CAMBRIDGE, MA — The dream of an undefeated season is gone, and the cloak of invincibility for Penn men’s basketball has disappeared with it. And that’s one of the best things that could’ve happened to the Quakers.
No, the Red and Blue shouldn’t be happy that they lost; who wouldn’t have wanted to see the school’s first perfect Ivy League season in 15 years? But seeing that one in the loss column can work volumes for any team’s mentality, and as soon as that long and frustrating bus ride home is done, the Quakers will know what needs to be done the rest of the way.
This wasn’t a fluke loss where Penn happened to overlook its opponent and play uncharacteristically sloppily, or one where the Quakers outplayed their opponent and deserved to win but were victimized by a few unlucky bounces or bad calls.
Penn deserved to lose this game, and as a matter of fact, it probably deserved to lose by more than it did. The Quakers had no answer for Harvard center Chris Lewis all evening, with the sophomore eventually finishing with a career-high 25 points, and had Ryan Betley not turned into Superman during the game’s last ten minutes, this final score would’ve been a lot more lopsided.
Yet even on a day where Penn wasn’t at its best, there are positives to build on. As my colleague Theodoros Papazekos wrote earlier this week, Penn still needs to approach its daily grind like it’s an 0-6 team, and it’s a lot harder to do that when that zero still exists in the loss column. By no means was Penn a perfect basketball team even when its conference record suggested such. Single-digit wins against Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, and Brown proved that this team wasn’t flawless.
But winning masks problems, and as long as the Quakers stayed unbeaten in Ivy play, they might not have fully diagnosed what those problems were. Harvard guard Justin Bassey admitted that one of the Crimson’s biggest takeaways from Saturday’s game was that “we proved Penn was beatable” — and this should also be Penn’s biggest lesson.
In all of those earlier wins, Penn managed to find a way, and that trait of buckling down in the clutch minutes should be admired. But there’s a positive and negative side to feeling like you can’t lose. On one hand, an undefeated team can walk around with the swagger of knowing it can beat anybody.
But on the other hand, there’s a risk of developing a sense that you can play sloppily and still escape with a win on any given night. And even if Penn has proven that to be true on occasion, that’s a mentality that won’t fly against the league’s top teams.
It’s not like Penn had no excuse for a slip-up on Saturday. Road back-to-backs in the Ivy League are notoriously difficult, and that’s only exacerbated when a team is coming off a win as emotionally draining as Penn’s comeback at Dartmouth on Friday. Throw in the facts that this was the team’s fifth game in nine days, and that junior center Max Rothschild was playing through a tailbone cyst, and it’s fully reasonable that one of the team’s weaker performances would come on this night.
But excuses be damned, Saturday night showed us one thing: Harvard is better than Penn. That doesn’t mean that Harvard will be better than Penn the next time they play, or that Harvard will be better when Ivy Madness rolls around in March. But right now, after the Crimson so thoroughly outplayed Penn even without their arguable best player, defending Ivy League Rookie of the Year Bryce Aiken, it’d be foolish to suggest anyone but Harvard as the league favorite right now.
And at the end of the day, that’s just what Penn needs. These last few weeks have felt like a movie, where the Quakers just couldn’t lose no matter what, but the dream is over now. Thanks to Harvard, Penn knows exactly where it is, and exactly where it needs to be when the games really count — and now it’s taken the ass-kicking it needed to provide the fuel to get there.
Cole Jacobson is a College junior from Los Angeles, Calif., and is a Sports Editor for The Daily Pennsylvanian. He can be reached at email@example.com.