The Penn women played Princeton dead even in the regular season last year and almost beat them in the Ivy League Tournament. They lost two starters to graduation, but this year wasn’t supposed to provide much in the way of surprises: relentless defense, a disciplined half-court offense, and dominant play by junior center Eleah Parker. Well, Penn has been full of surprises, most of them good.
- Kayla Padilla is the most exciting freshman in the league since Bella Alarie. And that’s at 5-9, not 6-4. Padilla is very quick and has a great shooting touch, but more than that, she creates plays for herself and her teammates to an extent that is rare in Ivy women’s basketball.
- Penn’s style of play has changed, partly to take advantage of Padilla’s arrival. For 10 years, Mike McLaughlin has put defense-first, slow-the-pace teams on the floor. This year’s edition is still ferocious on defense, but the ball moves back downcourt much faster, and breakaways are much more frequent. As a result, Penn has upped its scoring while still stymieing opposing teams with a remarkably effective 2-3 zone. (And Penn still doesn’t foul. I’m pretty sure it has yet to reach bonus territory in its first eight games.)
- Penn’s press has changed in style and intent. Penn always harassed opponents in its backcourt but rarely forced turnovers as a direct result; the clear intent was to slow the other team so it didn’t cross half-court till 21 seconds were left on the shot clock. That led to lots of rushed shots and shot-clock violations. This year Penn has tightened the screws, forcing turnovers on traps. That’s partly, again, because the Quakers have the speed and long arms to make the press more effective, but there was clearly a deliberate decision about the change in approach, and it has been dramatic.
- Phoebe Sterba has stepped into Ashley Russell’s sneakers. Sterba is the senior this year, and she has become the do-everything guard — though three inches taller and with a more accurate three-point shot.
- Eleah Parker is strangely absent. Well, of course she’s on the court, and it’s hard to miss her because she’s a 6-4 center and immensely talented. But she has not been dominant yet this year. Truth is, Penn hasn’t needed her to carry the team in its first seven wins, and its loss to perennial power Duke was nothing to be ashamed of. But Parker averaged just 11.6 points and 5.9 rebounds a game in her first seven, and in a 40-point blowout Saturday against Stetson, she contributed four blocks, one rebound and two points on 1-for-5 shooting in 16 minutes. (She’s also just 3-for-14 from the foul line this year.) I don’t know whether she’s been sick, or worn out from summer play in the Pan Am Games, or whether the coach is trying to keep her fresh for the more demanding stretch of the season, but I look forward to seeing her dominant again.
- Emily Anderson, Parker’s senior backup at center, has proven that the short glimpses of great play we’d seen from her last year were no fluke. She’s an excellent defender, blocking shots inside and out, and she has a deft shooting touch as well. Opposing fans who are glad to see Parker take a break will wonder whether they are better off with Anderson on the court instead. For that matter, Penn has a remarkably deep and strong bench, featuring Tori Crawford at forward and Mia Lakstigala and Michae Jones at guard.
- Kennedy Suttle is the strong and effective forward we didn’t know Penn had. She barely made an impression early in her freshman year and then missed the rest of the season with an injury; this year she is starting every game, rebounding effectively, playing solid defense and shooting well.
- Penn is halfway to the Big 5 title. Is that a not-very-big deal to you? You must not be from Philadelphia. But Mike McLaughlin is from Philly, and he played college ball in Philly (Holy Family), and he knows that the Penn women have never been the sole claimant of the Big 5 title. (A three-way tie is nice, but a one-way tie is much, much nicer.) Penn has taken what’s usually the easier half of its Big 5 schedule, with wins at St. Joseph’s and La Salle; games at Villanova and Temple come in January. Temple is probably the stronger of the two; it just gave a scare to No. 6 South Carolina, losing 78-71.
I’m looking forward to seeing what McLaughlin tries to solve the Princeton puzzle, but I don’t see another team in the Ivies that can compete with the Penn women for the regular-season title. And I’m not sure what even Princeton will do to solve the Penn puzzle. I think the Ivies will have a very strong argument for getting two teams in the NCAA Tournament for the second time in four seasons.