A turnaround to remember for Penn basketball under Steve Donahue

I must admit that there were times over the last 10 years that I began to despair.

Penn basketball has always been an essential part of my sports spectating life, and yet, inexplicably,
there was the “crown jewel” of Penn Athletics in shambles. For those of us who had always witnessed greatness on the hardwood from the Red and Blue, the past decade has been nothing less than a gut-wrenching, surreal descent into irrelevance and thus humiliation.

First there was a poor hire for head coach, a man who was clearly too small for the moment. Then there was the hasty, ill-conceived promotion of a former hoops hero. Although his heart was always in the right place, his coaching inexperience ultimately proved too great for him to overcome. Along the way, there were multiple iterations of earnest yet ultimately unsuccessful attempts to reclaim the Ivy title by a variety of Penn players. First, there was “Savior Ball” courtesy of the talented Zack Rosen. Then “Hero Ball” by the gifted, but untamed Tony Hicks. And finally, “Center Ball” by Darien Nelson-Henry, whose height could not overcome his unfulfilled collegiate potential. It got to the point where I, one of Penn’s most ardent hoop fans, couldn’t even watch the team. By 2015, Penn basketball was indeed lost.

That is, until the arrival of Steve Donahue.

Donahue’s hiring was met across the Penn hoops community with mixed emotions. Even I was initially diffident. The punditry (of which there is no shortage of on social media), believed that his success at Cornell was the equivalent of simply “being in the right place at the right time,” that it was a once-in-a-generation achievement that could never be duplicated elsewhere. They would go on to say that his “failure” and eventual firing at Boston College supported this hypothesis. That he was a skilled offensive tactician whose teams often lacked defensive savvy and discipline.

Nevertheless, it remained undeniable that Steve Donahue proved he could create a winning program at Cornell, in fact, a veritable basketball powerhouse in the Ivy League, as the first coach in 20 years to successfully break up the once-omnipotent Penn-Princeton duopoly. What’s more, he did it at a geographically isolated institution that heretofore possessed little basketball interest or history.

In 2015, Ivy League basketball also bore little resemblance to 2007 — the last time Penn won a
championship. Donahue would now somehow have to overcome the changes in the conference that, ironically, he helped create. His brief Cornell dynasty, followed by the elevation of the Harvard and Yale programs, was bringing more parity to the Ancient Eight. Even Columbia (I know, it’s unthinkable) had become a force under the guidance of Kyle Smith. In fact, while the Quakers continued to flounder in insignificance, I freely admit that I envied Columbia and the dynamism and energy coach Smith had miraculously brought to Morningside Heights. And, of course, there was always our ancient nemesis Princeton, whose brief encounter with coaching ineptitude was quickly overcome by the hiring of Sydney Johnson and, later, Mitch Henderson.

However, Steve Donahue in three short years has proven the doubters all wrong. To delight of Quaker
Nation, Penn has once again retaken its rightful place as this year’s Ivy League champion. More
importantly, Donahue has made Penn basketball relevant again. There is no longer any reason for the
Quaker faithful to envy another program: Yale is remains injury-prone, the Crimson are still full of
themselves, Henderson’s Tigers seemed to be lost this year without Spencer Weisz’s floor leadership and the traditionally lower half of the league is in its usual perpetual state of rebuilding. Conversely, the 2017-18 Quakers presently stand a mere two victories from the NCAA Tournament.

So, how did this turnaround happen?

AJ IS A-OK

Not to take anything away from any of his teammates, but one can argue that the recruitment of AJ Brodeur was a major cornerstone in the turnaround of the Penn team we see today. He was an immediate impact freshman. From outplaying a 7’6” center in Florida last year to unselfishly sharing the post duties this year with Max Rothschild, Brodeur could have listened to his own outstanding press, but instead prudently maintained his role to remain within the “team” concept. A scoring and rebounding leader worthy of having been named first-team All-Ivy, he is clearly a coachable athlete who is willing to do whatever is asked of him. Leaders lead by example, and in this case, who can argue with the example he is exhibiting?

DEFENSE WINS

Donahue came to Penn as an offensive-minded coach. Strangely, it’s now the Quakers’ defense that is making Penn a formidable foe. Penn ranks 25th nationally in eFG% defense (47.2%) and third in three-point defense (29.5%) Pretty impressive, and even Donahue realizes how his difficulties at Boston College have now yielded positive results for his current team. “My reputation is as an offensive coach, but part of what I learned at Boston College probably, is that you have to defend,” Donahue said last month per NYC Buckets. These (Penn) kids are built to defend. They love defending. We’ll keep trying to figure out a way to get better offensively.” It is clear then that Donahue’s “failure” at Boston has indeed yielded benefits in Philadelphia.

BENCH POWER

Penn probably has the deepest bench in the Ancient Eight. The starting five may remain the same
for each contest, but each game seems to produce yet another bench hero. Three weeks ago it was
Devon Goodman, a player who had barely 10 minutes of playing time all season but suddenly lit
up Columbia for 23 points.  There was Sam Jones’ “unconscious” sharpshooting performance at Dayton, Eddie Scott’s 21 points in Penn’ s four-overtime classic against Monmouth, and the recent contributions of the formerly seldom-used Jake Silpe and captain Matt MacDonald. And don’t forget Caleb Wood’s “instant offense” as a versatile sixth man.

What makes this all the more impressive is the open-mindedness Donahue has used to apply the talents of his bench creatively in the face of a mostly useless freshman class which has been devastated by
injury. These multiple and interchangeable parts also makes the Quakers extremely difficult to scout,
as Columbia coach Jim Engles admitted after the game. “No disrespect, but he (Goodman) wasn’t the exactly the focus of our scouting report.”

While at that game, I personally could see Columbia’s starting five tiring late in the second half as four out of their five starters had played an average of 31 minutes. I ask you, how can anyone chase Devon ”Lightning” Goodman around the arena after playing that long?

STABILITY

This graph by Luke Benz and Yale Sports Analytics says it all:

 

While the rest of the league has been in flux throughout this Ivy season, Penn as the season has progressed has remained completely linear at the top. (To be fair, Dartmouth is flat-lined as well, but of course, in the more lethal sense.)

This stability is testimony of Donahue’s steady hand. In three short years he has gotten his players
to believe in themselves and to subjugate their own individual goals for the greater good.
Nowhere was this attitude more on display than last year when his young team came back from
a 0-6 league deficit last season to win a berth in the Ivy “Post$eason” Tournament. I could never
imagine any of the post-Fran Dunphy teams ever achieving this. It also maybe the turning point for the
program. In fact, Jackson Donahue’s three-pointer to defeat Harvard (“The Shot Heard ‘Round The
Ivy”), may go down as the one moment that finally turned the corner for Penn basketball. Clearly this
confidence and momentum has now carried over to this year with spectacular results.

COMPASSION

Penn basketball had gone through a brutal decade of losing. Early in Donahue’s first year, the team had understandably lost its confidence. The Quakers at that point still had a terrible habit of descending immediately into a deep deficit  in a contest and not having the collective self-assurance to ever rise out of it. These games were then essentially lost within the first 10 minutes. However, in Donahue’s first ever game as Penn’s head coach, that aptly demonstrates the coach’s experience and empathetic approach. Penn had jumped out to an early lead versus Robert Morris and then quickly lost it. Sensing his team’s morale plummeting, Donahue corralled his squad during a timeout and said (per the Daily Pennsylvanian),
“Just because one team — Robert Morris — 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 grammar (he’s Coach of the Year, not English Professor of the Year), the meaning of his words was nevertheless not lost on his team. It was symbolic arm-over-the-shoulder kindheartedness, a vital boost for a young impressionable team. They then went on and won the game. It is clear that Donahue is constantly reading the temperature of his charges and applying the necessary motivation to keep them focused.

As I was leaving Levien Gymnasium three weeks after yet another Quaker victory, I overheard
two Columbia fans lamenting the current state of their team: “You see, Penn has a system. Even though they weren’t hitting their shots in the beginning of the game, they kept using their system until it worked. We have nothing.”

It wasn’t too long ago that Penn had “nothing” as well. But that, as they say, is history. Penn is
the Ivy League champion and Steve Donahue is now the well-deserved Ivy Coach of the Year.

Sometimes I wonder if Sam Jones, Darnell Foreman and Antonio Woods, refugees from the darkest
days of the program, ever thought they would enjoy so much success during their collegiate careers after going through so much losing at Penn. Regardless, when they henceforth look down at their championship rings, they will forever have their current coach (in addition to themselves) to thank.

I Believe in Steve.

Stay Red and Blue my Friends,
The AQ

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