My range of emotions on Sunday swung from unadulterated joy as I rushed the Palestra floor to celebrate Penn’s 68-65 win over Harvard to mouth-agape shock as I stood in the back of Houston Hall at Penn’s selection show watch party and saw the Quakers on the 16 line against Kansas.
As fellow IHO contributor Steven Tydings and I rode the bus home to New York, I started to think of a plan for the Quakers to do the impossible and topple a No. 1 seed for the first time in men’s NCAA Tournament history.
The basic points of that plan, some of which you’ve probably already heard, are below:
Penn will win if …
1. Ryan Betley and Caleb Wood combine for at least five threes in the first half
To pull the upset, Penn is likely going to need to withstand a big early punch and unleash a counter of its own. The best way for the Quakers to do that will be to send a message that their long range shooting needs to be respected. Neither Ryan Betley nor Caleb Wood shot well in the first half while Harvard built its early lead. They won’t nearly have as much margin for error against a team like Kansas that has superior athleticism. Betley went 3-for-11 from distance in the Ivy League Tournament and Wood went 3-for-9, but both have the potential to get hot and shoot threes in bunches, as Wood so aptly demonstrated in Penn’s game-deciding run on Sunday.
2. The Quakers heed a lesson from their former coach
When I covered Penn basketball, Jerome Allen would frequently talk about his desire to see five players on the floor committed to playing defense and communicating. I thought it was just coachspeak at the time, but the Quakers under Steve Donahue are finally putting on display what Allen had been trying to teach all along. Penn is third in the country at limiting assists on opponents’ baskets (39.6 percent of opponent field goals are assisted), a testament to the team’s ability to seamlessly switch on and off the ball, fight through screens and help. Penn will need to maintain that discipline against Kansas’ offensive sets and force the Jayhawks’ stars to play hero ball. If Big 12 Player of the Year Devonte’ Graham wants to shoot contested threes and midrange jumpers all day, let him.
3. Penn defends the three-point line
National analysts will likely point to Penn’s 29.6 percent three-point defensive field-goal percentage as proof of the team’s defensive acumen, but that’s a bit misleading, since it takes into account open looks that opponents brick. The better indicator is the ratio of opponent three-pointers attempted to their total field goals, which factors in the ability of a team’s defense to deny open looks in the first place. Just 32.8 percent of Penn’s opponents’ field goals come from beyond the three-point line, 37th best in the country. That figure is good enough to put Penn among the better teams in the country in perimeter defense but should also destroy any illusions that the Quakers are Cincinnati or Virginia-lite. Chasing spot-up shooters like Lagerald Vick and Svi Mykhailiuk will be crucial.
Penn will lose if:
1. AJ Brodeur and Max Rothschild each pick up two fouls in the first half
Even though 7-foot center Udoka Azubuike will be extremely limited (if he even plays) Thursday, Penn can’t afford to put its two big men in early foul trouble. After Brodeur and Rothschild comes Jarrod Simmons and, well, that’s pretty much it. If Donahue is forced to dip into the ranks of untested players like Kuba Mijakowski or Collin McManus to pick up minutes, the game will be lost. Brodeur and Rothschild will need to find ways to defend without fouling against forwards like Mitch Lightfoot and Silvio De Sousa, who aren’t significantly taller than Penn’s bigs but are more athletic.
2. The game turns into a free-throw shooting contest
Penn’s free throw percentage – 66.3 percent – has been edging higher in recent weeks but is still among the worst in the nation. Ryan Betley, Caleb Wood and Darnell Foreman have been Penn’s most reliable marksmen from the stripe, but none top 80 percent. Penn can’t afford to miss 1-and-1 opportunities early in the game and leave points on the floor.
3. Its players aren’t living in an information bubble
By now, the New York Times, FiveThirtyEight, the New York Post and countless other outlets have already penned pieces pumping up the Quakers’ chances of becoming the first ever 16 seed to beat a 1 seed. That’s all well and good, but Penn is better off playing angry about being disrespected by the selection committee than playing to justify the hype from national media members. This is a team that should have been seeded one, if not two, lines higher on Sunday.
If I’m Steve Donahue (thankfully, I’m not), I would write the following quote from The Ringer’s Mark Titus on a recent One Shining Podcast episode on the whiteboard at some point before the game, to show the players there are still plenty of people with big platforms who think Penn is a joke.
“We’re paid to watch college basketball, not the Ivy League.”
Why not make him eat his words?