Let’s get this out of the way: Don’t expect Tuesday’s Villanova game, however it plays out inside the Palestra, to be too big for the Penn Quakers.
“Now, we’ve played some really big games,’’ said Penn coach Steve Donahue. “The Ivy tournament, making the NCAA Tournament, playing Kansas in that environment. Playing Miami here, Kansas State and Oregon State. We’ve seen it all. As opposed to last year, we weren’t sure how to schedule yet. This group has been through so much more.”
The Quakers coach isn’t underestimating the task.
“Not to say it’s [just] another game,” Donahue said, adding that his players are “way more excited than they are anxious.”
If you assume that this game won’t be too big, add this: If Penn gets a lead, don’t expect that to be too big for the Quakers. This group has gotten used to handling some success.
“I think there are times in the past when we played 10 minutes and were sky-high,’’ Donahue said, how sometimes they might stop and realize the situation they had gotten themselves in with some strong play. “I sense now that these guys are confident, whether there’s a lot of failure going on that they can recover from, or a lot of good play that they can maintain.”
Despite losing players to graduation and injury, Penn has three starters back from last season, which is more than Villanova. Just as important, the Quakers have integrated several freshmen into the group. While forward Michael Wang has become a key offensive contributor, the play of guard Bryce Washington has been a big part of Penn’s 8-2 start. He’s averaging 17 minutes but is scoring 7.4 points in that time and making 46.7 percent of his three-pointers. All of that is important after guards Ryan Betley and Jelani Williams went out for the year with injuries.
“I think Bryce has been able to simulate what we do offensively and defensively fairly quickly,’’ Donahue said. “He’s a good standstill shooter, he can play off of guys. He kind of fit. I thought he’d be filling a role, be a backup, learn the position. Actually, his shooting has really pleasantly surprised me. As soon as he got here and started doing drills, man, he’s a really good fundamental standstill three-point shooter.”
Of course, 8-2 Villanova will show up Tuesday night both as defending NCAA champions and winners of 25 straight Big 5 games. In other words, the visitors have proved they can handle a little success, too.