The stage is set.
After a dreadful 0-6 start to conference play, if you had suggested that Penn men’s basketball was Ivy League Tournament-bound, you would have gotten responses ranging anywhere from disbelieving laughter to cautious optimism.
Just a few weeks later, here we are. With one final weekend of games remaining, the Quakers (12-13, 5-7 Ivy) have the opportunity to complete one of the most remarkable season turnarounds ever witnessed in Ivy League athletics. The teams standing in the Red and Blue’s way? Dartmouth and Harvard — two teams that Penn lost to earlier this year but will be hungry to avenge.
For the sake of transparency, it is worth mentioning that Penn does not control its destiny. However, barring surprising results elsewhere, two wins this weekend would secure the desired fourth-place finish and Ivy tournament bid.
The first test for the Quakers will be Friday’s matchup against Dartmouth (6-19, 3-9) at the Palestra. It was a surprise to many when the Red and Blue failed to win against the Big Green during a road trip earlier this season.
The game swayed back and forth, but in the end, Dartmouth forward Evan Boudreaux gave Penn more than it could handle, recording a double-double that included a game-sealing jumper inside two minutes. Also notable were his 12 rebounds, significantly more than Ryan Betley, who was Penn’s most effective rebounder with a mere five.
“Evan is a 20-and-10 guy in league play, and I don’t remember anyone ever doing that,” coach Steve Donahue said. “You just have to gameplan for him. The crazy part is his game against us last time was one of his average games.”
The Quakers will be confident going into Friday’s game, not in the least because it is on their home floor, which has turned from a theater of head-in-hands moments into a fortress of late. Home was where the Red and Blue began their charge back from the death several weekends ago against Columbia and Cornell, and they will hope it is where it culminates as well.
Fortunately for Penn, history is on their side. In each of the past four seasons, the Quakers have earned a season split with the Big Green, which is exactly what they would earn with a win on Friday. In fact, you would have to go back to the 2008-09 season to observe the last time Dartmouth swept Penn.
But, as any sports fan would tell you, that was then and this is now. More so than ever, Donahue is leaning on his rotation of players that finally — after being tinkered with throughout the season — he feels comfortable with.
“I’ve been saying that I would love to get to the point where I know what I’m getting from each guy,” Donahue said. “I think these last couple weeks have gotten me to that point. We have a solid eight-man rotation that I feel great about.”
And what a difference a few weeks can make — in the loss to Dartmouth, twelve different Quakers earned playing time. Now, with that number down below ten, it is clear that Donahue is putting his trust in his players.
That trust will be necessary on Saturday against Harvard (18-7, 10-2), where the Red and Blue will be seeing a different animal. A well-rounded team that has several weapons and a stifling defense, the Crimson will be Penn’s toughest test since Princeton.
“I think what they do the best is get out in transition,” Donahue said. “But really their strength is their defense. We are going to have to really execute if we want to see offensive success on Saturday.”
There is, of course, the danger of looking ahead to Harvard and slipping up against Dartmouth. Donahue and his players have made sure that preparing for the Big Green remains priority number one despite the challenge of Harvard looming.
“We know we have two tough games this weekend, but we don’t want to get caught up thinking ahead,” freshman guard Ryan Betley said. “We’re zeroed in on Dartmouth, and as soon as that game ends, we’ll immediately start preparing for Harvard.”
Undoubtedly, this weekend’s slate of Penn basketball games are the most important the program has seen in a long, long time. With the team fighting for it’s life, you can count on two close, competitive contests.
“We’re playing our best basketball right now, and that’s what matters,” Donahue said. “We just have to put it all on display this weekend.”