Temple, Harvard, Dartmouth, Columbia, and Cornell. That makes five wins in a row for Penn men's basketball. After this weekend, this streak might be extended to seven.
Back-to-back Ivy Weekend sweeps have helped the the Red and Blue (12-7, 4-2 Ivy) recover from an 0-2 start to League play. This weekend, the Quakers will return to the Palestra for a chance to test themselves against two teams currently in a position to make the Ivy League Tournament.
Depending on how they perform against first-place Yale (17-5, 5-1) and fourth-place Brown (11-8, 4-2), combined with how current second-place Princeton does this weekend, the Quakers can either land themselves in first or fall out of the running for the Ivy Tournament.
Improved offensive consistency is one reason the Quakers have found themselves in this position. After averaging just 61 points per game in the two losses to the Tigers, the Quakers have scored at least 75 points in three out of their last four Ivy League contests.
“I think we got back to playing with a really good understanding of how we are going to score in the half-court,” coach Steve Donahue said. “We started playing through the shot clock a little more, we didn’t settle for some bad shots that I think we did over that [losing streak].”
Though the Quakers haven’t had stellar three-point shooting recently, making under 30% from distance in both games last weekend, the team shot over 68% inside the arc to make up the difference.
Penn’s revamped offense will certainly be challenged by Yale’s League-best defense. On top of this, the Quakers will be forced to contend with the loss of senior guard Ryan Betley, who missed Sunday’s game after suffering an ankle injury against Columbia.
“He’s what we say is week-to-week in our league; he’s not going to play this weekend,” Donahue said.
Betley’s 12.4 points per game is good for the fourth best on the team. However, the biggest hole the Quakers will need to fill will be the lack of a consistent three-point threat, as Betley is second on the team, shooting 36% from three.
On Sunday, Donahue may have found a replacement in freshman forward Max Martz, who impressed with 17 points in the win over Cornell. Beyond his height and rebounding capabilities, Martz brings a dangerous three-point shot. The freshman has connected on 49% of his attempts from deep this season.
“Max gives us somebody else who can stretch the floor,” Donahue said. “He just knows how we want to play, for a young guy his ability to cut is outstanding.”
While the Quakers are worried about replacing Betley, they are also focused on making sure they get the job done in what may be the most important weekend of their season.
First up for the Red and Blue is a contest with Brown, who have nearly matched the Quakers result for result. After dropping both games to their travel partner, Yale, Brown enters the weekend as the only other Ivy League team that has won four consecutive games. As both teams enter Friday’s contest with the same conference record, the outcome of this game will go a long way toward determining who will make Ivy Madness. The winner will hold a one-game advantage and the tiebreaker.
“Every time we play Brown we are prepared to get into a shootout,” senior forward AJ Brodeur said.
If the Quakers are able to defeat Brown, and Yale also beats Princeton on Friday, Saturday will be a crucial night. Pending a win against the Elis, a feat that seemed unlikely two weeks ago, the Red and Blue will be poised to be first in the League.
The task is easier said than done, as Yale has been perhaps the best team in the Ivy League all season. The Bulldogs enter the weekend with just one conference loss — a last-second heartbreaker to Harvard. They average the most points scored and fewest allowed per game among the Ancient Eight, and sit at No. 50 nationally according to KenPom.
“From the beginning of the year, Yale probably surprised people because they lost four really good players,” Donahue said. “It's almost like at this point their program is to where they just substitute guys in.”
“They just have a lot of experience, and their leadership really trickles down to their younger talent,” Brodeur agreed. “I think we are similar teams especially in terms of the mental aspect.”
Yale has been led this season by a dangerous duo of juniors, forward Paul Atkinson and guard Azar Swain, who combine for an average of 34 points a contest. The Elis are especially successful beyond the arc, boasting a 38% three-point percentage on the season.
In a huge weekend of Ivy League basketball, it will be clear whether Penn has what it takes to contend for the Ivy title, or if the season will come down to tiebreakers as it did last year.