Like many, I was a bit shocked that Jerome Allen has not placed on ESPN’s “10 Best-Dressed Coaches List.” Anyone who has seen the man up close knows his elegant sartorial choices are beyond reproach.
I was equally shocked when this very forum expended more than 51 minutes of last week’s On the Vine podcast discussing Ivy League basketball and spent exactly two seconds on the Quakers. In fact, after discussing six other teams, host Peter Andrews at one point says, “There’s only one other team that we haven’t talked about, Dartmouth.”
Shame on you gentlemen…
These two incidents, albeit small, point to one thing: the current irrelevance of Penn basketball. Both mainstream and social media blather on and on about everything from the overall strength of the league to the beauty of the Yale offense, to the disappointment of the Brown defense, to the burgeoning diameter of Mitch Henderson’s bald spot.
But nothing about Penn.
In many ways, this is totally understandable. Yale beats UConn, Kyle Smith does his annual nationally televised magic show and leads a depleted Columbia squad against No. 1 Kentucky, giving the Wildcats all they could handle. And of course, the Crimson just keep on rolling. So why talk about Penn?
When it comes to evaluating the Quakers, there is both good and bad in this young season.
First, the good:
It is a freshman team. An infusion of youth, eagerness and energy has provided a noticeable lift to a formerly dysfunctional team chemistry. Now there is a strange endearing quality to them. Watching the freshmen is like watching your children grow up. Sure they’ll make mistakes, but it’s all part of the learning process and, in the end, forgivable. (Except of course when your 13-year-old falls asleep with a lit cigarette in her mouth and accidently burns down the house. “Sorry, Dad…”) In Antonio Woods and Darnell Foreman, the Quakers may have finally found two capable floor generals, a key role that has been sorely lacking since Zack Rosen graduated almost a century ago. (At least that’s how long it feels.) Mike “The Moose” Auger, despite his recent foot injury, appears to be a formidable player in the frontcourt. He doesn’t look or play like a freshman either. While most first-year players are fresh faced and tentative, this guy plays with purpose, has a body made of granite and looks like he has a wife, two kids and a mortgage.
Finally, despite the freshmen playing the majority of minutes for the team, the Quakers have been winning. They are 3-5 – not great, but they haven’t been blown out by 30 points, dug themselves a 20-point hole five minutes into the game. In fact, compared to the last few years, they’ve been watchable. They competed well against Temple, their toughest test to date, and unlike previous seasons under Allen, there appears to be small but incremental growth with each game. Thanks to the first-year players, there is now the semblance, if not the day-in-day-out totality, of hustle and grit. There is an overall mirage of upward mobility, which is somewhat of a relief.
And now for the bad:
It is a freshman team. It makes freshman mistakes compounded by boneheaded upperclassmen mistakes, manifested by frequent and mind-numbing lapses in both patience and poise. The fundamental problems that have plagued this team since Allen took over unfortunately show absolutely no sign of abating. The turnovers and fouls (even without Henry Brooks on the roster) are still far too plentiful. Although Penn has won three straight games, the stench of the Wagner debacle still hangs languidly in the air. These three wins were all against bad 300+ Ken Pomeroy teams—Navy, Marist and Binghamton. (Marist didn’t play three starters.) The good teams on the upcoming nonconference schedule will instantly expose the Quakers for the “fakers” they apparently are if they do not learn to manage the game better.
On the bright side, Tony Hicks’ anger management course appears to be working. However, despite his prodigious talent, he is fast becoming a foul-prone streak shooter. As a team leader, Hicks must try to be more consistent, someone his young squad can rely on every night. Finally, Darien Nelson-Henry seems to keep underachieving. Although Nelson-Henry is a serviceable post player, he could easily dominate with his 6-foot-11, 265-pound frame, especially in Ivy League play. But he’s done so only occasionally.
A matchup with Vanderbilt in Nashville on Dec. 22, the team’s first game back from the exam break, should prove revealing, in addition to the Quakers’ regular Big 5 slate. A good but not great squad, Vandy is currently on par with Yale. It will be an interesting test to see if these Quakers can turn a few heads, as several of their Ivy brethren already have, by competing well against an SEC team. If they can, maybe just maybe, it will be a small step toward making Penn basketball relevant again.
Stay Red and Blue my friends,