Every year Penn, out of the Ivy League, takes on Big East power Villanova as part of the Philadelphia City Series.
This season, the traditional in-town matchup sent the Quakers to Villanova’s campus, where the Wildcats throttled Penn, 90-62, inside tiny Jake Nevin Fieldhosue.
No one would have guessed as much from the final score, but according to Penn coach Steve Donahue the experience, if not the result, proved to set the course for the program’s first NCAA Tournament berth since 2007.
“I thought it was a great step for us,” Donahue said during a phone interview with the Journal-World. “We did not play really well in the first half, but we really competed.”
Out of that early fork on the Quakers’ path to the postseason, they went on to tie Harvard for first place in the Ivy League and win their postseason tournament, earning them a Thursday first-round matchup with Kansas, in Wichita (1 p.m., TBS).
As 16th-seeded Penn (24-8) prepares for the Jayhawks (27-7), the No. 1 seed in the Midwest region, Donahue hopes the Quakers’ experience against the East’s top seed, Villanova, will prove beneficial.
“I thought it was a good step to say, ‘You know what, now we know how good we have to get,’” Penn’s coach said.
Star Villanova guard Jalen Brunson scored 17 points on 6-for-7 shooting and made both of his 3-point tries that day, as the Wildcats improved their all-time record versus Penn to 47-18. Brunson, like KU’s Devonte’ Graham, is considered an all-America and national player of the year candidate.
Villanova made 8 of 16 from 3-point range against the Quakers, one of the best defenders of the arc in college basketball.
As Donahue referenced, Penn fell behind early and trailed by double digits for the final 29 minutes against one of the nation’s elite teams. Six-foot-8 sophomore forward A.J. Brodeur led the underdogs from the Ivy League, with 15 points, while adding seven rebounds.
Offensively, the Quakers shot just 41 percent from the field and only made 6 of 20 3-pointers in their fourth loss of November. Their best scoring run was a 5-0 minute late in the second half.
Still, Penn followed the setback by going 19-4 the rest of the season. Donahue argues his players left the most lopsided defeat on their schedule better informed if nothing else.
“I think these guys understand what Kansas is going to be like,” the coach said.
Penn hasn’t faced a team anywhere near Villanova’s caliber since. The Ivy League champ’s other losses came against teams ranked between 86th and 211th nationally by KenPom.com: at No. 211 Fairfield, No. 158 La Salle, No. 160 Towson (neutral court), No. 119 Toledo, No. 86 Temple, at No. 144 Harvard and at No. 197 Yale.
Per KenPom.com, Penn’s best victories from the past four months were: at No. 181 Monmouth, at No. 168 Dayton, No. 191 Princeton (twice), No. 117 St. Joseph’s, No. 197 Yale and No. 144 Harvard (twice).
Kenpom ranks Villanova No. 2 and Kansas No. 9.
“These kids have played some really good teams over their four-year careers and that being said, the physicality and the athleticism is still something that I think you’re going to have to get used to as the game goes on,” Donahue said of Thursday’s matchup with the Jayhawks.