STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. – This one was bad. Really bad. I can say so because I was there, in the high school gym with the undersized, poor shooting opponent, seeing for myself how bad the Quakers have become. No victory (and I’ve seen hundreds of Penn basketball games) has thrilled me more than this loss has skewered me. Losing to Wagner (for the fourth time in four years by the way) hurts like no other. Why? Because although the wait staff may change at this Penn hoops restaurant, the same lousy food is still being served, year after year.
On this night I sat behind the Penn bench in Staten Island, a distant outpost of New York City that could easily be confused with a post-apocalyptic dystopia that now somehow harbors a superior basketball team than the one which inhabits the Palestra. (I make no apologies for my elitism.)
What I saw were eager young men who were engaged, pulled for each other, played with purpose and were excellent, well-conditioned athletes. During the timeouts, they listened intently to their coaches. They didn’t hang their heads when things got tough and did not bicker among themselves. However, they did lose their poise, played fundamentally poor basketball down the stretch (especially in the second half when they went 10 minutes without a bucket), committed 22 fouls to go along with 22 turnovers, made senseless mental errors and essentially blew a game that was quite winnable against a generally poor opponent.
This last part has been the constant refrain throughout the Jerome Allen years. When will it end? For better or for worse, these are all “his guys.” He recruited them all, but apparently nothing changes except the players on the scorecard. Additionally, I also think the head coach openly wondering at the postgame press conference if his squad can currently compete at a “collegiate” level must be extremely disheartening to his team. (It is to me and I’m in the stands, so I wonder what it feels like for them.) I know there are many ways to motivate young men, but this one, which we’ve all heard before, is a proven failure in Jerome Allen’s hands. Although he openly says the losing is “on” him, his body language and words say something else entirely.
I do think the Quakers, despite their terrible record, are better than last year. There is a noticeable absence of dysfunction amongst the players. The infusion of capable freshmen (and they are a generally capable bunch) has definitely helped. They deserve better. The university deserves better and the alumni who have witnessed decades of excellence deserve better.
Hopefully, there will be a few victories this year as the freshmen mature. (There should be, but I am no longer counting on it.) Yet these few glimmers of hope should not obscure the fact that Penn basketball clearly requires a fundamental change. After all, this year Wagner will go by many names.
Stay Red and Blue my friends,