It has been exactly 311 days since Penn last played with Ivy pride on the line.
It has been 100 Zack Rosen assists, 40 Tyler Bernardini three-pointers and 72 Rob Belcore rebounds since Penn showed up for a game with NCAA tournament implications.
And after the Quakers travel 100 miles up I-95 to visit Columbia tonight, they can finally move one step closer towards breaking the school’s four-year NCAA drought.
“I don’t think too many teams are getting an at-large bid. Everything [about nonconference] is just lessons learned,” said Bernardini. “It’s good that we’re getting these road trips out of the way early and we’re excited to begin our 14-game tournament.”
The start of the spring semester brings with it the most important time of the year for the Penn hoops team, and battling Columbia is just the start.
An opening road trip has the Quakers making the Empire State swing where they will play Columbia (11-5) Friday and Cornell (5-9) Saturday.
“We’re trying to stay confident together as a group going into these games and really push to win the Ivy season,” sophomore Fran Dougherty said.
The opening games come at a crucial time. Last year, the Quakers came off two-straight overtime losses — to Harvard and Princeton — when they traveled to New York.
Without any momentum, Penn dropped two winnable games — effectively ending any tournament hopes the Quakers had had.
In Ithaca, an upstart Cornell team led by guard Chris Wroblewski and his 21 points forced overtime after Conor Turley missed a free throw with 1.3 seconds remaining in the second half.
Against Columbia less than 24 hours later, Penn couldn’t find a way to shut down Lions guards Noruwa Agho and Brian Barbour, who scored 20 and 19, respectively.
This year, Penn won’t have to deal with Agho, who injured his knee in the second game of the season. Nevertheless, with the emergence of Barbour as a go-to scoring option, Columbia has managed to rebound from losing its opening three games. The Lions have won 11 of their last 13, including a 10-point victory at home over Lafayette, a team Penn beat last week by five.
Penn will place a premium on starting well and playing shutdown defense, especially on the court at Levien Gym, where Columbia has had a winning record in each of the past seven years.
“We can’t focus on one person — every defensive possession is important,” coach Jerome Allen said. “In Division-I basketball, it’s difficult anywhere playing on the road.”
Against the Big Red, Penn will face a team that, like the Quakers, has struggled over the past few weeks. Cornell has lost five of its past six games but is getting top production from senior guard Drew Ferry, who is averaging 13.1 points per game in only his second season with the team.
The Quakers haven’t won in Ithaca since 2007 but will need to do so if they hope to keep pace with Harvard and Yale at the top of the league.