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Sophomore guard Clark Slajchert dribbles the ball behind his back during the game against Lafayette on Nov. 16.

Credit: Sukhmani Kaur

When coach Steve Donahue and the Penn men’s basketball team landed in Philadelphia on Monday afternoon, it marked the end of an almost two-week road trip. Over the course of just 10 days, the Quakers played five games. In those games, the team went 1-4, bringing the team's record on the season to 3-6.

Now, the team is back in the City of Brotherly Love for the foreseeable future, and is gearing up for the next chunk of its season: Big 5 play. On Wednesday night, Donahue’s squad will host Jay Wright’s Villanova Wildcats, who will enter the contest ranked No. 6 in the AP Poll.

The game will kick off a stretch of four straight Big 5 contests for the Quakers, who will face Villanova, Temple, Saint Joseph’s, and La Salle in the coming weeks. It’s a stretch of games with big implications for Penn’s season, and the stakes are not lost on anyone in Penn’s locker room.

“I think we recruit these guys for these types of games,” Donahue said. “At the Palestra, sold out, [against] a two-time national champion … There’s only four Big 5 games, they’re all really special.”

Villanova will arrive Wednesday night on the heels of its first Big 5 win of the season, a 72-46 dismantling of La Salle at the Palestra. Wright’s group is headlined by first team preseason All-American Collin Gillespie, and features a talented starting five rounded out by Brandon Slater, Eric Dixon, Justin Moore, and Jermaine Samuels.

Despite playing with a shallow lineup in most games this season — in many games Wright has only gone two-deep on his bench — the Wildcats have cruised through non-conference play. Villanova's only two losses this season came against a pair of AP top-five programs in No. 2 Purdue and No. 5 UCLA, and neither game was decided by more than nine points.

Penn, on the other hand, has had an up-and-down start to the season, often struggling to stay competitive against top teams.

“At this point, we haven’t been successful against really good teams yet,” Donahue said. “We’ve competed, but I think the even bigger challenge is ‘how do we get over the hump and beat a really good team?’”

The Quakers hope Wednesday night will be their breakthrough game: one that might change the course of the team’s season and put it firmly in place to secure its second Big 5 crown in the last three seasons.

In order to do so, however, the team will have to work around several injuries. Two of the Quakers’ most utilized big men this season — Max Lorca-Lloyd and Nick Spinoso — will be out for Wednesday night. The team is also at risk of missing leading scorer Jordan Dingle, who is recovering from an illness that forced him to miss Sunday’s game at Arkansas.

Unlike Villanova, which has operated with a consistent starting lineup this season, Penn has been forced to alter its rotation as injuries have popped up. This year’s Quakers team is also no stranger to playing against big-time programs, as the Red and Blue already played two road games against nationally-ranked teams in Florida State and Arkansas. Not being at full strength has hurt the Quakers in some ways this season, but in others, it has prepared them for games like this.  

“Guys like Clark Slajchert and what you saw in his growth from the Florida State [game] to Arkansas last night, and even Jelani Williams and Jonah Charles … having all those experiences and now going into Villanova, you’re not going to be surprised by their length, athleticism, and the physicality of the game. I think it’s almost like we know what to expect,” Donahue said. 

While Dingle has been the team’s most consistent offensive producer, the emergence of Slajchert, Williams, and Charles — none of whom had played a college basketball game prior to this season — has forced opposing teams to plan for a variety of playmakers. 

“Slajchert had a monster game against Arkansas,” Wright said. “So you know he’s capable of doing that … you know those other guys, Charles, Williams, those guys are experienced and they’re capable of going off too."

Villanova will enter Wednesday night's game as the favorite to not just win, but win big. But that was also the case three years ago, when Penn upset the Wildcats and soiled Villanova's Big 5 title hopes. Wright knows that no matter how the teams seem to match up going into the game, nothing is a guarantee when playing the Quakers. 

“You know, they’re a tough team to prepare for … all of their guys are really smart basketball players,” Wright said at Villanova’s Tuesday evening press conference. “That’s why they always give us trouble, because any one of the guys can get it going.”

The Quakers will turn to their deep rotation on Wednesday night, when Penn will look to recreate that 2018 magic in the halls of the Palestra once more.