Question: How many Ivy League hoops squads could lose their leading scorer from the preceding year in the first five minutes of a nascent season and still go on to beat KenPom No. 44 Miami as well as the AP No. 17 defending national champions, all the while compiling an overall 9-2 record?
Answer: None — except Penn.
The fact that the Quakers have been so successful so far this season appears to be less a factor of overall talent (which is substantial nonetheless), and more of a function of overall depth and system.
Nowhere were these latter two qualities on full display than on Tuesday night before a packed house when the Quakers knocked off Villanova, thus ending the Wildcats’ 25 game Big 5 winning streak as well as their painful 16-year reign over Penn.
Before the season started, I wrote for IHO, “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 it did.
Villanova probably had better athletes, but it was clear from the beginning of the game that Penn was, on this night at least, the better team: superior ball movement, greater depth, better defense and equally poor foul shooting. For 40 minutes, Penn dictated not only the tempo of the game but also kept the champs constantly on the defensive, forcing them to feverishly play catch-up for the entire night. So how was this possible?
In just over three seasons, Steve Donahue has instilled in his squad the concept of playing true “team” basketball. The loss of Ryan Betley is less of a factor now because his point production and defense has been dutifully replaced by committee. To prove the unselfishness of this team, the current leader in assists is AJ Brodeur: a post player.
Although this is an experienced team which on most nights starts juniors and seniors, mitigating Betley’s loss even more has been the immediate impact of freshmen Michael Wang and Bryce Washington. While Washington has been a steady, sweet shooting guard, Wang has been nothing short of a revelation: a frontcourt player with backcourt passing skills who can shoot the three ball better than anyone on the team. Against, the Wildcats, I thought he had a terrible shooting game, but he still quietly amassed 14 points and six rebounds. What’s more, he has an unusually developed court presence that says, “Give me the ball, I’ve been there before.”
Finally, there is the maturation of guards Antonio Woods, a great lockdown defender who has improved his shooting by 3.2 points per game, Devon Goodman (who runs, drives, stands, catches and shoots exactly like Knicks Hall of Famer Bernard King – YouTube it and see for yourself) and Jake Silpe. Although Goodman has been a steady and deadly point guard who now leads the team in minutes played and points per game, he had already contributed greatly toward the end of last season, starting with his coming out party in the now famous Jim Engles “no disrespect game” at Columbia.
You could now argue that it is Silpe has improved even more. You can see his new elevated confidence now every time he steps on the court. From flying across the floor to grab a loose ball to leading the team in steals, Silpe is having a magical senior year. Originally a Jerome Allen commit, he has persevered among a plethora of newly recruited guards, and his determination is finally paying off.
I suppose that most of all, it is the team confidence that has been the key, and for this you have to credit Steve Donahue and the coaching staff. I have never been in a team meeting, but after Tuesday night, I know that Steve makes his team believe that it can beat anyone, anywhere. Why wouldn’t they? They lost to Coaches Poll and KenPom No. 24 Kansas State by less than the score indicated, knocked off Miami, outplayed the national champs on nationwide TV (the greatest recruiting tool of all), have an average margin of victory of 18.4 points per game and look like they’re having a great time playing together. Amazingly, what I saw on Tuesday night is the complete inverse of the team Jerome Allen “coached” during Antonio Woods’s freshman year. There is discipline, unity, passion, esprit de corps, equally poor free throw shooting (.675 to .643) but, most of all, happiness. They’re having fun. You can see it every time they take the court – and they’re taking us all along for the ride.
We are only 11 games in to the season, but there are obviously three more important goals for this team: winning the Big 5, winning the Ivy League and going deep into March Madness. But regardless of what happens, I know it’s now safe to say that Penn Basketball is finally back! And it’s a pleasure to watch.
I believe in Steve.
Stay Red & Blue, my friends,