After Penn fell to 2-10 on the season with a lifeless 76-57 loss to La Salle last Saturday, Quakers head coach Jerome Allen talked about forgetting the previous 40 minutes and moving on.
Luckily for Penn, it’s the perfect time to wipe the slate clean as the Quakers not only begin conference play Saturday but do so by welcoming hated Ivy League rival Princeton to the Palestra (6 p.m., NBCSN).
“Right now, it’s all we're focused on,” Penn senior forward Fran Dougherty said shortly after the La Salle loss, Penn’s seventh straight setback. “Let’s put this behind us and really just get ready for the Ivy League.”
The Penn-Princeton rivalry is one of the most storied ones in college basketball, with the Quakers holding a 123-105 lead in the all-time series (which can be seen on a scoreboard in the Palestra halls). But while these games used to almost always determine the Ivy champion -- either Penn or Princeton represented the league in every NCAA tournament from 1989 to 2007 -- the two rivals have since been surpassed by Harvard, the heavy favorite to win its fourth straight conference title.
The Quakers were actually picked to finish second in the Ivies but enter the league schedule with the third-lowest RPI (299) in the conference, ahead of only Dartmouth and Cornell. Meanwhile, with an RPI of 60 and an 11-2 record, Princeton looks to be Harvard’s biggest roadblock to the NCAA tournament.
But for the struggling Quakers, none of that matters now.
“We’re 0-0 in the Ivy League,” Dougherty said. “That’s how we’re looking at. Until we start playing those games, who knows? Anyone can be Ivy League champion.”
Still, there’s no denying Penn’s first 12 games were incredibly disappointing. Struggling through injuries and still looking for their best rotation, the Quakers have lost a handful of very close games and also been on the wrong end of a couple of drubbings.
But if standout center Darien Nelson-Henry can return from a concussion and versatile swingman Julian Harrell from a knee injury, the Quakers believe they have enough talent to beat Princeton on Saturday and then begin their quest for the program’s first Ivy title since 2007.
And for Dougherty and fellow senior captain Miles Jackson-Cartwright, it will be their last chance.
“I mean, the pressure’s on right now,” Dougherty said. “That’s what it feels like. Something’s got to change. We’ve just got to buy in a little bit more and hopefully some things start to click this Saturday.”