Penn basketball finally looks for real in Ivy League | Mike Jensen

Penn players Max Rothschild (left), Ryan Betley (center) and AJ Brodeur play Princeton on Jan 6.

A question you hear lately: Is Penn strong enough to win the Ivy League? The answer is slightly different than it would have been two years ago. Under the old time-honored Ancient Eight format, the Quakers would have had to win the regular-season title to get into the NCAAs. (That answer would have been maybe.)

Now the right question is, are the Quakers good enough to get in the four-team Ivy League playoffs at the Palestra, and win two games in two days against the league’s best?

The answer now: Yes, most certainly.

Let’s go ahead and throw some expectations on Steve Donahue’s emerging squad. Call the Quakers the close second choice right now behind defending champ Princeton. (Ken Pomeroy’s performance rankings, by the way, have it that way. Princeton first, followed by Penn, Harvard, Yale, Brown.)

Look at the Ivy League standings, and it is striking that only Penn and Princeton have records above .500. Penn is 12-5. Princeton is 9-8, after Penn beat Princeton at the Palestra.

Harvard and Yale, both picked to contend, are 8-9 and 6-10. Harvard and Yale were picked first and second in the preseason, followed by Princeton and Penn. Tough early season schedules can add toughness but take away confidence.Yes, early-season injuries are always a factor. Harvard, in particular, needs to regain its mojo after losing close games to Vermont and Wofford to end its nonconference portion.

Penn, meanwhile, now seems to think it will win the close ones. Do the Quakers need to tighten some things up? Absolutely. Some turnovers you saw over the weekend as Penn held off Cornell and Columbia would eventually do in the Quakers if they keep committing them. Free-throw shooting is another issue. Penn struggled to make them against Cornell, nailed them to secure the Columbia W.

My unscientific pulled-out-back-pocket percentage odds of Penn making March Madness: 28 percent.

Camera icon Steven M. Falk
Penn’s head coach Steve Donahue calls plays against La Salle in November. STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

Penn started out 0-6 last season in the Ivies and had to grind all the way into the tournament. When you ask Donahue about his team handling prosperity, he agrees it’s an issue to be discussed. Penn talked about it at halftime against Columbia, how the other guys were hungry and desperate, and the Quakers had been back on their heels a bit.

“I never want to lose that 0-6 chip on our shoulder,’’ Donahue said. “That started this whole process. It’s my job to make sure it’s not lost.”

Some more observations

Most frustrating win: If Temple is good enough to win at SMU, where nobody wins, the Owls should not have been 1-5 in the American coming out of the weekend.

Most brutal loss: Yes, Temple should have done little things to secure the Memphis game before the last seconds. Still, when you block a pass and the passer chases down the deflection, turns and throws in a desperation three-point game-winner, you know the hoop gods are not on your bench. Temple radio man Harry Donahue summed it up: “We just saw Murphy’s Law.”

Don’t go to UMass: That was the message for local Atlantic Ten teams. Especially don’t think a big double-digit lead is safe in Amherst. If you started to think maybe La Salle and St. Joseph’s could make an A-10 tournament run, failure to hold leads at UMass threw some water on that hope.

Hawks’ issue: St. Joe’s, the most injury-smacked local squad, has young big men with offensive skill. But UMass came back from a 16-point second-half deficit by getting to the rim. Ten out of 17 second-half UMass field goals were at the rim. Given that the Minutemen also made 10 of 23 three-pointers, that was a recipe for defeat.

A rivalry coming alive: Drexel-Delaware isn’t a game that will determine the Colonial just yet, but both programs have shown signs of life. So a 72-66 Blue Hens W at the Carpenter Center is worth noting. Also worth noting there is no sophomore slump for Archbishop Carroll graduate Ryan Daly, averaging 17.4 points to lead the Blue Hens, who are 4-2 in the CAA but with a tough run ahead.

Brodeur’s big night: Penn’s AJ Brodeur said he doesn’t like to think too much about the personal aspects of basketball. It’s a team game, he said. “I’m all about that.” However, when Columbia left the  6-foot-8 sophomore alone above the arc, his man staying deep in the paint, “for me that was more just shooting the shots. I was trying to prove something. … I’m used to being guarded a little bit.”

Brodeur also says he has to stop letting a first-shot make or miss in a game affect his confidence. “Once I get more mentally tough … I still have a ways to go,  but I think we’re well on our way.”

A mature admission from an accomplished player who hit six threes against Columbia, doubling his career high.

Donahue said that since he’s playing two big men with Max Rothschild and Brodeur, “just for spacing reasons, one of them has to be able to shoot. … He still doesn’t have a pedigree for what that feels like. He’s put a ton of work in. … He’s a bring-your-lunch pail type of dude, and we’re asking him, by the way, slow down and take a breath and be a three-point shooter.”

Villanova stat of the week: The Wildcats have an effective field-goal percentage of 60.4, accounting for three-point shots counting, well, three points. That percentage, a good barometer of how you’re really shooting it, is first in the nation. Other City 6 D-I rankings: Penn 111th, Temple 236th, La Salle 245th, Drexel 259th, St. Joe’s 297th. (Yes, the Hawks miss Charlie Brown and Fresh Kimble desperately.)

Camera icon Elizabeth Robertson
VCU’s Marcus Santos-Silva (left) and La Salle’s B.J. Johnson go head-to-head earlier in January. ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

Obvious statement of the week: The La Salle Explorers missed B.J. Johnson.

Marketing deal of the week: Penn basketball and Uber announced a partnership that included Penn students getting “free rides from University City to the Palestra for select home games.”

Penn students need rides from University City to the Palestra? Isn’t the Palestra in University City?