In his first post for Ivy Hoops Online, former Daily Pennsylvanian Sports Editor John Phillips weighs in on what this season means for the future of Jerome Allen and Penn basketball.
It is Penn coach Jerome Allen’s favorite mantra: The next game is the most important, because it’s the next time we play.
For the four-plus seasons Allen has served as Penn’s coach, however, that has rarely been true. There have been plenty of meaningless games played under Allen’s eye for the Red and Blue. He carries a 56-85 record into this season, so the next games on the schedule haven’t mattered much where winning is concerned.
But even when the team was going a combined 17-42 over the last two seasons and some were calling for Allen to be fired depending on his team’s performance during a stretch of bad games, Allen’s mantra proved to be false as well. Due to a long list of reasons, or what some would consider excuses, Allen’s struggles have been given a free pass. After superstar Zack Rosen left the team, Penn’s struggles were framed as natural following the departure of such a strong presence. Then, last year, after Allen’s team showed a stark lack of discipline throughout the season, Allen made a culture change in the locker room that led to Julian Harrell and Henry Brooks, two of the most talented players on Penn’s roster, leaving the team. So despite the struggles that Penn faced on the court in 2013-14, the Quakers were still granted a reprieve, supporting the argument that each “next game” Allen’s squad faced last season was in no way the most important.
Now the stakes have changed. In his sixth season, Allen’s words will finally hold true. Allen has developed the locker room culture he’s always wanted. His should-be superstar Tony Hicks has finally taken on more of a leadership role. The well of excuses has run dry and in its place stands firm expectations, not just of the results on the court but of this team’s culture as well. In each game, fans, critics and the like should see the team grow from a basketball standpoint as well as a maturity standpoint. This year, each and every game matters.
If Allen can take a team with low expectations and surprise the rest of the Ancient Eight in terms of record but also in terms of maturity, then there won’t even be a conversation about whether he keeps his job.
But if the team continues to struggle, and Allen can’t lead a progression from Game 1 to the next game and each “next game” after, and frustration continues to boil over the way it has in the past under Allen, then he no longer has any excuses left upon which to fall.
The pieces are surely in place for the Quakers to surprise the rest of the Ivy. The narrative fits: Coach Allen lights a fire under each returning player’s behind in the off-season, the two best players on the team (Hicks and center Darien Nelson-Henry) have their best years as Quakers, role players finally become comfortable, and Penn breaks into the upper half of the Ivy League ranks and the storm has finally passed over.
But the stage is also set for Allen’s tragic fifth act, in which all of his struggles from the past five seasons culminate into a disastrous season that ends with Allen being relieved of his duties.
Which narrative plays out is on Allen’s shoulders. Making a shift in team culture at the end of last season was a strong first step, but now Allen needs to finish. It starts Saturday against Delaware State.
If his team can embody Allen’s mantra and grow in each and every game this year, he will be fine. If not, then the amount of next games he’ll have is limited.