It's been just two games, but we already have plenty of hoops to talk about. After a 14-point season-opening win vs. UMBC, Penn went wire-to-wire with Temple at the Palestra on Monday night, eventually falling in overtime. Fans who followed the team last year can relate to my esteemed colleague Brian Kotloff's column (written in beautiful prose) about how, for yet another time, the Quakers battled a superior team talent-wise, but came up just short in the upset. Penn was just 1-4 in overtime games a year ago, including a brutal stretch of three straight OT losses to Harvard, Princeton, and Cornell — which begs the question ...
Question: How do you explain Penn's failures in OTs dating back to last year?
Brian Kotloff: There are always a handful of physical and/or psychological factors in struggles like the ones Penn has endured. To start, you need to factor in that in many of these games, Penn has been not only been the underdog, but has had to rally back from deep holes. So when the game evens back up in OT, the team with more energy and more talent -- the Quakers' opponent -- comes out on top. That explains the OT losses at La Salle, vs. Harvard and at Princeton last year, and now vs. Temple this year. Remember, they still beat Brown in OT in February.
I think the common thread through the losses is that each game could have been the signature win that propelled the program back to an elite level, and each time the team let victory slip through its grasp. When they beat Cornell in 2010, all the pressure was off -- they were 3-15 entering that game. A win at La Salle would have been Penn's first Big 5 win in four years (it came later over St. Joe's), while wins over Harvard and/or Princeton would have vaulted Penn into Ivy League contention. Last night, the Quakers couldn't close out what would have been their most impressive win in years. Of course I can't know what's running through players' heads, but maybe each time they thought, 'Wow, here's that impact win we've been waiting for,' and the moment overwhelmed them. That would explain why each opportunity was lost with simple miscues —missed layups, boneheaded decisions, turnovers, etc. — that make each extremely frustrating.
Kevin Esteves: I think you also have to factor in what a slim margin for error there has been in these OT games. As you said, the Harvard and Princeton losses were marked by early deficits. You have to play pretty flawless basketball over an extended period of time just to close that kind of gap, and then you still have to continue that play through overtime. That's just a really hard thing to do, so I would chalk those losses last year more to inconsistent play to start the game, which stacked the odds against them. (And the Cornell OT loss was just a case of a team that was mentally and physically drained).
Against this Temple team, there's also a slim margin just because of how good the Owls are. It really does have to be a 40 (or 45) minute stretch of really solid basketball. Penn did that Monday night, but I think execution down the stretch was a little spotty. I don't necessarily blame them for riding Rosen's hot hand — at that time, with the way he was playing, that gave them the best chance to win. But, as we've noted, other guys will have to step up so that the late-game offense is less predictable.
BK: And that last point is crucial when you look at trying to overcome this problem. The slim margin for error you mentioned is even slimmer when Penn's secondary scorers aren't contributing at their typical level. Teams with superior size and athleticism can then focus on Rosen defensively, and Penn has no shot winning a 1-on-5 battle against an elite team. Going forward against the likes of Pitt, Villanova, UCLA and Duke (and of course into the Ivy season), Tyler Bernardini and Miles Cartwright will be critical in providing scoring on the wing to keep defenses honest.
From a mental standpoint, the Quakers need to somehow, someway muster the same intensity they took into the Temple game when they play teams like Rider, Robert Morris and James Madison. This team has performed best when it feels slighted as an underdog, when the players need to rally around and believe in each other most. You can't re-create or feign that feeling in games against more evenly matched, lower-profile teams, but you can bring similar focus and desire. If the players don't hang their heads after Monday's crushing loss, it will turn out to be a positive going forward. After all, the Quakers played fantastic basketball over large stretches of each of these OT losses.
KE: Absolutely, this team has definitely showed it has some fight in it. And I do believe that Tyler and Miles will each have a handful of big games this year. That said, the Quakers also need something beyond that perimeter scoring, especially in late-game situations. They need that inside-outside game to be able to finish off teams in OT or to climb back into games when the going's getting rough. Some nights the shots don't fall, so you need to be able to dump it down to Fran Dougherty to open things up. If he can continue to polish his post moves, he will be hugely important whenever Penn needs to stop the bleeding, draw a foul, or just mix things up. Balance is key.
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