Defense wins championships.
So far, the Quakers have had a very up-and-down men’s basketball season. Currently sitting at 8-7 overall and 0-2 in Ivy League play – with both losses to Princeton – a major theme of Penn’s season so far has been inconsistency.
When they are playing at their best, such as in wins against Alabama and Temple, the Red and Blue are a very good mid-major team. It has been noted that Penn tends to win more games when it shoots three-pointers well, but there is another factor that is almost as important: defense.
After giving up a whopping 87 points to Saint Joseph’s the previous week, the Quakers significantly improved in that regard in their win over Temple on Saturday. As a result of Penn’s smothering defense, the Owls remarkably did not score for the first nine minutes of the game.
“It felt more like what we’ve been used to the last couple years in terms of defense,” coach Steve Donahue said.
Much of the Quakers’ success in the last two seasons, including a run to March Madness in 2018, has been built on their strong defense, specifically against the three-pointer. In their Ivy title-winning season, the Red and Blue were one of the top teams in the nation in that category.
However, this year, they have often struggled in that area of the game. St. Joe’s, for example, was able to shoot 44.4% from beyond the arc. Even though Penn had a solid offensive performance in that game, scoring 81 points, it lost because of its defense.
To avoid this a similar result, the Quakers made defense their focus all week coming into their last non-conference game of the season against Temple, and it paid off. Temple went a paltry 1-for-13 from three and shot just 30.7% overall.
“I thought we did a good job staying in front of them and making them shoot challenged twos, which I think is the focus of our defense on any night,” Donahue said.
To achieve this success against Temple, the Quakers turned to a variety of players on their roster.
It does not take a basketball genius to look at a stat sheet and recognize that Penn’s offense runs through senior forward AJ Brodeur. However, he also carries the load on defense as well.
“I’ve sensed a lot during the week at practice, but I think AJ is an elite defender,” Donahue said. “He’s not the biggest guy, but he can switch ball screens, he can help out and get back to his man, [and] he obviously rebounds well.”
While Brodeur has plenty of experience defending against top competition, the Red and Blue also called on a younger player in freshman center Max Lorca-Lloyd. On Saturday, he played his most minutes since a blowout win over Widener and was on the court during a crucial last-minute stand.
“I think over the last two months, if you asked me our most improved player, it’s probably Max Lorca-Lloyd. I think he has a chance to make a difference on both sides of the ball,” Donahue said. “He’s probably our most highly recruited kid we’ve ever got here. He’s got an incredible desire to be great, and he works his tail off. It was apparent that we needed something to help us on both sides of the ball, and I thought he brought that.”
Penn's defense will clearly be one of the keys to winning games in the Ivy League this year. The Quakers have proven to be lethal on offense, scoring over 80 points on several occasions, and Donahue thinks that they have the ability to be just as good on the other end of the court.
With the heart of the Ivy schedule coming up over the next six weekends, the Quakers will have their first opportunity to continue their impressive defense with a critical matchup against Harvard at the Palestra on Friday.