The Daily Pennsylvanian’s annual Penn Basketball Supplement is out today, and I encourage you to check it out, not because I’m a DP alum but because it’s a very thorough, insightful supplement. In fact, there are some genuine nuggets in the DP’s supplement, including Tony Hicks’s reasoning for changing his jersey number from ‘1’ to ’11’ this season – “It was kind of egotistical, and I just wanted to get away from that” – and the team’s reaction to being projected to finish seventh in the Ivy League – “We break huddles; we say: ‘Seven.’ We commit bad plays during practice on offense or defense; sometimes coaches will say ‘Seven.’”
So optimism abounds for Penn basketball in spite of last season’s 8-20 finish, but how’s the team looking up close and personal right now? I reached out to my successor as Daily Pennsylvanian senior sports editor, Steven Tydings, for an inside look at the Quakers.
Q: You wrote last month that we’ll all just have to wait until we see all the unknowns on Penn’s roster before we judge this team. Which Quakers do you see making the most unexpected impact this season?
A: There are a few people I think you can pinpoint for unexpected impacts and the biggest to me is Matt Howard. The sophomore shooting guard started slow in his freshman campaign before starting to truly pick up the college game when the calendar flipped to 2014. Unfortunately for Howard, his best performance – a strong weekend against Cornell and Columbia in early February – came just days before he suffered a season ending injury at practice.
But watching him in practice, he is ready to pick up where he left off. He is hitting threes, using his physicality to make a real impact on the court. He’s someone I am excited to watch this year.
Outside of Howard, I would name the entire freshman class but I’ll focus on two. Mike Auger is the obvious one that everyone is talking about and it is for good reason. He is a physical presence to say the least and has already shown off at Penn’s Red & Blue Scrimmage. Expect him to play significant minutes at the four by the end of the year.
The other is Darnell Foreman. A later addition to Penn’s recruiting class, the N.J. native may not have the physical skills of other point guards in the Ivy League but he is one of the hardest workers I’ve seen. It impressed everyone, including coach Allen, when the freshman guard helped direct people where to go during a practice just a couple months into college. He’ll be running the point alongside fellow-freshman Antonio Woods and Tony Hicks.
Q: How easily do you think juniors Tony Hicks and Darien Nelson-Henry can shoulder more of the offensive load this season now that seven of Penn’s top 10 scorers are no longer with the program, and who else looks best equipped to fill that scoring void to you?
A: I think that both guys are ready for bigger roles with Hicks in particular stepping up. He will be one of the team’s captains and will shoulder an even bigger role offensively. The team wants him to be less of a scorer (although he will need to do that plenty) and become more of a facilitator. He has the ability to do that and with players like Howard and DNH around him, he does have people to whom he can get the ball.
The Big Hyphen is one of the biggest physical presences in the Ivy League and when utilized correctly, he can be a consistent threat. But Steven, we’ve been saying that for two years! Yes, that’s very true and the junior will need to display maturity in his game just like Hicks will need to. I have to believe that with his ability and some more PGs that can get him the ball, DNH can take a step forward in 2014-15.
Q: Much has been made of coach Jerome Allen’s job security, especially with the entrance of new athletic director Grace Calhoun. How much improvement do you think the program will have to show to merit Allen sticking around?
A: Coach Allen should probably have the second hottest seat in the Ivy League (Bill Courtney can’t be sitting too pretty after last year’s 2-26 finish) and for good reason. The Quakers did not get what they needed to get done the last two years and he will be the first to admit that. The team needs to show improvement in any sort of way and while nonconference play will have something to do with that, it will truly come down to Ivy performance. If the team can get to .500 or above in the Ivies with the underclassmen taking on big roles, I think Allen keeps his job and rightfully so (a top-four Ivy finish preferred greatly). Looking at next year’s class, the players that would complement this current roster may be just a year away.
Q: Penn underachieved with a veteran roster last season, not coming close to its projected second-place conference finish and having to deal with disciplinary issues and roster upheaval. Who are the leaders on Penn’s roster for 2014-15, and how have they gone about, well, leading?
A: The captains for this year’s squad are seniors Patrick Lucas-Perry and Camryn Crocker along with Hicks. Hicks a captain, you ask? Why yes, after a topsy-turvy sophomore campaign, Hicks has proven himself ready for the role. The guy is the team’s undisputed leader on the floor and has showed renewed commitment. He has undergone the transition that everyone in the program hoped he would and the team should be better for it.
It isn’t just about the leaders be present though: This year’s team seems to have more of an open mind to listen to said leaders. The freshmen class has really bought into the program and the upperclassmen that are still in the program are fully committed.
As to the players leaving, you said above that seven of the top 10 scorers from last season are gone. Very true. Penn will struggle because of that very fact. But there were also some players in that bunch that didn’t fit the program and what Allen and company want to accomplish. As it says in Penn women’s rowing’s locker room, “Never be afraid to give up the good to go for the great.” That’s what this roster turnover needs to be for Penn.
Q: What is your take on Penn’s less than ambitious nonconference schedule this season? Is it a good idea to give this young roster a chance to find its way against not too stiff competition, or could the program benefit from a greater number of marquee opponents?
A: As someone covering the team, I would have loved to have seen more marquee opponents on the schedule this year (still a dream of mine to cover a game at Cameron Indoor or the Dean Dome). But this is the schedule that fit this team. There are already some tough Big 5 games built in for Penn (No. 12 Villanova at the Palestra!) and going less ambitious beyond that is something the Red and Blue needed to do. I think you phrase it best: The young roster will have the opportunity to face softer competition and get its feet underneath it.
That being said, this can’t be a long-term trend simply because of alumni and the fans. People want to see marquee opponents regardless of how the team is playing. The hope from Penn basketball would be to have a better roster next year that is well-equipped to face a tougher schedule.