Penn’s got a title to defend … and plenty of assets

A happy crowd. (Penn Office of the President)

As Ivy Hoops coverage dwindles across the digital world like Princeton’s winning percentage, I have returned to the dismay of many and the delight of few for yet another year of Penn Basketball coverage for IHO. Therefore, I will now channel another Philly hero, Sylvester Stallone, and pick up exactly where the team left off last season.

It’s March Madness in Wichita, Kan., 2018. The Penn Quakers, in their second matchup of the season against an eventual Final Four squad (how many teams in America can say that?), are giving the Kansas Jayhawks all they can handle in a 1 vs 16 matchup in which many pundits say the Quakers could be the first 16 team to knock off a number 1 seed. By the end of the game, and a more than laudable showing on national TV by the underdogs, Penn virtually matches Kansas in every statistical category except one: free throw shooting. Here the Quakers shoot a paltry 33 percent. That, and not being able to guard Big 12 Player of the Year Devonte’ Graham, lead to a quick plane ride back to Philly for the Ivy League champs.

Hey AQ, did you just say “Ivy League champs?”

Yes, as a matter of fact, I did. For the first time in more than a decade, Penn has once again returned to its rightful place at the top of The League.  Although picked to finish fourth in the ABPIP (Annual Bullshit Preseason Poll), Steve Donahue not only exceeded all of the punditry’s expectations, but his own as well. After Penn bested Harvard in the Ivy League Tournament final, Donahue said this, per the Daily Pennsylvanian:

“Honestly I didn’t even dream about this, I didn’t think we could do it. I drove home last night saying, ‘I gotta get that out of my head, I gotta show some confidence.”

Apparently, he did and delivered yet another Ivy crown to West Philadelphia several years ahead of schedule.

Donahue, as well as AD Grace Calhoun, must be congratulated for bringing Penn Basketball back after an interminable 10 years of dysfunction, ambivalence, irrelevance and even criminal behavior at both the player and coaching levels. (More on that later.) So besides raising a championship banner to The Cathedral rafters, what can we now expect from the 2019 edition of Penn Basketball?

What have we lost?

With the graduation of Darnell Foreman, Penn has lost its captain, floor general, emotional leader, but their only senior starter. An essential player both on the court and in the locker room, Darnell virtually willed his team to victory in the Ivy $ournament final versus Harvard. Lost along with him are Sam Jones and Caleb Wood: talented long-range specialists that Donahue’s offense thrives on. Finally, the former Fairleigh Dickinson transfer turned team captain, Matt MacDonald is also gone. Although, his playing time was usually sparse, Donahue gives him the most credit for transforming the culture of Penn Basketball from one of anarchy to one of order. All will indeed be missed.

Speaking of “lost,” I believe it is now time for another patented

“AQ Digression …

“AQ Digression …”
“AQ Digression …”

The curious case of Jerome Allen.

We all make mistakes in life; I’ve made a ton, but I have been particularly taken aback what has transpired in the last few months regarding Penn’s former coach. I have never met coach Allen, but for years I have always been a staunch supporter of him. Even as his teams sunk lower and lower in the standings, his behavior on the sidelines became more unhinged (I don’t think I will ever forget him screaming at Zack Rosen in front of player’s parents during a game at Columbia) and his recruits became more and more embarrassing to the fanbase and to The University.

I have stood by him remembering what a transcendent player he was, and what hope he brought to a once proud but now faltering program. Throughout it all (the mass player suspensions and alleged drug abuse by several members of the team, on-the-court fisticuffs and, of course, criminal behavior on the part of at least one player), I still believed in him.

In my opinion, however, taking bribes is completely inexcusable, especially for an Ivy coach. (Allen reportedly pleaded guilty to a bribery-related money laundering charge in Miami federal court earlier this month.) Teachers, mentors and coaches have a special place in our society, especially collegiate instructors. Parents give you their children at a critical point in their lives in hopes that you will nurture them to become their best selves in the classroom, on the court and in society. It is a sacred trust.

In this sense, and his trite mea culpa notwithstanding, I see Mr. Allen as an abject failure: a poor coach and now an even poorer role model. He is fortunate he now works in professional sports where substance abuse, duplicity, domestic violence, and other more serious crimes have unfortunately been an indelible part of that industry’s fabric.  In the NBA, his petty crime of accepting an $18,000 bribe and his employer’s “punishment,” a feeble two-week suspension, seems almost laughable. What do you think would happen if he still worked at Penn, or in a law firm, or in corporate management? (Recall, Yale unloaded its head football coach in 2011 for lying about being interviewed for a Rhodes Scholarship and playing for the San Francisco 49ers.) It seems the only other profession a crime, yes, crime, like his would only be tolerated is in politics. (I will refrain from dabbling into that putrid quagmire in this forum.)  In the end, now that I think about it, perhaps Jerome Allen chose so many players of questionable character because he himself, beneath the polished veneer of his quiet demeanor and Savile Row suits, is also of questionable character.

Enough of my sanctimony …

What do we have?

Plenty.

To begin with, first team All-Ivy AJ Brodeur and second team All-Ivy Ryan Betley return for their junior campaigns. Both have been a solid inside-outside combination to keep opposing defenses honest. Seniors Max Rothschild, who blossomed in the post last season, and Antonio Woods, the team’s best defender and the sole remaining survivor of the horrendous Jerome Allen years, also return to add bulk and experience to the starting five. These four will most likely form the “core four” and garner the most of Penn’s starting five.

The rest of the team is especially deep at guard. Almost all have seen some playing time over the past two years and these include: Ray Jerome, Devon Goodman, Tyler Hamilton, Jackson Donahue and Jake Silpe. All are quick and deft ballhandlers and will give the coaching staff a deep bench from which to draw from when it’s time to “go small.”

In the frontcourt, in addition to Rothschild and Brodeur, the Quakers return  the steady Jarrod Simmons and the explosive Eddie Scott. Although he was injured for most of last season, Scott gives the team an explosiveness and athleticism that few other players on the roster have at this point. It was he led Penn off the bench in that four-overtime thriller at Monmouth last year. He came off the bench and poured in 21 points on 8-for-8 shooting and 1-for-1 from three. I attended that game and was dreading the long car ride back to Manhattan until Mr. Scott’s dunk at the end of the second overtime electrified the Quaker faithful. In my opinion, depending on how he plays, he may in fact be the X factor for Penn this year. Finally, there is the 7’4” mystery that is Mark Jackson.  Although he did play in the Red & Blue Scrimmage, he appears to still be a raw talent, and I do not expect a lot of playing time for him. Yet, for pure entertainment purposes, I would love to see him get into a few games. He may be the tallest player ever to suit up in The Ivy.

Overall, there is fantastic nucleus of experienced upperclassmen as most of the team consists of juniors and seniors. This is key because in The Ivy, experience, rather than pure talent alone, usually wins.

What are we getting?

Steve has brought in another solid recruiting class led by 6’10” Michael Wang. Donahue has already said that the freshman should see playing time from the start. An extremely versatile player for his size, Wang can play inside, shoot the three with confidence and Steve has already proclaimed him perhaps the team’s “best passer.” Heady praise despite never having played a college game. He also led all scorers with 19 points during the Red & Blue scrimmage (along with seven rebounds, three assists, two steals, and two blocks). When the Quakers need to “go big,” a frontcourt of Wang, Rothschild and Brodeur could prove extremely formidable. The other freshman of note is shooting guard Bryce Washington. Another three-star recruit from Michigan where he also was a track and field star, Washington has earned the praise of the coaching staff for his shooting ability and athleticism.  However, according to those who watched him in the scrimmage, he still needs a bit of polish before seeing any extensive playing time. As an Ivy hoops coach once told me, “you never know what you’re getting until the player is on the court in a college game.” I suppose this sentiment can be applied to all eight teams. Regardless, we’ll all find out soon enough.

The schedule

Steve has put together a manly schedule for 2019. In addition to the Pomeroy top 150 Ivy teams like HYP (which of course we will play twice) and battling national champion Villanova at the Palestra, the majority of nonconference schedule is tough: Miami (21), Temple (82), St Joe’s (104), Toledo (114), George Mason (117), New Mexico (120), Northern Iowa (123).  To me, this is the Quakers’ most difficult pre-conference schedule in years. It is therefore quite conceivable that the they may have a losing record by the time Ivy play rolls around. Still, I’m sure the thinking is to play the most difficult competition early to prep for when it really counts. Clearly, the marquee game will be against the Wildcats. I can tell you from experience, anything can happen in a Big 5 game. I just hope it happens this year.

And now a second patented

“AQ Digression …

“AQ Digression …”
“AQ Digression …”

Speaking of the tourney, having attended both Ivy League Tournaments, it is clear to me that it is basically a middle-aged event. (Which, by the way, Ivy Athletics does an atrocious job at promoting and merchandizing at the site. C’mon Robin, if you’re going for the cash, then go for the cash.) Unlike many other similar end-of-season hoops carnivals put on by other conferences, the student bodies of the competing schools for the Ivy Tournament have been noticeably absent. (In my estimation, they didn’t even fill a quarter of the seats in the Palestra. At Penn, this was mostly because it coincided with spring break. Nevertheless, there are still plenty of local and regional students who don’t even bother to make the trip to watch the game in person. (The old folks do, so they certainly have no excuse.)

The Cathedral stands were thus replete with bald-headed dudes with big guts and their stretch pants wearing consorts sipping thick, white, Milk of Magnesia spritzers. Yale spring break also coincides this year with the basketball tournament, so don’t expect much again from the under-22 crowd. Because Yale’s arena is about a quarter the size of the Palestra, whichever school’s partisans manage to scrounge the most seats will therefore have a distinct crowd advantage. (There is no question the Quakers had an advantage in last year’s final versus Harvard. The crowd was deafening.) Personally, I think it will be the school with the finest basketball tradition and the most rabid fans … Penn.

Break out the stretch pants!

“Yo Adrian, what’s your prediction?

It’s going to be a difficult but entertaining season for Quakers basketball. As far as our title hopes go, for what it’s worth, I think Harvard has the most talent on paper. (Chris Lewis, even if he was on the court by himself, is downright scary in the post.)  The ABPIP (see above) have the Quakers finishing second in the league behind the Crimson. (As you now know, I never take preseason polls seriously though.) Yale has reloaded (with James Jones going for his 152nd consecutive top-half finish) and, despite their latest freshman wunderkind, I see Princeton spending a year trying to find themselves. The second division, perhaps with the exception of Cornell, isn’t even worth talking about. Oh sure, they can undoubtedly give some of the contenders an “L” on any given night, but none can probably do so with consistency.

Do I think we should repeat as champions? Absolutely. The Quakers will have great experience and depth, but let’s not forget the famous Ivy League $ournament has now rendered the regular season champion as a paper champion only. The four-team tournament in New Haven will decide who goes to March Madness, which, let’s be honest, is the real champion in most people’s eyes. It is here that I expect Penn’s experience will eventually come to the fore. In the end though, whichever of the “Big 3” (Harvard, Yale and Penn) remains the most injury-free and has the most momentum going into New Haven will eventually make it to The Big Dance.

I Believe in Steve.

Stay Red & Blue my Friends,

The AQ

3 thoughts on “Penn’s got a title to defend … and plenty of assets

  1. After last year’s Tiger debacle, Old Toothless has little to say at this point. AQ, you must feel you are in a battle of wits with an unarmed man! Your analysis strikes me as spot on…nice work. The Tiger season will be made or broken in the first week of January, 2019. Back-to-back games with the Quakers. FWIW, my son was a team manager during the four years Jerome Allen bedeviled the Tigers. He says Allen was easily the best player we faced. Taking a bribe to give up a roster spot is mind-boggling , indeed.

  2. Tx TT, I appreciate the comments. The tigers, IMO, will need another year, but they have surprised before. It shows you the leadership power Spencer Weiz brought to the team. They just looked lost last year. Still, I would rather play them than Harvard at the end of the year.

    As for Jerome, I saw him play and he was amazing. As a coach, his record speaks for itself. The bribery thing has shocked and disappointed many, obviously me included, but it doesn’t mean I think he is a bad person—don’t know him. Regardless, I am certain there is no one more disappointed than Jerome Allen himself. In the end, I suppose, we will all make our own heavens and our own hells. Let’s hope, for his and his family’s sake, he spends as little time in the latter as possible.

    The AQ

  3. It’s great to see the AQ back and ready to go!

    While this is the most confident I have been that Penn will be in the top four for the Ivy Tournament, I am less confident about a regular season title. Harvard and Yale both figured out how to deal with their injuries in the second half of last year – Harvard being faster at adapting than Yale. Now, both teams have rock solid recruiting classes. Even if Harvard doesn’t get Aiken and Towns back, and Yale does not get Bruner back, they both should be as good, or better this year.

    With that stated, Penn’s core four and the team’s defense is certainly able to compete with the New Englanders. I’m not sure about leadership, but I’m hoping that Goodman, Silpe, J. Donahue, Washington and Wang can recover the numbers lost by Foreman, Wood and Sam Jones. It will be a challenge, though, to recover the over 30 percent of the team’s point and over 35 percent of the team’s made threes. With all that stated, the biggest concern I have is with the free throw shooting, where they were 65.7 percent last year and haven’t been over 68 percent since 2013. Hopefully, Coach Donahue brought in Rick Barry to work with the team.

    The Jerome Allen stuff is certainly complicated. I agree he was an amazing player, the best I have seen in over 30 years of watching Ivy League hoops. He was a poor head coach, but he was not ready to be put in charge – that one is all on Steve Bilsky. This bribery is a very sad ending to his Penn career. Without any real comment from Allen, maybe the school’s investigation will provide some clarity on what went into his decisions.

    Speaking of the investigation, when will we hear the results? This investigation, which is being done by an unknown group of people, is about to enter its 14th week (It was announced on July 23rd ). To put that into perspective, the University of Maryland concluded two more serious and more involved investigations in less time. The Terps’ external investigation into the tragic death of sophomore football player Jordan McNair was announced on June 19th and the report was submitted on September 12th (13 weeks and 3 days). The external review of the “toxic culture” of its football program was announced on August 14th and the report was submitted on October 19th (9 weeks and 3 days).

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