Around this point in the season two years ago, former Daily Pennsylvanian Senior Sports Editor Jonathan Pollack declared Penn men's basketball dead after a disastrous 0-6 start to Ivy League play. In the following weeks, the team rallied to win six of its final eight games and snuck into the inaugural Ivy League tournament as the fourth and final team, posting a 6-8 conference record.
Don't get me wrong, we're not writing the team off this season, not yet at least, but a similar winning stretch wouldn't be the worst thing that could happen to the Red and Blue, currently 3-5 among Ancient Eight opposition after this weekend.
Penn has shown its ability to hang with its conference foes time and time again, but after another disappointing weekend split that saw the team only claim one victory from a pair of winnable games, one can only wonder how much more leeway this team will have before its shot at repeating as Ivy champs evaporates.
The team's first full weekend at the Palestra started on a shaky but positive note with Penn sliding past a pesky Dartmouth side in overtime by a 82-79 score. A win is a win, but that doesn't mean the Quakers made it any easier on themselves, needing all of a career-high 36 points from junior forward AJ Brodeur to escape with the victory.
Just like Friday night, Saturday's game also went to overtime, but this time the team found itself on the wrong end of the result in a 75-68 defeat. What would have been a season-changing win over Harvard was within reach, and the Quakers know that a few costly mistakes down the stretch, like letting a six-point lead vanish through a pair of Bryce Aiken threes in the final minute, kept them from achieving the sweep.
A victory would have seen the Red and Blue back at .500 in conference play, but instead they find themselves sitting fifth of eight teams and two games behind Cornell and Princeton — teams Penn is a combined 0-3 against this season — who are tied for third.
That's not to say there's no hope left.
The Quakers showed flashes of brilliance in both games, like when the team found itself down 11 early in the second half against the Big Green and charged back within six minutes to regain the lead, or when Penn's defense limited Harvard to just nine points in the game's opening 10 minutes.
But there were also the bad plays and mistakes that continue to plague the Red and Blue. The two games saw the home side commit 16 and 14 turnovers, respectively, an increase from the season average of 12.9 coming into the weekend. These are the smallest of preventable errors that can come back to impact the team in the worst possible way.
These mistakes are extra damaging with Ancient Eight competition among the tightest as it's been in recent years.
All eight of this weekend's Ivy games were decided by 10 or fewer points, and three of them went into overtime. Every team is still mathematically alive, so nobody will be taking it easy with six League games remaining on the schedule.
This season has been a milestone one for the Quakers in terms of non-conference play, but while a Big 5 title means a lot for the team and the program as a whole, it won't fill the void if Penn misses out on Ivy Madness, especially after last year's success and the national attention the team was exposed to after the Miami (Fla.) and Villanova wins in December.
Penn has a chance — possibly its last — to right the ship when Columbia and Cornell visit the Palestra next weekend. Anything less than a sweep at home could mean endgame when it comes to the postseason.
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