What happened last year (11-17, 5-9): Last year, Penn fans got pretty much all they could expect from the Quakers in Steve Donahue’s first year as head coach of the Quakers. Penn got off to a 4-1 nonconference start and even climbed to 5-5 in league play before dropping the last four games of the season.
Two white-knuckle losses to Princeton (including blowing a 97.6 percent win probability after leading 64-55 with 3:02 left in the first matchup at the Palestra), perhaps even more than Penn’s conference wins, provided a glimpse of what the Quakers could be more consistently under Donahue going forward:
- dangerous from beyond the arc
- efficient from the floor
- productive via underclassmen ranging from Jake Silpe and Jackson Donahue to Darnell Foreman and Tyler Hamilton
- boasting a solid defense that caused the usually efficient Tigers to shoot 38.5 percent from two-point range in both games combined
What’s new: Losing Darien Nelson-Henry to graduation will hurt Penn. Although his inability to finish around the rim could be frustrating and he battled injury, DNH used his 6-11, 265 frame as a disrupting presence on defense and an effective low-post presence on offense. Last season, he was more consistently efficient, extending his shooting range somewhat as well. With him out of the equation, rim protection comes at a premium. But there are two transfers that could help bolster Penn’s bid for a slot in the inaugural Ivy League tournament. Matt MacDonald averaged approximately 30 minutes per game during two seasons at Fairleigh Dickinson, averaging 8.8 points and 3.8 rebounds per game while shooting 33.8 percent from three-point range. MacDonald is a versatile wingman who is Division I-tested and should have an immediate impact.
The other transfer is Caleb Wood, who arrives via Lassen Community College in California. Wood is accomplished from three-point range, Donahue’s target area. (Wood has shot 49.1 percent from three-point range.) Wood has also been exceptional from the free throw line and figures to be utilized to that effect.
Freshman A.J. Brodeur could very well be worth the hype. He’s quick, flexible and constantly getting better, and that’s just his Twitter account:
CLARIFICATION FOR THOSE AT THE GAME YESTERDAY: NO MY PANTS DID NOT FALL BY THEMSELVES AND I DIDNT DO IT. THE OTHER GUY PULLED THEM DOWN
— AJ Brodeur (@AJBrodeur) March 6, 2016
On the court, Brodeur is flexible too, reportedly able to bang down low or hoist his excellent jump shot from the perimeter.
Freshman Ray Jerome is a strong shooter and is versatile in the backcourt. Jerome is likely to log considerable minutes for a freshman. The other frosh are guards Ryan Betley and Devon Goodman, and forwards Jakub Mijakowski and Zack Kaminsky.
Offense: Penn’s got an analytics-friendly offensive identity that emphasizes looking inside for points and shooting treys. The roster is starting to reflect that philosophy with the additions of Wood and particularly MacDonald. That motion-oriented approach was immediately apparent in the very first game of the Donahue era, when Penn enjoyed a 44-point first half en route to a win over Robert Morris (which Penn opens the season against again on Friday).
And yet, Penn wasn’t gangbusters from downtown a year ago. In fact, Penn ranked last among all Ivies in conference play in three-point percentage at 32.9 percent, suggesting substantial improvement is necessary for the Quakers, especially now that they’ve lost their primary low-post presence. But MacDonald, Jerome, Wood and even Brodeur should help in that regard, and Jackson Donahue proved to be a very potent shooter in his freshman campaign last season, shooting 37.8 percent from that area.
Add to that list of names junior forward Sam Jones, whose early-season hot streak from long range cooled off as the season rolled on. Jones is a dangerous threat when locked in and healthy, though, and opponents may sleep on him at their own peril.
Senior guard Matt Howard returns after averaging 12.3 points and 5.7 rebounds per game last season, proving himself one of the most athletic players in the conference. Howard tailed off toward the end of last season, shooting just 32.3 percent from the floor in Penn’s final five games, a stretch in which Penn went 1-4. It’s quite possible that Howard, who has proven quite skillful at rebounding and steals in addition to scoring, could be the ultimate bellwether for this team, a savvy senior on a team full of underclassmen.
Sophomore forward Max Rothschild was a force on the boards at times during Ivy play last season, most memorably contributing 14 points and 11 boards in 28 minutes in a February win over Harvard. He didn’t record a block last season but will be asked to step up as a rim protector this season. More on that later.
The wild card here is Antonio Woods, whose possible return in January after his academic ineligibility is set to expire could provide the Quakers with something they lacked often after his departure a year ago – someone who can create their own instant offense off the dribble.
Silpe got better at being the point man on offense upon Woods’ absence, showing excellent floor vision. It will be interesting to see how Silpe and Woods coexist in the backcourt if Woods does return.
Defense: Penn finished sixth in the league in Ivy play in adjusted defensive efficiency and seventh in defensive three-point percentage, meaning the Quakers weren’t as good at defending the three as Donahue would like. Rim protection may be by committee early on, as sophomore center Collin McManus, at 6-10, is the only Quaker taller than 6-8 on the roster.
Foreman is a strong on-the-ball defender, and Silpe also showed a knack for stacking steals in certain games a year ago. But Penn will have to improve significantly on this end of the floor if it is to earn a slot in the Ivy tourney – the Red and Blue held opponents to fewer than 70 points in just four of 14 conference games last season.
Intangibles: Suddenly, expectations are quite high. The Ivy preseason media poll projected the Quakers to finish fourth in the league in a season in which managing to finish fourth has never been more important. Missing the first ever Ivy tournament being held on its home floor would be tough for Penn, but it will also be tough to make it, perhaps more than the preseason media poll lets on. This is a roster comprised of six freshmen and five sophomores, a youthful squad with much to prove. Ultimately, though, this is a program on the up and up, poised to attain Ivy contender status with the passage of some more time.