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Penn men's basketball lost to No. 16 Kentucky 81-66 on Dec. 9.

Credit: Abhiram Juvvadi

While Penn men’s basketball put up a valiant effort against No. 16 Kentucky, the contest will be remembered as a double-digit loss in a game that the Quakers were never supposed to win in the first place, proving the team still has a long way to go. 

The Red and Blue have had an interesting start to the season to say the least. Their 6-5 record includes dominant wins against John Jay, Bucknell, and FDU-Florham, and crushing overtime defeats against Maryland Eastern Shore, Belmont, and La Salle, who beat the Quakers in the inaugural Big 5 Classic on a buzzer-beating near half-court heave. 

The clear peak of the season so far was an electric win against Villanova. However, this win has become less and less impressive after the Wildcats finished sixth in the Big 5 Classic. 

Beating the No. 21 team in the country at the time gave a glimmer of hope that a triumph against Kentucky was possible, but ultimately, the Quakers couldn’t give the student section a reason to storm the Wells Fargo Center court. 

Credit: Abhiram Juvvadi The Wells Fargo Center was host to the Penn vs. Kentucky game.

Speaking of the student section, another component that needs improvement in the world of Penn men’s basketball is its efforts to recruit students to the games. By now, everyone is familiar with the notion that Penn is not a sports school, and that may be true, but it doesn’t mean that can’t be changed

The fact that student tickets could not be purchased online in whatever quantity desired — for a game that was nowhere near sold out — is essentially a form of acceptance that the stigma around Penn sports will never change. If one of the only ways for students to get tickets to the biggest game of the season is to attend an arguably less-than-appealing Wednesday night game against FDU-Florham, it’s no wonder Wells Fargo Center was covered in a sea of Kentucky blue.

The last time the two teams faced off was Jan. 3, 2011, where Kentucky trounced the Quakers 86-62 in Lexington, Ky. In this context, an 81-66 defeat on Saturday is an improvement. Still, it’s not where the team wants to be if it wants to be considered a threat at a national level and make a run at the Ivy League Championship, and eventually, a run in the NCAA Tournament. 

For this to happen, the Quakers need to get to a point where a game against a Kentucky-caliber program is not just a fun novelty or a cool promotional opportunity, but rather a truly winnable game in their schedule. The Villanova win was fun, and it proved that basketball can matter even at a school like Penn, but it would be foolish to think it means the same as beating the Villanova of old under the helm of previous coach Jay Wright. 

“This group has been down a few times and they have the right makeup and grit to come back,” coach Steve Donahue said. “We’re not there yet.” 

... But they could be, and Donahue hopes this will get done by the heart of Ivy season. 

The Red and Blue’s remaining schedule before Ancient Eight competition includes two Power Six programs in No. 3 Houston and Auburn. Capturing wins in these games would be a huge momentum push heading into the Ivy League season and could foreshadow a surpassing of pre-season expectations, in which they were picked to finish fifth, but the team may not be up for the challenge yet. 

Fortunately, the Quakers are young, and will ideally have freshmen guards Tyler Perkins and Sam Brown for the remainder of their college careers. They could be a part of the catalysts that change the identity surrounding Penn basketball. 

“I told [Donahue] that I woke up at four this morning worried about this game. Every time I watch tape they’re making 25 threes, they’re jacking balls, they’re back cutting. I think we had a pretty good game plan of what to do, but it doesn’t matter. They run their stuff,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. 

Credit: Abhiram Juvvadi John Calipari, the head coach of the Kentucky Wildcats, coaching vs. Penn on Dec. 9.

Maybe Calipari will have to wake up to prepare at 3 a.m. the next time the Quakers face off against his Wildcats, but there’s a long road ahead for the Red and Blue before it gets to that point. 

ETHAN CRAWFORD is a freshman and current sports reporter studying economics and political science from Los Angeles. All comments should be directed to