After two months of basketball, Ivy League play is finally here. And as Penn men’s basketball (10-4) gears up to take on Princeton (7-5) this coming Saturday, here are three questions surrounding the rivalry matchup.
How much will the injured players play for each team?
The big unknown heading into this game for the Quakers is how much they will get from injured big men Max Rothschild and Michael Wang, if they even suit up to play at all. Rothschild has been struggling with back problems for much of the season and hasn’t seen the floor since the Villanova game. Wang stepped up in his place and continued his stellar stretch of play, but he came down with an ankle injury of his own after an awkward fall against Toledo. Both players were unavailable in the team’s 76-74 overtime loss to Monmouth, and it showed: Monmouth center Diago Quinn led the team with 19 points off the bench with junior forward AJ Brodeur serving as the Quakers’ only reliable big presence on the floor. Against Princeton’s rotating cast of forwards, the Quakers will need more than just Brodeur on the court to be successful.
But the Tigers come into the game with a question mark of their own. Senior guard Myles Stephens, the team’s second-leading scorer, tweaked his knee in the team’s matchup against Lafayette on Dec. 21 and sat out last weekend’s game against No. 17 Arizona State. Stephens has found success on offense against the Quakers before, recording a double-double in the last matchup, but his defensive play has always been his strongest contribution. Without him in the lineup, Princeton loses its best defender and leaves itself more vulnerable to Penn’s explosive guards.
How much will momentum matter?
If this game was played two weeks ago, Penn would be carrying all of the momentum. Off the high of knocking off Villanova and winning in The Pit against New Mexico, the Quakers were winners of six straight games and received a vote in the national AP poll. Now, the Red and Blue are reeling off two consecutive bad losses — a 32-point blowout at Toledo and a home loss to previously winless Monmouth — in which they shot a combined 32.8 percent from the field.
Meanwhile, Princeton pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the season on Dec. 29, taking down then-No. 17 Arizona State on the road just one game after the Sun Devils took down then-No. 1 Kansas. The win was the Tigers’ first against a ranked opponent in six years, and after a bit of a slow start, the Tigers have now won three of their last four, with the lone loss coming against then-No. 2 Duke.
These are two teams trending in opposite directions, but oftentimes in Ivy play that doesn’t seem to matter. Once the two teams step onto the floor, anything is possible. Will Penn’s shooting woes continue, or will the Quakers regain the hot hand that they carried through much of the non-conference slate? And will the Tigers be able to ride the high of upsetting a ranked opponent despite a week-long break?
How will the rookies fare in their first Ivy League showdown?
Penn’s freshmen duo of Bryce Washington and Michael Wang has been instrumental in the team’s successful non-conference slate. Washington saw his role increase almost immediately following junior guard Ryan Betley’s season-ending injury and has been one of the team’s most consistent threats from beyond the arc. Meanwhile, Wang has come off the bench in all but two games to provide the Quakers with bursts of offense: he’s third on the team with 11.2 points per game despite averaging the seventh-most minutes.
For Princeton, it’s the first chance to showcase guard Jaelin Llewellyn to the rest of the league. The Mississauga, Ontario native was the Ivy League’s highest rated recruit this past year, and after missing the beginning of the season due to injury, he’s shown why. Llewellyn has slotted into the starting lineup each of the past five games, and is averaging 12.0 points and 4.6 assists. Much like Wang, Llewellyn has great vision and is a threat to score from anywhere on the floor.
Both teams need their rookies to play well not only to have a chance to win this game, but to stay competitive throughout Ivy play as well. And with the pressure that comes with a conference opening rivalry matchup, who knows what to expect from them?