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Penn re-opens Ivy League play and shows its better than its record

The Quakers (3-10) won their Ivy League opener against Brown on Sunday, 77-73

NCAA Basketball: Pennsylvania at Arkansas Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

On Sunday, many college basketball fans saw something they haven’t seen in a devil of a time: Ivy League basketball.

It was 666 days to be exact and there would be no place better to tip-off action than at the cathedral of college basketball: The Palestra.

In 2019-20 the eight Ivy League institutions did not play any fall or winter sports because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some returned in spring for limited play, but all returned in the fall for a pretty hitch-free football season.

Now, as the severity of the pandemic is becoming stronger as variants run wild, it has not been all that kind to the programs. While Cornell and Dartmouth were tipping off in Ithaca, there was supposed to be a game already finished, Columbia and Yale. That along with Harvard and Princeton were postponed on Sunday.

But in University City, everything went without a hitch.

Penn announced earlier in the week that public attendance would not be allowed for the time being. This meant that only close friends and family were allowed into the Palestra for the Ivy opener with Penn, along with me and a few other media members.

The attendance number was officially tallied at 125. Penn’s longtime Sports Information Director, Mike Mahoney, said that is likely the lowest ever for men’s basketball in the 95-year history of the Palestra (put an enormously large asterisk next to that).

Penn led from pretty much start to finish, beating a very good Brown team, 77-73. The Quakers were happy to get out of non-conference as they had arguably the toughest schedule in the country, playing nine Quad 1 and 2 games. Exiting non-conference, no one had played more in the country. Not only that, but Penn went 0-9. The Quakers couldn’t wait for league play to start.

In non-conference, they played the likes of Florida State, George Mason, Utah State, Davidson, Towson, Arkansas, Villanova and Temple, with only the Villanova game at home. That is brutal for any team, regardless of whether they had a year off or not, but it surely helped them grow.

“Looking at it now, I didn’t have to play any of the games. You could tell it would be a struggle,” Penn head coach Steve Donahue said after a November loss to Towson, the eighth game in 14 days. “I probably deserve some blame here. I tried to get as much experience as we can after missing last year.”

You could see the experience of the big games played throughout the opener against Brown on Sunday, especially from freshman George Smith. The Brown game was his first start of the season, one in which he led the Quakers in scoring with 23 points. He drained all his attempts including a timely one late. Smith had not scored more than 10 points in a game before that, and it was in the non-conference finale against La Salle.

“I had to step up today because we had a couple of guys out with COVID,” said Smith postgame. “Today just happened to be my day, but it’s going to be someone else every other game.”

One constant is Jordan Dingle will be there to score for the Quakers. On Sunday, he scored 20 points for Penn, matching his average of 20 points per contest.

But they had another player complementing them on Sunday afternoon, Michael Moshkovitz. He’s was another player who seemed to get more and more playing time as his first season ensued at Penn. He scored a career-high 16 points against Brown, attempting double-digit shots for the second game in a row. Obviously, this means that he is gaining that confidence that Donahue wants out of him. Growth has been enormous throughout this program this season.

“I always say it’s the best-coached league in the country, and it has little to do with the coaches. It the players and their ability to focus and compete, no hidden agendas. Just want to help their team to win,” Donahue said.

A team who would not have that experience and adversity in the early season would’ve broken down as Brown came back from down 14 to cut it to three late. Penn responded because its been challenged throughout the year and have that little extra kick of playing in the Ivy League, a brand new season.

The Quakers may of went 3-10 in non-conference, but they scored 60 or more in all but one of those games and held Brown to the second-lowest total of points given up in the last seven. KenPom thinks they’ll only continue to roll in the Ivy League, starting out 4-0.

“If we played a very average schedule, I don’t think we would’ve been ready for Brown,” Donahue said postgame, “I think all that adversity really has made us a better team. Because we decided to be tougher, and learn from it.”

Don’t let the non-conference slate fool you, Penn is much better than its record and should be a force as always in the league. Donahue has done it before. Don’t put anything past him to do it again.