Just who or what is Penn basketball?

The philosopher speaks. (philly.com)
The philosopher speaks. (philly.com)

PHILADELPHIA – Who are we?

Generally, it’s a question asked in philosophy classrooms across the country by students wearing ugly plaid sweaters, and knit caps on their heads.

The only similarity between Penn coach Jerome Allen and the typical hipster philosophy student is the glasses, but last night, after his team won its first Big 5 game in three years against St. Joe’s, Allen was asking the same question.

And it’s a fair one to ask about this Penn squad, albeit troubling when coming from the man who should know better than anyone else. The Quakers’ effort seems to fluctuate from night to night. When the Palestra has been packed recently, against Villanova last weekend and against the Hawks last night, Penn brings a higher level of energy. Then, when no one is around to watch, the Quakers lay eggs, like the one they laid against Monmouth on Wednesday.

Last night, their leader, Tony Hicks, went from taking zero shot attempts in the first half to shifting completely in his approach in the last twenty minutes of the contest, driving to the rack at will.  Darien Nelson-Henry took control in the second half, but missed two free throws late that could’ve put the game away sooner for the Quakers.

But “Who are we?” may not be the right question to ask, because it doesn’t solve the Quakers’ problems. In fact, when looking at the difference in regards to level of performance from night to night, it’s quite clear who the Quakers are: an inconsistent squad, both on the micro and the macro level.

On a play-by-play basis, the Quakers go from looking in sync offensively to allowing the game to start moving too fast for them to handle. The turnovers – Penn had 19 last night – stem from this problem.  It’s easy to write it off just as poor basketball, but in fact, this problem hints at a larger systemic issue.

The Quakers know how they want to play – they want to get the ball inside in the half court and run the offense through Nelson-Henry, while allowing guards like Hicks to push the tempo on the break – but they aren’t disciplined enough to make that approach work. In the half court, they often get frustrated early in their set if they can’t get the ball inside, and on the break, they can’t slow the game down enough in the moment to avoid from turning the ball over.

They are a young team, with players who are still clearly learning their way.  Antonio Woods and Mike Auger have both had breakout games, but also had ones where their impact hasn’t been felt as much as Allen more than likely would have liked. None of the freshmen can be blamed for the Jekyll and Hyde persona that the Quakers take on the court.

And while Allen can ask about those specific players, ask who they are, he knows what he has in his leaders. Hicks and Nelson-Henry are still plagued by the problems they had as players when they were freshmen. In the same light, Allen himself still has the same coaching issues than he did five years ago.

So he may be able to ask what type of player Auger or Woods will be, but the team? The only consistent thing about Allen’s teams over the course of five years has been their inconsistency. The question he should be asking is how to change some of the traits that have become clear pieces of any Penn team’s identity under Allen’s helm, how to make this team hold onto the positives from a win like this – strong defense, great effort on loose balls – and to avoid some of the pitfalls that his squads have fallen into the last five seasons.

If Allen finds the right answers and can get this team to play like it did against Villanova and St. Joe’s rather than how it did against Monmouth, then they have a shot at exceeding expectations heading into the full Ivy slate.

But first, Allen has to start asking the right questions.