Only 10 months after a championship that was supposed to be impossible to happen as quickly as it did, Penn men’s basketball already has an even more unlikely one: Big 5 champions, for the first time in 17 years.
Alright, so it’s only a share of the championship as of now: the team needs to beat 8-10 Saint Joseph’s at home next week to clinch outright, which is no guarantee. But even if it ends up as only a co-title, what it represents for the ridiculous arc that coach Steve Donahue’s program is on goes far beyond that.
First off, the way in which Saturday's 77-70 contest was won personified Donahue’s cultural change to a tee. After the Quakers played pretty terribly during a four-game losing streak in which they averaged only 56.75 points per game in regulation, Penn got back to the team-first mentality that thrived all of last year.
With Kuba Mijakowski coming off the bench to hit four first-half three-pointers, Jarrod Simmons playing significant minutes at the 5 when AJ Brodeur was on the bench, and Jake Silpe hitting a dagger three-pointer to put the margin at eight points with under a minute left, Saturday night exemplified what last year’s Cinderella story was all about: on any given night, any player on the roster can make winning plays.
This culture, and the general path that the team has been on since Donahue took over four years ago, has already been well-documented. But even if the Quakers’ recent accomplishments make a win like Saturday night’s less surprising, they shouldn’t make such a win any less significant.
This was probably Temple’s best team since the Lavoy Allen-led 2009-10 group that went 29-6 and won the Atlantic 10. That Temple squad was in the top 25 all year long until falling to an upstart No. 12 seed Cornell in the first round of the NCAA Tournament — a team coached by, of course, Steve Donahue. And in Donahue’s first win over former mentor Fran Dunphy since then, the stakes weren’t quite as high as a win-or-go-home March Madness showdown, but the implications are almost as great.
Penn simply wasn’t supposed to win the Philly mini-conference this soon. Really, no one besides Villanova is supposed to take it — the Wildcats had won 25 consecutive Big 5 games before the Quakers pulled off last month’s upset. But Penn? The lone Ivy in the mini-conference? After not even having finished .500 in Big 5 play once in the past twelve seasons?
No matter how the rest of the season plays out, Penn is in a position relative to the Big 5 where no one outside the Quakers’ locker room expected them to be: first. And that’s extremely fitting, because Donahue’s brief career at Penn has been defined by 'firsts.'
They started out pretty small: first season with double-digit wins since 2012 in the coach’s rookie year, then first season in the conference’s top four since 2012 the following winter. But little by little, the domino effect continued, and the program quickly became a juggernaut: first time finishing 7-0 at home in Ivy play since 2007. First Ivy championships — both regular season, and conference tournament — since 2007, with an ensuing NCAA Tournament appearance. First win over a Power Five conference team since 2003. First win over a ranked Villanova team in 30 years.
Is Saturday’s win the best “first” so far? It’d be heresy to call the Big 5 title more memorable or meaningful than last March’s Ivy title win. But strictly in terms of the more difficult accomplishment, one could easily argue the Big 5 title to be superior to the Ivy crown. Sure, there are far more necessary games to win in the Ancient Eight. But the Big 5 has two unanimous top-75 teams in the country, where the Ivy League has none.
Any further semantics of that argument are for a different day, but what can be agreed upon by all parties is this: in any given year, the best team in the Big 5 is generally a lot better than the best team in the Ivy League. Unless they happen to be the same one.
I’m not saying Penn is a lock to win the Ivy title this year. With a strong field that includes the defending Ivy co-champions (Harvard), the newly-anointed Ivy tourney hosts (Yale), a team that is already 2-0 against Penn this season (Princeton), and a sleeper that owns the league’s second-best overall record (Brown), guaranteeing a second straight March Madness nod is foolish, especially considering the team's underwhelming start to Ivy play.
But the fact that a second straight March Madness nod is even in the discussion is a testament to where the program has already gone in such a short time, and where it can continue to go.
What will the next “first” be for Donahue and his rapidly growing program? It’s impossible to say, but all I know is that I want to be the first to see it.