Two wins this weekend puts Penn men's basketball in great shape toward making a strong push toward the Ivy League Tournament. Two losses puts the team in desperation mode.
The Quakers will take on Harvard on Friday and Dartmouth the following day, both at the Palestra.
This season for the Quakers (8-7, 0-2 Ivy) has been defined by inconsistency. They have had some great performances, beating a tough, physical Alabama team on the road and hanging around until the final minutes against No. 8 Villanova, but they have also suffered back-to-back losses against Ivy rival Princeton and an ugly shootout loss to 4-16 Saint Joseph's.
“I think the scheduling unfortunately had a lot to do with [our inconsistency]. We have to be the only team in Division I history to play one Division I game over, I think, a 34-day stretch,” coach Steve Donahue said.
Despite this, this team remains confident. The Quakers have seen how good they can be when they’re sharing the ball, being gritty on defense, taking care of the ball, and taking good shots.
“We’re a team that’s capable of making a deep run into the NCAA Tournament. [We’re] certainly capable of winning the Ivy League,” freshman guard Jordan Dingle said. “Once all the pieces are clicking together, we’re a really, really good team.”
The Red and Blue have started to regain their footing. Following a three-game losing streak, they bounced back last Saturday to beat Big 5 foe Temple. In order to maintain their momentum into conference play, they may need even more out of their freshmen.
“We’re putting a lot on the young guys,” senior forward AJ Brodeur said. “As time goes on and they get more and more experience in our league, you’ll start to see more and more consistency, not just out of them but out of everyone.”
Harvard (13-4, 2-0), on the other hand, has found its consistency. The Crimson have won eight games in a row and are 2-0 in the Ivy League. Its last two losses came against two teams, USC and Maryland, that received votes last week to be in the top 25 nationally.
The uncertainty heading into the game Friday is whether or not Harvard leading scorer Bryce Aiken will play, although that currently seems unlikely. He has been out since Dec. 21, and there is still no timetable for his return. Last year, Aiken scored 19 points and played a key role in eliminating Penn from the Ivy League Tournament.
The uncertainty surrounding Aiken doesn’t bother Dingle.
“[My approach changes] none whatsoever. I approach every game the same way,” Dingle said.
The uncertainty around Aiken hasn’t bothered Harvard, either. The Crimson haven’t missed a beat, going 6-0 without him. That includes a win against Cal, which plays in the Pac-12.
After the Harvard game, the Quakers' tough weekend will continue. They have to turn around and play Dartmouth (7-10, 0-2) the next day, only their second back-to-back of the season.
Dartmouth, at least on paper, poses a smaller threat than Harvard. The Big Green have dropped five consecutive games, including their first two Ivy League games against Harvard.
In its most recent loss to Harvard, the Big Green missed 15 consecutive shots in a row from beyond the arc. Despite this issue with shooting, Dartmouth wasn't far behind by the end, losing by a score of 70-66.
If Penn wants to have a serious chance in the Ivy League this year, winning at home against Dartmouth is a must. We’ll see if the Quakers are up to the challenge.