There have been quite a few times during this Ivy League season when Penn men’s basketball fans might have longed for the good old days of 2018.
Maybe that moment came after the Quakers lost two consecutive games to archrival Princeton, a team that the Red and Blue swept en route to an Ancient Eight title last season. Maybe it came when Penn fell to 0-3 in conference play after winning its first seven Ivy League contests a year ago. Or maybe it came when the Quakers dropped back-to-back overtime games to Harvard and Columbia at the Palestra, where they didn’t lose a single Ancient Eight game in 2018.
The Red and Blue clearly had a much easier time in Ivy League play last year, and right now, sitting in sixth place with a 4-6 record and just two weeks left in the regular season, they need to draw on those memories more than ever. Even after rolling past Cornell in an 18-point victory on Saturday night, the Quakers find their Ivy Tournament hopes hanging by a thread.
Penn currently sits one game back of fourth place in the Ancient Eight, a position the team would need to secure in order to qualify for postseason play and have the chance to earn a second-straight March Madness berth. The various scenarios and tiebreakers can be saved for another time, but the Quakers will likely have to go 3-1 or potentially even 4-0 in their final four games in order to make the Ivy Tournament.
That task won’t be easy. The Red and Blue will need to come out unscathed from a stretch that includes Harvard and Yale, the top two teams in the conference so far this season. In addition, the Quakers will have to play Brown, which is making a late-season surge, and Dartmouth, a team that pushed Penn to overtime at the Palestra last weekend.
But all hope still isn’t lost for the Red and Blue. Last year, the Quakers had two stretches of four or more wins in a row in the Ivy League, and a similar streak now would likely secure them a spot at Yale in three weeks. Sure, this team doesn’t have Ryan Betley and Darnell Foreman, who were integral to Penn’s success in 2018. What it does have, however, is veteran leadership in seniors Antonio Woods, Jake Silpe, and Max Rothschild, and star juniors AJ Brodeur and Devon Goodman.
Those players were all part of the Quakers’ Ancient Eight title last year, and they all know what it takes to achieve a sustained level of excellence in Ivy League play.
“I believe in this group,” coach Steve Donahue said. “I believe in Max and Jake and AJ and Jackson [Donahue] and what the program’s built on. They’re going to give their best, and I think they learned a lot over the past couple weekends going into these last two.”
There’s no doubt that the Quakers have struggled over the first four weekends of Ivy competition. They haven’t been able to find the same rhythm they had on offense last year, and they’ve had several missteps late in games that have led to crushing defeats.
Against Cornell on Saturday, however, the Red and Blue were able to find some of that old mojo. Down by two points at halftime and with their postseason hopes hanging in the balance, the Quakers outscored the Big Red by 20 points in the second half, taking the lead quickly and never looking back. For possibly the first time in this Ivy season, Penn seemed to regain its confidence and belief from 2018.
“There was a poise about us last year that was really one through 33 games,” Donahue said. “This year, there have been moments of brilliance when this group plays really great that the other group probably didn’t have the chance to.”
Moments of brilliance, like the win over Villanova in December, are nice, but poise that lasts for an entire season? That’s magical.
The Quakers had that magic back on Saturday, and if they keep it for two more weeks, they might just find themselves playing for an Ivy title once again.