January 9th, 2016 is not a pleasant memory for most Penn basketball fans. Normally it would be. That night, Penn was opening up its Ivy League season at home, in front of a packed crowd, to face off against their archrival, the Princeton Tigers. It was an oddly warm day for early January with a high of 54 degrees, 14 degrees above the normal average. It was supposed to be the storybook beginning to Steve Donahue’s first Ivy League game as Penn’s head coach.
But hours before the game, it was announced that Antonio Woods would be out for the season, and maybe even longer, due to academics. It didn’t faze the Quakers though. Behind freshmen Jake Silpe and Jackson Donahue and senior center Darien Nelson-Henry, the Quakers dove on the floor for balls, pushed their way to fight for rebounds, and forced overtime against one of the Ivy League’s top teams. Without Woods, Penn was not supposed to compete. They were supposed to get beat by 20. The Quakers just didn’t have enough to pull out the win, losing 73-71, despite leading for much of the second half of the game. In the press conference after, Donahue fought back tears. The magnitude of this rivalry was clear right then and there.
Fast forward 428 days and the Quakers have come full circle. Tomorrow, they will appear in the first ever Ivy League Conference Tournament after magically turning around a 0-6 conference record. They will, of course, face Princeton.
Still, they find themselves in a similar situation. They’re the underdog. They’re the younger, less experienced team. They’re once again without Woods.
The Quakers sport only two seniors, and one of them, Dylan Jones, hasn’t even played a game this season because of an injury. 3 of their 5 leading scorers are underclassmen, while freshman sensation AJ Brodeur leads all Penn players with 13.9 points per game.
Meanwhile, 10 of the Tigers’ 18 players are upperclassmen. They have the Ivy League Player of the Year (Steven Weisz), Defensive Player of the Year (Myles Stephens), and Coach of the Year (Mitch Henderson). They went undefeated in conference play and are easily the tournament’s favorites. It’s no secret that the Quakers will have their work cut out for them.
They will have to start by maintaining Princeton’s balanced scoring attack that includes four players averaging double digit points. The Tigers follow that up by having four players in the regular rotation who shoot 40% or above from three. As a team, they only have 273 total turnovers on the year (10 per game), which is 1st in the country. But Princeton’s most impressive aspect is their defense. They allow only 61.5 points per game (9th in the country) by holding opponents to shoot 42% (1st in the Ivy League) from the field against them.
“They play with such confidence,” Brodeur said before Saturday’s game. “They have such good leaders on their team and they’re very experienced, which goes a long way, especially in the Ivy League. Everyone [on Princeton] is taught to play the right way. The teams that end up doing the best are the teams that...play the right way, play smart, play within themselves, and play to their level of talent. That’s what I think they do best.”
Penn will look to rally behind Brodeur and senior guard Matt Howard. The team’s clear leaders on the court dictate the tone offensively and defensively. Howard, who exploded for a game-high 24 points and 12 rebounds last week against Harvard, will try to bounce back after scoring a combined 3 points in his first two outings against Princeton. Brodeur similarly struggled against Princeton’s stout defense this season, only scoring a combined 16 points on 5-14 shooting in both games. It’s no surprise why they lost both of those games. Brodeur and Howard will have help now from emerging freshmen, Ryan Betley and Devin Goodman, both of whom have played a major role in the team’s turnaround.
“The freshmen are really talented,” Howard said when asked about what has been different about this season. “They contributed a lot this year. They stepped in and were ready to play.”
Many will point to Penn’s youth as a reason they won’t be able to hang in. But Penn has already been in multiple elimination game scenarios. Ever since going 0-6, they’ve had their back against the wall. Once they noticed that the conference tournament was actually a possibility, it took some time for Donahue’s team to fathom that. In close losses to Columbia and Dartmouth down the stretch, the team played “tight,” according to Donahue, afraid to lose with so much on the line. Last weekend, with opportunity to go to the Ivy League Tournament looming once again, the Quakers finally played free in their final regular game against Harvard.
“I sensed the change before the Harvard game,” Donahue remembered. “The locker room was different. The vibe was different. The excitement level was different. I thought we played as good of a basketball game as we played all year.”
They’ll need that same ease against one of the best Ivy League teams in recent memory. They’re lucky, however, that they even have the opportunity.
“For the first time in league history,” Donahue added, “we can set the reset button.”
Penn faces Princeton at 1:30 PM tomorrow at The Palestra. The game will be aired on ESPNU.
Photo: Charles Fox/The Philadelphia Inquirer