After two weeks of league competition, Penn has lost its first three contests, including two at the Palestra. The most surprising was a loss to Brown, the eighth-place team in the league’s preseason poll, which was Bears’ first road conference win in almost two years. (Brown very nearly upset Yale Friday night in Providence, but that doesn’t change Penn’s current 0-3 hole in league play.)
Looking at where things stand, were Quakers fans viewing the team through Red and Blue-colored glasses as the Ivy League slate began?
Last year’s squad, the first under former Penn assistant and Cornell head coach Steve Donahue, was 11-17 overall, including a fifth place Ivy record of 5-9. The team enjoyed a three-game winning streak, a Big 5 victory against La Salle, four home league victories and one road conference at Cornell. While the team lost to rivals Princeton, Temple and Drexel, the total was by only eight points.
With an improvement in style, discipline and temperament from players and coaches alike, the 2015-16 season exceeded expectations, and there was much to look forward to this year.
The preseason media poll picked Penn for fourth and a spot in the first-ever Ivy League Tournament.
The team justified that prediction by posting a 6-5 non-conference record, a marquee road victory against UCF, and a three game winning streak to close out December.
Entering conference play, the Quakers were excelling defensively. The team limited its opponents to 66 points per game on 41 percent overall and 45 percent two-point shooting. They were causing 14.5 turnovers and 7.5 steals a game. On offense, Penn was shooting 51 percent from two, and making 8.7 threes a game.
Not everything was ideal, though. Penn’s opponents were shooting 7.2 threes a game at 35 percent, getting 2.1 more rebounds, 4.2 more free throw attempts, and 3.3 more made free throws each game. Offensively, the team was only getting to the free throw line 14 times a game and shooting 65 percent. Also, Donahue noted that the team suffered from frequent 5-10 minute offensive droughts.
More significant for the team and its fans was the lack of a consistent starting five. Before the start of conference play, the coach stated that the team did not have a pedigree of success, so he could not justify a set lineup. He mentioned that he would base playing time on practice performance.
For a team that wanted to challenge for the top tier of the Ivy League not to have a core group of five or six leaders who were able to distinguish themselves in games and practices was a potentially troubling situation.
Going into conference play, only A.J. Brodeur and Matt Howard showed season-long on-court leadership along with scoring and rebounding strength – 15.5 and 13.4 points, respectively, with both shooting 55 percent and getting 6.5 boards a game.
Darnell Foreman worked hard at earning the team’s point guard spot. Initially, he received the job after Caleb Wood and Jake Silpe could not hold the position. Despite being replaced in the starting lineup for the last two nonconference games, Foreman’s improved confidence and strength in driving to the hoop showed his ability to lead and produce for the team in bigger ways going into league play.
Things are less certain beyond those three.
Matt MacDonald, a junior transfer from Fairleigh Dickinson, averaged 9.0 points in 30 minutes of play during 2014-2015. This year, his offense has decreased to 4.5 points in 30 minutes a game in nonconference play. A big part of most conversations regarding MacDonald, prior to the start of the season, was his 29 point/eight rebound performance against Princeton in 2014. In his return game versus the Tigers, he had zero points and three rebounds in 18 minutes. He seems to have remained in the starting lineup due to his maturity and good defense, as well as the decreased confidence of the staff in Sam Jones.
Jones had 1.8 made threes on 42 percent shooting over 16 minutes a game in his first year (Jerome Allen’s last as coach). Under coach Donahue, Jones started 23 games, averaging 2.1 threes on 33 percent shooting in 25 minutes a game. During this early season, Jones was down to 9 minutes a game with 1.1 three despite shooting 36 percent from outside.
Jackson Donahue, the starting two-guard, has been another returner with decreased output in the early part of the season. In his solid first year, he shot 40 percent overall, 38 percnt from three and hit 2.4 treys a game. This year, his nonconference numbers were 29 percent overall, 30 percent from three and 2.0 threes a game.
Wood, a JuCo transfer, was brought in with MacDonald to speed up the learning curve for the coach’s team and give Penn an instant chance at competing with the top tier teams. So far, Wood has struggled getting used to Division I basketball. He began the season as the starting point guard, which was not his natural position. After his difficulties with turnovers (17 in first four games), he was moved back to two-guard, but that did not cure his offensive problems. His nonconference stats showed an impressive 40% from three. However, he hit 59 percent in three of the first four games this year and only 27 percent in the other eight nonconference games. By the end of nonconference play, the heralded transfer had his minutes greatly reduced and was located deeper on the bench.
First-year Ryan Betley came back from injury and started the last two nonconference games at the two slot. He went 3-for-5 from three in those contests, showing the potential for taking charge of the two-guard slot. However, following a strong 26-minute backup effort against Princeton, where he went 3-for-5 overall and 3-for-4 from three, he went 1-for-8 overall and 0-for-6 from three against Yale. By Saturday night, he sat on the bench for the entire Brown loss.
Jake Silpe, the starting point guard in 20 games last year, is another player whose stock has fallen. In 22 minutes a game, he averaged 5.0 points, 2.6 boards, and 3.2 assists last year. This year, the team’s 2015-16 assist leader, only averaged 2.1 points, 0.6 boards and 1.2 assists in nine minutes a game in nonconference play. In league play, Silpe has only gotten into two games, averaging five minutes and zero points.
As Ivy play has begun, the team’s two point defense has slipped slightly, but its rebounding, fouling and steals have had bigger drop-offs. Offensively, the team has struggled with a slight decrease in two-point field-goal percentage and larger drops in three-point field-goal percentage and three points made.
Familiar opponents at the top and bottom-of-league predictions, have been able to exploit the inexperience of some of Penn’s better younger players, as well as the general weaknesses of the team.
Donahue recently mentioned that he expects to give greater time to bench players Max Rothschild at the forward spot and guard Dev Goodman. Looking at the above information, it would appear that he will need to do more than another lineup experiment for the team to reclaim its preseason rankings. If he cannot bring about significant changes before the trip to Harvard and Dartmouth in two weeks, then the Quakers may find themselves at 0-5 in Ivy competition, and their fans will need to readjust their expectations going into the latter part of the season.