March Madness is upon us.
And this season, Penn men's basketball brought its dancing shoes.
The No. 16 Red and Blue have a date in the Big Dance with No. 1 seed Kansas on Thursday. The Quakers will look to make history as the first ever No. 16 seed to defeat a No. 1 seed in the modern era of the National Collegiate Athletic Association Tournament.
Although it has never happened before, Penn (24-8, 12-2 Ivy) is not your run-of-the-mill No. 16 seed. By some metrics, the Red and Blue are statistically the strongest No. 16 seed ever. That fact has some college basketball pundits picking the Quakers to upset the Jayhawks (27-7, 13-5 Big 12) in the opening round.
“This doesn’t feel like a 16-1 game,” coach Steve Donahue said about the matchup. “That doesn’t mean Kansas isn’t terrific and we have our work cut out for us, but I do feel strongly that we’ll perform well.”
Penn’s task will be a tall one, however.
One of the best players in all of college basketball leads the Jayhawks, winners of the Big 12 Conference: Devonte' Graham. The senior point guard was recently named the Big 12 Conference Men's Basketball Player of the Year and is one of 15 finalists for the John R. Wooden Award, which is given to the country’s most outstanding men’s college basketball player.
The Quakers will likely need to slow Graham down if they have hopes of pulling off an upset.
“He’s a great player,” senior guard Darnell Foreman said. “He’s tough, he can shoot it from all three levels, he’s physical, he gets the pace going. It’s going to be hard [guarding Graham], but I’m up for the challenge.”
Graham commands a potent Kansas offense that shoots and makes a lot of threes.
The Jayhawks averaged a score of 81.5 points per game and shot 40.3 percent from three, a feat that places them 13th in the country. The three-point barrage is thanks to a three-headed monster of Malik Newman (40.9 percent from three), Graham (41.2 percent), and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk (45.3 percent). Mykhailiuk is one best shooters in all of college basketball — his 45.3 three-point shooting percentage is 13th in the nation.
“They stretch you out,” Donahue explained. “They shoot a lot of threes, [they’re a] really efficient offensive team, and they still have size and athleticism.”
Although the Jayhawks’ strength is shooting the three-ball, Penn’s strength is defending it.
The Quakers are ranked second in the country in three-point field goal defense. They have held opponents to shooting just 29.2 percent from three this season, putting the Red and Blue ahead of some of the best defenses in the country, including top seed Virginia and No. 2 seed Cincinnati. In over half of its games this season, Penn was able to hold opponents under 30 percent shooting from three.
While the match-ups on the perimeter will play a large factor, the battle in the post shouldn’t be overlooked.
Kansas' anchor down low is Udoka Azubuike. The 7-foot, 280-pound center averages 13.7 points per game and leads the Jayhawks in rebounding with 7.1 per game.
There is a lingering question about Azubuike's health going into the NCAA Tournament, however. A sprained MCL caused the center to miss the entire Big 12 Men's Basketball Tournament, and while his status for this weekend is looking up, no one knows how close to 100 percent he is.
Donahue said the Quakers are anticipating that Azubuike will play, and later explained that they plan to use different defensive looks to limit him down low. How the Red and Blue deploy the combination of AJ Brodeur and Max Rothschild to defend Azubuike could play a deciding role in the game.
Even through all the talk about Kansas, the opportunity to compete in the NCAA tournament is not lost on the Red and Blue.
“It means a lot,” Donahue said. “All the things that make up the NCAA tournament make it so that it’s a chance for a team like us to compete with someone like Kansas."
“If we play really well for 40 minutes, we have a chance to win it,” Donahue said.
Penn will take on Kansas on Thursday, Mar.15 at 2 p.m. Eastern Time. The game can be viewed on TV on TBS or heard on the radio on WXPN 88.5 FM.