Penn men’s basketball is at a critical point in the season.
On Friday and Saturday, the Quakers will host Columbia and Cornell, respectively, at the Palestra. The Red and Blue (15-9, 3-5 Ivy) are currently in fifth place in the Ivy League, tied with Brown. Columbia (6-16, 1-7) sits in the basement, while Cornell (13-11, 5-3) is tied for third with Princeton.
With the introduction of the Ivy League Tournament in 2017, which includes the top four teams in the standings, a team can rally late in the season. Two years ago, Penn shook off an 0-6 League start to sneak its way into the Ivy Tournament and have a chance to play its way into the NCAA Tournament. With that in mind, anything is possible.
“Seventy percent of [games in the Ivy League] end in a four point difference or less or overtime,” coach Steve Donahue said. “With the addition of the Tournament over the last couple years, teams just don’t quit. They know that they can win a couple games and they’re right back in the race.”
Penn is by no means eliminated from contention, but this weekend is an important stepping stone to build positive momentum in conference play. They currently sit two games behind Princeton and Cornell, having dropped all three matchups against these teams.
With just six games remaining for each team, the Red and Blue's matchup against Cornell is crucial. A loss against Cornell would mean Penn would be the odd man out if the two teams end with the same regular season record.
“I think we are settling into a rhythm right now, and not necessarily in a good way. We’re starting to get complacent, starting to settle for where we’re at right now,” junior forward AJ Brodeur said. “I’d say everyone on our team isn’t comfortable with that, in theory, but when it comes to the games we’re not taking that extra step to get where we need to be.”
In the Columbia game, the Red and Blue survived a 27-point effort by sophomore guard Gabe Stefanini. In the Cornell loss, Penn was leading, 71-70, when senior guard Matt Morgan pushed the Big Red to a late 10-0 run and secured the victory. According to senior guard Antonio Woods, the Quakers will need to play consistently on defense to find a groove in conference play.
“We take pride in playing defense. Between me and [junior guard Devon Goodman], I feel like we’ll be able to keep them in check,” Woods said. “[Morgan] had a hot hand, got to the foul line, made some free throws, and that’s been a big emphasis this week. We have to limit easy buckets and defend without fouling. Keep them from the free-throw line, make them take tough twos, and we’ll live with it.”
“In all my time here, [Morgan is] as good an offensive player as we have in the League,” Donahue said.
It’s do or die time, and the road to the Ivy League Tournament continues with the two vital matchups this weekend.