The leaves remain unnaturally green, the air temperature dips into the upper 70s and the Quaker football team uncharacteristically turns Franklin Field into a house of horrors. All of this can only mean one thing: the upcoming Ivy hoops season cannot be far behind. (And, of course, the Earth is going to burn like a cinder in space.) And once again it is I, The AQ, bringing you another year of outstanding Penn basketball coverage as I faithfully have for IHO since 1947.
The 2016-17 season was a good one for the rising Quakers. Although they ended the season with an overall losing record, Steve Donahue can be credited with returning the Quakers back to Ivy relevance. This was helped in no small part by the introduction of the Ivy League Tournament, which allowed Penn to come within two missed free throws of turning the league upside down. Also, you have to credit Donahue for rallying his charges from an 0-6 Ivy death spiral to roar back to eventually capture the league’s coveted fourth spot in the tourney. The rise of the Quakers in 2016 was due in no small part to the play of “Super Stud” forward AJ Brodeur. (I have to call him “Super Stud” because every article I read about him calls him “Super Stud” and I if didn’t refer to him as such, I would therefore be remiss in denying him his rightful studliness.) Also fueling that rise was the late-season emergence of sharp-shooting guard Ryan Betley.
Both of these players return for their sophomore campaigns along with the majority of last year’s team (save for the now graduated Matt Howard) and a loaded freshman class. Thus, there should be much optimism in Philly for another successful season for the young Quakers to build upon.
To me, the nonconference schedule is sneaky tough. Although it lacks some of the name brand teams that Yale and Princeton are ostentatiously playing this year, every team in the Big 5 is ranked in the Ken Pomeroy top 150 with Villanova ranked number one. In addition, Dayton and Monmouth were conference champions last season. These games will give the team ample opportunity to test its chops against major competition without the exhaustion of significant travel. (I’m told via an unnamed source that the real reason Princeton is making its second consecutive trip to Hawaii is because Mitch Henderson is secretly getting Kāpena: an ancient, poi-based, follicle-stimulating Hawaiian herbal treatment for his rapidly thinning vertex. This rumor remains unsubstantiated, however.)
Remaining relatively local is important because the Ivy schedule, which is always tough, will be particularly rigorous this year. In my three centuries of covering the league, I cannot recall a time when the overall player and coaching talent across the Ancient Eight has been this high. What’s more, in February Penn plays the top three teams – including heading north for the dreaded Harvard-Dartmouth road trip – during a one-week span which could very well determine its tournament hopes.
Despite the loss of Matt Howard (Penn’s “Mr. Everything”), the Quakers have a nice combination of veterans and youth. Clearly, “Super Stud” AJ Brodeur is the center, both literally and figuratively, of the squad. How good is he? Well, according to City of Basketball Love, opposing Big 5 coaches had this to say about the sophomore forward:” “Brodeur might be the best player in the Big 5, if not the second best. He’s a tough match-up and because they play four shooters around him, it’s gonna be a really difficult challenge for anyone in the Big 5 to beat them.” While another coach gushed: “(Brodeur) is just a monster, I think he’s super-talented. He might be one of the best bigs to ever play at Penn, when it’s all said and done, and that’s a huge statement. …” Heady praise indeed and definitely worthy of “super stud” status.
But as we all know, there is no A(J) in T-E-A-M. The supporting cast, for the first time since before the dark Miller-Allen years, is skilled while the bench is unusually deep. Ryan Betley, who literally came out of nowhere to help save last year’s season, along with Darnell Foreman, Jackson Donahue, Devon Goodman and speedster Tyler Hamilton form a potent nucleus of guards that can be deployed in waves to wear down the opposition. Still, if that wasn’t impressive enough, a former Allen recruit, the veteran Antonio Woods, returns to the squad from academic suspension. Before he left in the midst of his sophomore year, Woods was an almost 11-point-per-game scorer and is an experienced and deft ball handler. To me, his resurgence could be the key to Penn’s rise to the upper reaches of the league. The AQ believes in second chances (except if you attend a school in central Jersey) and hopes Mr. Woods has a stellar return to the Palestra floor.
As for the frontcourt, in addition to “Super Stud” AJ Brodeur, who is rumored to be moving to the four position this year, Max Rothschild and senior Dan Dwyer (who impressed in the Red and Blue Scrimmage), will apparently see more playing time at center. Should these players work out, along with freshman forward Jarrod Simmons who will most likely crack the lineup sooner than later, they will be of significant help to “Super Stud” AJ Brodeur as he was left to carry the majority of the offensive and defensive load under the hoop last year.
Another solid class for Steve Donahue and his staff. (I am steadfastly reserving kudos for next year’s class because at the time of this writing, SD has apparently squandered my donation cash by signing only one new player for 2018.) Guard Eddie Scott and the above mentioned Mr. Simmons should provide even more depth as they mature this year, while the 7’3” behemoth known as Mark Jackson, (hey, you can’t teach height) who was on a Mormon mission prior to matriculating, and guard Jelani Williams, who is still about two months away from practicing due to an ACL injury last year, will likely take time to develop their college game. Still, the coaching staff should be commended on a bountiful haul.
There are nevertheless a few important keys to the Quakers’ near future. First, their porous defense (seemingly a Donahue trademark) must improve, along with their free throw shooting. Penn made just 65.7 percent of its free throws last season, good for 313th in Division I and worst in the Ivy League. Then even when the team got to the line, it shot an awful 65.7 percent. (Not surprisingly, it was this very skill, or lack of it, that cost the Quakers their upset of Princeton in March.)
And finally, the team is built to fire the three-ball – except historically it hasn’t hit the three-ball. Last season it shot only 33.9 percent, good for 229th in the nation. Only Cornell was worse in the Ivy – and being nearly as bad as Cornell in anything is generally a clear portent for sure-fire disaster. Barring a devastating injury to “Super Stud” AJ Brodeur, Betley, Woods or any combination thereof, I cannot see the Quakers losing the fourth tournament spot to Cornell, Columbia, Brown or Dartmouth. Remember, the money grab known formally as the “Ivy League Basketball Tournament” only requires that a school be one of the four best in the league, not the best. Once the actual tournament begins, the hottest team, regardless of seeding, will have more than a puncher’s shot at a win.
Fortunately, last year the Quakers peaked at the right time. Just ask Mitch “I almost soiled my trousers on the Philly hardwood” Henderson. His Tigers’ stellar season last year came within a mere two free throws of a second-class ticket back to P-town on Jersey Transit. Thus, the punditry can blather all it wants about the Crimson’s top-five recruiting class, Princeton’s nabbing a one-and-done player or Yale’s free agent signing of LeBron James. Once the tourney begins, it is more or less an even playing field. (I am of course ignoring our significant homecourt advantage in the preceding statement as I see it as less of an administrative decision and more of a divine right. (Or as we say in Latin, “Atrium Dextrum Mihi Est,”—“My Court is my Right.” ) So it’s all fine and good to win the Ivy League regular season title, but in the end, this once prodigious honor has been reduced to the equivalent of “kissing your sister” should a lower seed win the tournament and make it to March Madness. Don’t believe me? Just ask James Jones what it was like to win the Ivy title in years past (2002 and 2015), lose a playoff game, and then watch Penn or Harvard play with the big boys from his living room. Remember, Selection Sunday is the real prize, not some piece of metal collecting dust in a New Haven trophy case. Right, James?? (I thought so.)
“Hey AQ, don’t you care about the visibility and nationwide standing of the league? Don’t you care about finally getting a two-bid Ivy?” No, I do not. I only care if Penn is the Ivy NCAA representative, otherwise … not so much. So, for me at least, fourth place is just dandy, but I actually expect this group to exceed expectations and nab third place or perhaps higher. Steve is a proven D-I coach and the Quakers have been improving steadily year to year under his tutelage. This year the Quakers are deep, loaded with talent at all positions, and experienced. Sure, Steph Curry plays in Cambridge and Dwyane Wade is the Yale point guard, but I fully expect that on a sultry day in March next year, “Super Stud” AJ Brodeur will raise not only his game but the Ivy Tournament trophy.
I Believe in Steve.
Stay Red & Blue my Friends,