, there’s simply not much more that fans and athletes alike could wish for.
Let the games begin.