At any level, the college basketball season is demanding both physically and mentally, but the season becomes especially demanding during conference play. However, teams in the Ivy League have an extra challenge to deal with — the Ivy Weekend.
The Ivy Weekend refers to the Ivy League’s unique approach to scheduling games, in which 12 of each team's 14 conference contests are played back-to-back on Friday and Saturday of each week from late January to early March.
In a move announced Tuesday, however, only six games will be played back-to-back starting next year to minimize the number of times that teams need to make lengthy road trips on consecutive days.
For Penn men’s and women’s basketball, the Ivy Weekend poses several challenges that only add to the mental and physical demands of the college basketball season.
“It’s a lot more physically and mentally exhausting,” senior forward and men's basketball captain AJ Brodeur said. “Those [are] long road trips to Harvard, Dartmouth, and Yale; you see it on your schedule, and you know you’re going to have to power through it.”
With traditional scheduling used by other conferences, players will often have several days of practice following a game. It is during this time that teams have the chance to address the result of the previous game and learn from it moving forward.
“Usually when you lose a game, there’s a grieving period, whatever it is: You’re angry, or you’re sad, or you’re happy,” men's coach Steve Donahue said. “You have none of that on Friday night [of Ivy Weekends]. You almost have to build your mind up before this happens [and say] no matter what happens, I’m moving on.”
The Ivy Weekend leaves teams with no time to dwell on the result of Friday night’s outcome. While it is human nature to want to reflect on an important result in the past, Penn men’s and women’s basketball know that they must set their focus on the future.
“We have to get on to the next game. As a player, you have to automatically switch that, and I think it comes from within,” senior guard and women's basketball captain Phoebe Sterba said. “We have to move forward because [the next game] is literally in the next 24 hours.”
Due to the unique challenges that the Ivy Weekend poses to teams, Penn’s coaches have tried to find ways to simulate the experience of playing multiple games back-to-back.
“One thing we do is try to play preseason tournaments that are back-to-back to get a feeling [of what Ivy Weekends are like],” Donahue said. “We talked to [the players] a lot about it in California [in the Wooden Legacy tournament] when the turnaround is similar to what an Ivy League Weekend is. That being said, you’re not taking a four-hour bus ride in between as well.”
In addition to being mentally and physically exhausting, the Ivy Weekend poses another unique challenge to Penn student-athletes: keeping up with Ivy League academics.
“To prepare for the Ivy League weekend, [you need to] stay ahead on schoolwork and make sure there are no distractions,” senior guard and women’s basketball captain Kendall Grasela said. “I think that’s a big thing especially coming in [as a freshman]; you’re worried about school and what work you’re missing."
Although the stress of keeping up with schoolwork could be a potential distraction for Penn student-athletes, both teams have prioritized staying in the moment and focusing on the game at hand.
“We have to focus on basketball while we’re in the moment and block out those four hours [to compete],” Grasela said.
The Ivy League Weekend can serve as a test of how hard a team has worked to prepare itself for the mental and physical challenges of the college basketball season. While some teams may dread the challenges that the Ivy Weekend poses, Penn men’s and women’s basketball have chosen to embrace the unique nature of their conference schedule.
“[We] try to hype up the Ivy League Weekends because no other conference does a back-to-back consistently like that, and it’s really hard,” Sterba said. “So, you kind of have to look at yourself and be like, ‘Wow, we’re really cool that we do this.’ [The fact that] our bodies can get through this is a reflection of how hard we play and how aware the coaches are.”
This weekend, both Penn teams will begin their Ivy Weekend slate, as the men’s team will host Harvard and Dartmouth at the Palestra, and the women’s team will make the bus ride up to Cambridge, Mass. and Hanover, N.H. to take on the Crimson and Big Green.