Penn basketball leaving turbulence behind

 

See if you can find Steve Donahue in this picture. Rest assured, he hates two-point jumpers just as much 33,000 feet up in the air as he does on 33rd Street.

“Hey AQ, where have you been?” The question has arisen this season from many emails and tweets.  First, for those of you who have missed my pithy, yet pedantic,and occasionally puerile persiflage (800 Math, 790 Verbal), my apologies, and no, I have not retired. Instead, I have merely taken a step back to observe the rapid reshaping of the Ivy hoops landscape. Overall, this brief offseason has been arguably more tumultuous than the season itself. Yale captures the league outright for the first time in 54 years and then bags a tournament win over Baylor. Princeton does their “I got this. Oops, no I don’t!” routine in the NIT. Kyle Smith, after winning the CIT, triumphantly leaves Columbia (“Thank you and good night!”) as perhaps the torchbearer of a strange, new breed of Lions coach — a winning one. (I am hoping that they lose the secret formula for this perverse brand of eugenics, no doubt developed in some arcane lab on the Morningside Heights campus, before that institution actually gets used to victory.) Paul Cormier, after two straight ROYs, abruptly gets canned in Hanover which only proves that you can never go home again especially if that home is in New Hampshire, on the Dartmouth campus and you’re hired as its basketball coach. And Bill Courtney, well…even the muskrats at the bottom of the gorge could see that one coming.

So what about my beloved Quakers?

A few weeks ago, I was emailing IHO’s editor, Mike Tony, whilst flying through a rather intense North Atlantic winter storm. Not one normally afraid of turbulence, though still not a big fan, I was reasonably sure that I was nevertheless well on my way to filling the seat pocket in front of me with the turkey tetrachloride or Beef Bourgonshit that Air France was plying us with that night. For a few more nauseating minutes,the giant plane bounced mercilessly in the squall like an errant Cornell rimshot (clang!) until suddenly we miraculously emerged from the rough weather and finally reentered calm air. The remainder of the trip was fortunately uneventful.

Then it occurred to me …

The flight is a reasonable metaphor for the recent evolution of the Quakers: a formerly poorly controlled, tempestuous, emesis-inducing squad has now seemingly stabilized and is, well, boring. Now I don’t mean they’re boring in a pejorative sense at all.  In fact, boring is now a welcome change. The 2015-16 season, as compared to years past, was in fact most noticeable for its profound lack of drama. There were no major suspensions, fistfights, arrests, ejections, firings or locker room scuffles. The only thing that comes close is Tony Hicks departing prior to the season opener for Rick Pitino’s Louisville brothel and Antonio Woods’ sudden withdrawal from school for academic concerns. (This, of course, reminds us all that Ivy hoop players are students-athletes who must juggle the demands of their sport as well as high-level academics. Although he is eligible to return to Penn this spring, I personally doubt he will.) Steve Donahue can therefore be credited with admirably succeeding in his first duty as the new head coach — righting the formerly turbulent ship.

Otherwise, a review of the season shows that Penn was right where everyone thought they would be.  Aside from the Princeton games, not too much stands out – and that’s okay. There were no signature wins. (Although had they won their opener versus the Tigers, the entire complexion of the season for both teams might have been completely different.) The wins they did achieve were mostly against 250+ Ken Pomeroy teams. They also lost to most of the teams they were expected to lose to, including a couple of really bad ones. Regardless, the Quakers remained gritty against superior squads before eventually succumbing to either their own youth and inexperience, the opposition’s superior talent or both.  Still, for the most part, they looked controlled, organized and, as Stevie D. said, “executed the game plan” all season. The coaching staff was open and honest throughout the season as well. Unlike coach Jerome Allen’s Iron Curtain radio silence, the occasionally adverb adverse Steve Donahue bravely faced the music every week, win or lose, in his video interviews. (I must say, his foreboding look when asked about the upcoming game against Washington was priceless. “Well, they’re long and athletic…” Translation: we are gonna get killed, “bad.”) Nevertheless, it is safe to say the culture of Penn basketball is indeed changing for the better.

As was evidenced by Villanova in winning the national championship, it is almost an unassailable law that shooting is the key component of basketball. Despite being out-rebounded on the offensive boards by a ridiculous margin (16-2) by a taller, more athletic North Carolina team, the Wildcats were still able to win the decisive game on their strong ability to shoot the ball.  Superior accuracy can overcome superior athleticism. Thus, the introduction of analytics by the Penn coaching staff is a move that I applaud, but all too often last season it seemed like they were getting their numbers from the Princeton Mathematics Department. The ‘high percentage shot” somehow eluded them more often than not. The Quakers were second to last in the league in field goal percentage at 42.7 (Yale was first with 46.9), and for a team predicated on shooting the three ball, they were dead last at 30.5 percent.  The defense was a tad porous as well. Penn ended the year second to last in the league with a -1.0 rebounding margin (Yale was first with a +10.9) and yielded 71.9 points per game. (Again, Yale was first with 63.8 points per game.)

So where do we go from here?

While the lack of excitement was acceptable for the opening year, next season will need to be different. Steve Donahue must show that he can, and I have no reason believe that he cannot, teach his young team to take the next step. There must be evidence of incremental growth in his youthful roster that was painfully absent during the Jerome Allen years. He also has the biggest, but obviously not the most talented, recruiting class in the league. There are a plethora of guards and clearly there will be competition for roster spots as Tyler Hamilton and Jackson Donahue took large steps forward last year.

The frontcourt remains a bit of a problem. The height gap at center will most likely need to be filled by committee as Darien Nelson-Henry’s massive bulk will be difficult to replace. (That is until the mammoth 7-foot-3 Mark Jackson makes his appearance at the Palestra in 2017.) I suspect a four-guard lineup is indeed a likely possibility unless someone (Mike Auger, Dan Dwyer, Max Rothschild, freshmen A.J. Brodeur or Jakub Mijakowski) distinguishes himself sometime before November. There are a few extra twists in the lineup which also might prove interesting. It is clear that coach Donahue is stockpiling talent that fits his system (as opposed to Jerome’s) in large numbers to see what sticks. As such he has acquired sophomore, junior college shooting guard Caleb Wood (I suppose to keep at least one player named “Wood or Woods” in the lineup) as well as Fairleigh Dickinson junior transfer Matt MacDonald (who dropped 29 on Princeton while with his former team). These two players have instant collegiate experience and how they elevate the scoring accuracy of the Quakers will go a long way in determining how far the team will go.

The Ivy League will be different next year as well. Columbia and Yale should take a step back. Harvard and Princeton will likely take a step (or two) forward.  Rudderless Dartmouth is a bit of a wild card while Brown, which has had more defections than a Soviet infantry unit, and Cornell will probably suck. (Why sugarcoat it, ya know what I mean?) Most people think that Penn is definitely in the running for a fourth-place finish next year. A down year by lofty West Philly standards, but a building block nonetheless. Fourth is all the more important because 2016 marks the beginning of the now infamous Ivy conference Tournament.

…and now another AQ digression.

The Ivy tournament which, for the record, I oppose for its blatant pursuit of mammon and a host of other reasons, is probably the best thing to happen to the Quakers. Rebuilding is much more palatable when you have a realistic shot at post season glory. What’s more, it will be held at the Palestra where Penn will have a built in homecourt advantage. I will offer that the new format is at least worth a try. I understand that everyone must evolve, things change (blah,blah,blah) and the tournament is a great way to stimulate the flagging student interest in varsity sports which is endemic across the country.  (A recent Daily Pennsylvanian poll showed that more than 60 percent of the students who responded “do not care about Quaker basketball.”  For what it’s worth, a majority also didn’t care about Spring Fling. The take home message — the current Penn student body doesn’t care about much.) The tourney is also a bit self-serving for the incumbent coaches. Think of it. Had there been an Ivy Tournament throughout James Jones’ tenure as head coach at Yale, his resume wouldn’t read 400 top-half finishes and one NCAA appearance.  It would say that his teams made the Tournament almost every year (and one NCAA appearance). That’s a big difference when contract time comes around.

… but I digress from my digression.

Anyway, the Ivy tournament is an excellent way for the Quakers to begin their gradual climb back up the Ivy ladder and with it their long-awaited return to hoops relevancy.  This would be especially true if the “Dream Team” scenario were to occur next year. That is, Princeton and Penn would play as 1 and 4 seeds while Harvard and Yale would play as 2 and 3. This setup would be so good that John Legend (Penn ’99) would sing the National Anthem while President Trump (Penn ’68) would probably take a break from his wall building duties to be in attendance to watch the Quakers upset the Tigers. (He would probably force the entire nation to watch the internecine spectacle as well like The Hunger Games.“The Quakers are fantastic, just fantastic. The best college basketball team in the worldNo one can stop Jackson Donahue. Steve Donahue is a genius, just fantastic….”)

But I digress yet again…

Finally, there is the issue of recruiting. Do not think for a minute that coach Donahue isn’t aware of its increasing importance with a national champion on your Big 5 schedule and Harvard building an NBA D-League team up in Cambridge. Even when he talks about it his face turns completely serious as if he has just been entrusted with the nation’s nuclear launch codes. “Lifeblood of your program,” I have often heard him say. It is clear he takes this matter very seriously. Gradually, as I have already mentioned above, he is bringing in players that match what he wants to do. How this will work out remains to be seen but one thing I think is certain, he is capable of coaching and elevating talent. Like the pilot who brought us in for a safe landing, that is all we can ask of him.

I believe in Steve.

Stay Red and Blue my friends,

The AQ

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