Flashback to February of last year. Princeton was undefeated in the Ivy League and Penn men’s basketball couldn’t buy a win.
After the Tigers defeated the Quakers for the second time in the season to push Penn down to 0-6 in the Ivy League, Penn coach Steve Donahue’s diagnosis of his team’s struggles was simple.
“Mental toughness — Princeton has it. We’re trying to get it,” Donahue said after the loss.
A year later, the Red and Blue has found themselves getting ready to square off against Princeton on Tuesday for the second time in the season. But this time, it seems safe to say that the Quakers (15-6, 5-0 Ivy) have found their mental edge.
“We have an attitude about us,” Donahue said after Penn’s win over Yale on Saturday. “We have guys that are physical, that are tough. That’s how I think we’re going to win.”
While the Tigers (11-9, 3-2) are still viewed as a major contender in the Ancient Eight, they’ve shown vulnerabilities this season that were never visible during their undefeated Ivy championship season last year.
In its Ivy-opening loss to Penn, Princeton struggled to contain Penn sophomore guard Ryan Betley, who torched the Tigers for 19 first-half points. More recently in Saturday’s overtime loss against Brown, guards Desmond Cambridge and Brandon Anderson dominated Princeton all game long to combine for 57 of the Bears’ 102 points.
Penn also needed an overtime period to beat Brown on Friday, so it’s tough to put too much stock into the Tigers’ upset loss. But if the Red and Blue can leave New Jersey with another win over their rival on Tuesday, the door to a top seed in the Ivy League Tournament will open that much wider.
As exciting as that might be for the Quakers’ fans who are hoping to see Penn advance to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2007, it doesn’t appear to have any effect on how the team is approaching the game.
“I just don’t really like to think that way,” Donahue said. “It’s about figuring out, 'Can we get better?’ ... I don’t want human nature to step in here and stop our progress. Somehow we have to keep getting better.”
Even if Penn isn’t approaching Tuesday’s game any differently mentally, the quick turnaround from Saturday will force the Quakers to alter their typical game preparation. Normally, Ivy League teams get six days to prepare for opponents as games are played every Friday and Saturday — but with a game in the middle of the week, the Red and Blue will have less time to prepare both for their game against Princeton, and their back-to-back games after Princeton during next weekend.
It only adds to the challenge that after nearly two straight months of playing at home in the Palestra, the Quakers’ next five games will all unfold on the road.
“I think the guys are hungry to get on the road, to be quite honest with you. Part of college basketball is loading up the bus, getting in there, and being the villain,” Donahue said. “I think we’re looking forward to that.”
Penn junior center Max Rothschild, whose emergence this season has proven to be one of the biggest differences from last year’s team, echoed that sentiment.
“I like going on the road,” Rothschild said. “We kind of like the challenge it brings.”
Penn has only played in six true road games all season so far, but the team has been fairly successful in those games, going 4-2. But now that the Quakers sit alone atop the Ivy standings, the atmospheres in opposing gyms will only be more hostile.
While Rothschild was proud of both his own and his team’s improvements, he doesn’t seem to be dwelling too much on Penn’s success.
“We just gotta carry that momentum and keep going,” Rothschild said.
“There’s still more to be done.”
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