I love a man with a plan. The first few games of 2015 for the Penn Quakers have undoubtedly shown that first-year Penn coach Steve Donahue has a system. He is also doing his best to implement that system with young players that are not necessarily the best fit. The early results are therefore quite predictable: a few wins, a few competitive losses, a few bad losses and one game in which they were predictably “Cornelled.”™ (Cornelled: adv. A punishing, demoralizing and humiliating loss where a team surrenders 100 points or more.) So, despite their weak schedule, not a horrendous start for the Quakers.
Anyway, there are some good things. First, the overall atmosphere surrounding the program appears to be much better. I think SD’s most admirable trait so far is his extreme sensitivity to the losing culture Penn basketball (unfortunately not an oxymoron) has endured over the last eight seasons. He has therefore been as much a psychologist as a coach throughout these first few games. When his squad lost its initial lead to Robert Morris, he was heard to say in a gentle fatherly tone, “Just because one team is playing well, doesn’t mean you’re playing bad, so don’t hang your heads. Let’s try to figure out a way to win this game. Stay with it and we’ll be fine.” Although I object to his improper use of the word “bad,” the team nevertheless listened and pulled out the win.
This paternalistic approach is a welcome change from Jerome Allen’s tough love “I’m not sure we can compete at a collegiate level” method of coaching. (Personally, I cannot imagine how horribly eviscerating those words must have felt to a bunch of 20 year old college kids.) Despite being mostly young and inexperienced, the veteran players have thus been through arough three or four years. (It would not surprise me at all if DNH is diagnosed with some novel form of roundball PTSD.) So Donahue continuously tries to see the best in each game, win or lose. With each contest there is a lesson to be learned, and it is clear that he makes sure to stress these positive points to his charges.
Besides these intangibles, there are some other positives as well. Without the pugilistic Tony Hicks and the stone-handed Henry Brooks, the turnovers and fouls have decreased substantially and the assists per game have improved. It is now obvious there is more on-the-court discipline, and fundamentals are being taught. There also appears to be an actual game plan instead of a nightly free-for-all. Most importantly, however, the players are beginning to display that most integral quality that Penn basketball has always possessed: grit.
It is inconsistent to be sure and not yet part of the Quakers’ DNA, but it is definitely there: a most welcome sight after years of mind-numbing timidity. Finally, there is a semblance of growth, a quality often absent amongst the veteran players in the recent past. Darien Nelson-Henry is better, Antonio Woods is more confident and Dan Dwyer, Matt Howard and Darnell Foreman are producing as well. This, of course, bodes well for the future.
Naturally there are significant problems as well. The defense is often porous (to be kind), the rebounding and shooting and can be terrible (a major problem for an offense predicated on the three ball and foul shots), and the team still has the unfortunate habit of getting behind early forcing them to fight their way out of a deep hole. What’s more, despite coach Donahue’s wholesale substitution policy, except for DNH, the starting lineup remains mostly unstable. All of these issues will have to addressed as the season progresses if the team is develop any semblance of consistency and eventually move up to the first division (where it belongs).
Anyway, as much as the Quaker faithful are dying for a breakout season, this will not be it. The team remains very much a work in progress. Still. the Ivy is not turning out to be the powerhouse league that so many thought it would be this year. It’s good, not great. No one except Yale looks halfway impressive so far this year. Harvard is having a delightfully down season, Columbia is underachieving and the rest of the field is basically hit or miss. As for Princeton, all I’ve heard from the so-called pundits over the past two or three years is “Oooh, the Tigers, wait for the Tigers! Don’t sleep on the Tigers!” Well, I’m still waiting. Wake me when they’re for real. I don’t believe it will be anytime soon.
Unfortunately, the annual contest with our rival to the north will probably be played before a mostly empty Palestra as it head-scratchingly takes place during Penn’s winter break. As the Temple game amply proved, the Palestra’s sixth man is more important than ever as it remains unclear who Penn’s actual sixth man is. In any evident, after years of inertia, perhaps some optimism is finally warranted.
Stay Red & Blue my friends,