There’s a new word surrounding Penn basketball this season: whānau.
What does this word mean and what does it have to do with the Quakers program under new coach Steve Donahue? The word means family in the Maori language.
Yet, as Donahue says, it means much more. It also refers to one’s extended family and their community, something that the Red and Blue hope to embrace in the 2015-16 season.
Embracing the community is a necessity after the Quakers’ recent lack of success. Penn is coming off possibly the worst three-year stretch in program history, a period that led to the ouster of coach Jerome Allen and the tenure of Donahue. A Penn assistant from 1990-2000 and the former head coach of Cornell and Boston College, Donahue brings a new wave of optimism and excitement to his former school.
Beyond the newfound buzz surrounding the program, the new man at the helm also has a completely new system in which his athletes must learn and flourish. Donahue’s system forces players to play the percentages, relying on three-point shots and high percentage shots at the basket while stressing the importance of rebounding.
With the emotional exit of Allen, it was easy to question whether or not the players already in the program would continue to buy in for the coming season. Yet, for the most part, players are buying what Donahue is selling.
“The coaching change – I’m not going to say it happened seamlessly, but it was a quick transition,” senior center and captain Darien Nelson-Henry said. “So I was able to get a good feel for coach Donahue just the same as he did for me right off the bat and we were very open with each other from the beginning.
“I told him I want to be a leader of this team and I’m going to do whatever you tell me to do. I don’t know your system or what you’re going to expect from us in the fall … but I’m 100 percent bought in to whatever you have to tell me.”
However, one player chose not to join the new campaign to renew a struggling Penn program: last season’s leading scorer, captain Tony Hicks. Hicks made headlines this past week when he decided not to play his senior year at Penn. He will instead graduate and pursue basketball opportunities elsewhere, presumably using his last year of college eligibility at a new school.
If he plays elsewhere in 2016-17, Hicks would become yet another Ivy League player to use his last college season away from the Ancient Eight, similar to former Dartmouth guard Alex Mitola’s decision in April to transfer.
What Hicks leaves behind at Penn is a talented yet extremely young backcourt, a similar theme to the last few seasons. Sophomore Antonio Woods comes back after getting significant playing time his freshman year while junior Matt Howard, tied for third on the team in points per game with Woods last year, returns with added muscle that will make him tougher to stop. While Howard and Woods have received praise from the staff, the incoming freshman class could be a major difference for the backcourt.
There have been few Penn freshmen hyped as much as point guard Jake Silpe in recent years. Hailing from N.J., the same state as former Ivy League Player of the Year Zack Rosen, Silpe is already thought of as the next great Penn point guard. With the absence of Hicks, Silpe will be counted on for even more minutes than originally expected as he navigates his first season with the Red and Blue.
“I think Jake in particular is someone you’re going to see a lot of,” Donahue said. “I think you’re going to be really pleased with his work ethic, his toughness, his IQ, and just his relentless grit that he has out on the basketball court.”
As with any freshman player, Donahue thought the key concern with Jake would be his consistency. His work ethic has been on display, both in him consistently getting shots up before practice as well as his effort in drills.
Fellow freshman guard Jackson Donahue (no relation to his coach) will also figure to get some playing time. Jackson can make teams pay with his as-good-as-advertised three-point shooting, although gaining consistency with that as well as contributing on defense will be keys to staying on the court.
Senior Jamal Lewis returns as perhaps the most intriguing part of the backcourt. Lewis fought through a life-threatening illness that eliminated his junior season and has come back to practice. What the highly touted recruit will bring to the court remains to be seen.
The frontcourt beyond Nelson-Henry is led by two sophomores, Mike Auger and Sam Jones, with completely different skill sets. Auger, fully recovered from offseason shoulder surgery, is dominant in the post, gobbling up rebounds, while Jones lives beyond the arc with his precise shooting.
Freshman Max Rothschild, however, has entered the fray as another player who could receive big minutes early on. Wearing No. 0, the 6-foot-8 forward from Chicago has the ability to contribute from the get-go.
“I think that he is a great player,” Nelson-Henry said. “He has a very good basketball IQ. He moves well without the ball.”
While praising the rest of the freshman class, Nelson-Henry echoed the coaching staff’s thoughts on freshman center Collin McManus: He may take time, but has the chance to develop into a strong Ivy League forward.
There may be some new faces in Penn’s lineup – Donahue says he has yet to nail down a rotation as can be expected – but the Red and Blue’s schedule remains largely the same with a couple exceptions. The Battle of 33rd Street is back with Penn going to Drexel for just the second time, while the Quakers head to Washington in a homecoming for junior guard Matt Poplawski as well as Nelson-Henry. Nelson-Henry said he hasn’t stopped thanking the coaches for the opportunity and added that there may be more Penn fans than Huskies fans due to his friends and family in the area.
The trip to Washington furthers this idea of whānau. In bringing DNH home in his senior year, Donahue is giving a member of his ‘family’ an opportunity he will always relish.
But whānau will go beyond the players and coaching staff. It will be about embracing the Penn community and trying to make Penn basketball the ‘it’ thing on campus for the first time in a little while. Whether the 2015-16 Quakers can bring together Penn Athletics for the kind of experience that only Penn basketball can provide – that remains to be seen.