It comes in many forms. Caterpillar to chrysalis to beautiful butterfly: Whether it’s an insect, person, business, or athletic team, it is a necessary transformation for survival. No entity on the planet is exempt: evolve or perish.
This will be a curiously critical year for Quaker Basketball because it will show whether Steve Donahue, with his first true recruiting class, can be competitive in the increasingly upwardly mobile Ivy League. Evidence of institutional growth, something that consistently eluded Jerome Allen’s teams and consequently vexed and frustrated the Penn fan base, will soon be on full display as the season progresses. True, the Quakers will be a young squad (11 of the 19 players will be either freshmen or sophomores), but that should not significantly mask whether they will be able to take that next crucial step back toward Ivy hoops relevance. Of course, there will be growing pains but I, unlike the perpetually lugubrious Penn Basketball message boards, am unusually sanguine about this team.
(BTW, if you’ve had a bad day, fought with your significant other or had a particularly coarse colonoscopy, never read the Quaker message boards. Pessimistic does not quite characterize these guys. Although the sun will surely engulf the earth in a few billion years, the folks who write these missives are probably already buying Kevlar-lined boxer shorts. To make matters worse, Mike James of @ivybball fame occasionally swoops in from time to time with his impassive, misanthropic brand of statistical analysis to get them even more worked up. “All I’m saying about Penn is that they may look good now but if you run the regression, the numbers say otherwise for the long term…”)
So what can we expect from this years’ Quaker team? I’m a positive guy, so let’s start with the good.
Steve has been around the block a few times already and knows most coaches, unless they’re named Carlesimo or Rick “The Pimp” Pitino, do not win with freshmen. Thus, foreseeing this inevitability, he went out and got some instant experience in the form of Fairleigh Dickinson transfer Matt MacDonald (who dropped a magnificent 29 points on Princeton while with his former team) and JUCO transfer Caleb Wood. Both are adept at shooting the three-ball and MacDonald, who sat out last year, has already been is such a potent force on the bench and in the locker room, has been voted captain (along with senior Matt Howard) by his peers.
Wood is especially intriguing. The 6’4” junior with a NBA lineage led Lassen Community College last year in scoring, averaging 23.2 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game. More importantly, he had a 49.1 three-point shooting percentage and an 84.7 free-throw shooting percentage. Whoa AQ, did you just say 49.1 percent? Why yes, as a matter of fact I did. As this is now the three-point generation, these two players will allow Penn to spread the floor like few teams in the recent past.
Promising freshman class
It’s a large class headlined by NMH forward A.J. Brodeur. With the departure of Darien Nelson-Henry, the 6’8” bruiser appears to be the most college-ready and will most likely see a fair amount of playing time, but there are a few other youthful gems in the Class of 2020. This is an extremely guard-centric group with Devon Goodman, Ray Jerome, Zach Kaminsky and 6’5” swingman Ryan Betley filling out the backcourt. Betley is possibly the best of these, but a broken finger will keep him out about six weeks. The only other frontcourt player is 6’8” Jakab Mijakowski, who won a title with the Polish National Team. Although I have not seen any of them play as yet, Donahue has said he is “real excited” about the group as a whole. It appears to me that his goal seems to be creating a kind of “Golden State East.” By this I mean, a team that overall is small, fast and can shoot a three point shot with accuracy. If so, this group is clearly a step in that direction.
The Veterans are Solid
Captain Matt Howard returns and is an experienced all-around player who was the Quakers’ second-leading scorer last year. Plus, he is one of the few remaining survivors from the darkest of the Allen years, so you know he’s tough. What’s more, Jackson Donahue is a wild man. Only a sophomore, this is one intense dude. His eyes always seem to be popping out of his head as he dribbles the ball down court. As evidenced by the scrimmage against Rollie Massimino’s Keiser squad (a sturdy team that went 30-5 last season and defeated Drexel the night before), Donahue also seems to have perfected his three-point stroke over the summer accounting for 26 points (seven treys) on the night. Add to these an improved Jake Silpe and the mercurial Tyler Hamilton (who gave Princeton fits last year) and the Quakers, for a change, will not be lacking in firepower or floor leadership.
The Ivy Tournament
Still not a fan, but for a rebuilding team like Penn it is a tremendous opportunity. For the first time, the Quakers only have to be fourth-best team in the league. If they were to achieve this – let’s face it – unexceptional goal, they get a shot at postseason glory years ahead of schedule. Regardless, getting into the tournament would be an incredible boon for the program and would boast recruiting even more. As an added bonus, they would also get to play their games in front of the home crowd in our illustrious building. An unfair advantage, you say? Well, Tiger fan, whoever said life is fair? Do I think it’s attainable? Yes, I do, but more on that later.
…..and now for the Penn message board material.
You Can’t Win with Freshmen
It is a good class and a definite building building block for the future, but there is a lot of inexperience throughout this team at the collegiate level. If just one of the recruits can adjust quickly to the faster pace and the bigger bodies of the college game a la Evan Boudreaux of Dartmouth or Matt Morgan of Cornell, the Quakers will be a handful for most of the conference to deal with. I can envision their quick Brownian motion offense frustrating and confounding opponents on a nightly basis. Nevertheless, there will still be the inevitable learning curve and growing pains for the incoming class. In addition, an unexpected injury to a key player and they will have few talented upperclassmen to fall back on. Experience and abundant senior leadership usually are to two most important qualities to capture the Ivy title. Unfortunately, Penn is sorely lacking in both.
The Frontcourt is Thin—Literally and Figuratively
Now that he’s gone, I can finally admit that I was never a big DNH guy. I know this sounds like heresy for a Penn fan, but it’s true. In his final game last year, he fumbled the ball with the game on the line, and his missed layups and turnovers in the paint were frustrating. “Hey AQ, who are you to criticize a gifted D1 athlete? When was the last time that you strapped on a jock?” Funny you should ask. A few weeks ago, I was visiting the Kardashians in L.A. and Caitlyn was regaling me with stories of her gold medal days at the ’76 Montreal Olympics. Then she suggested we head to the hot tub …
Anyway, as I was saying, I was never a DNH fan, but he did undeniably have a fair amount of “pudding” on his 265-pound frame. That is difficult to replace. The current cadre of frontcourt players for the Quakers are either thin for their size, relatively small for their position (McManus is the only player taller than 6’8”), inexperienced or a combination of all three. Therefore, rim protection will be a huge problem. The three-point shot by definition is a low- percentage shot. It would always be better to layup or dunk and that is exactly what bigger, more athletic opposing teams will try to do against Penn. On nights when Howard, Donahue and MacDonald (sounds like a law firm) go cold, it could get ugly. Remember, “live by the three, die by the three.” (I just made that up.)
The Schedule sucks
I usually like a tough schedule, but I also hate losing. The Quakers have the second most difficult non-confernce home schedule in the nation. Nice. Their first four games are on the road, and I think Penn will be lucky to return for their first home game against the National Champions at 2-2. On the other hand, it is entirely possible that they could be looking at 1-5 (I try not to think 0-6) when they meet Lafayette on Dec. 7. No matter, as long as they can pull it together before their upset of Princeton on Jan. 7, all will be forgiven.
The Ivy Tournament
Not being included in the Tournament by failing to make the cut would be a gut-wrenching experience for the Quakers and Quaker fans alike. It would be like having a party at your house and not being invited. (I certainly know how that feels, but no need to dwell on that here.)
The Butterfly Effect
Talent is great, but “teams” win in basketball. (Hear that Harvard??) It is a team game in the purist sense. Not even Michael Jordan could win until Phil Jackson got him to start sharing the ball. This aspect of growth falls directly on Steve Donahue. How fast he can rally, unite and elevate his young squad, as well as how quickly they adapt to the college game, will go a long way in determining far they will go this year. It is a maturation process not without many pitfalls, but I still think he can do it, and so far, I think he has already done a good job at nurturing. Unlike some of Jerome Allen’s more dysfunctional squads, these Quakers actually seem to like each other (it doesn’t hurt that Donahue, Brodeur and McManus were all high school teammates) and they appear to play solid “team” ball as opposed to many of Allen’s teams who relied far too heavily upon the “Hicks Hoist.” Another major problem with Allen’s squads were that they were extremely poor when it came to executing the game’s fundamentals: the incessant fouls, poor ball protection and porous defense. If these three areas of the game are not well-controlled, it will be another extremely long season. Most indications from last year are that SD has everyone moving in the direction when it comes to these problem areas, but there are a lot of new, youthful faces and evolution is not usually known as a rapid process.
So what is my prediction for this year’s Penn team? Well, their ceiling is high and their floor is low if that narrows it down for you. I think the Quakers can finish as high as third, but they will need to stay healthy, get some surprising freshman help and catch a few breaks. (For what it’s worth, Ken Pomeroy has them at 231, but that guy lives in his mom’s basement.) At the time of this writing, I think they are probably the fifth or sixth best team mostly because of their lack of size and inexperience. As I look at the rest of the league, Princeton is the hands down favorite. (Oh snap, I just threw up in my mouth.) Even with a few injuries, the Tigers will probably still outclass the rest of the field. Harvard has the best incoming class talent-wise in Ivy history and Siyani Chambers is returning to run the point. Yet, like the Quakers, a lot will depend on how quickly Tommy Amaker can elevate their abilities as a team. If not, they’ll have the 2008 US Olympic Team—tons of talent, no cohesion. I have a lot of respect for Columbia’s Jim Engles. He inherits a veteran squad and if anyone watched NJIT when it was the worst team in the nation, it is simply astonishing what he did at that institution in a relatively short time. However, he does come from Staten Island, so all bets are off on whether he will teach his team to play good ball or will instead teach them how to murder (or as they say in his native dialect, “murda”) the English language. Yale is the defending champion, but I am not sold on them as the Bulldogs will have their own rebuilding problems. They still should be in the top half of the league, though. No one knows yet how good a coach Brian Earl will be, but I will go out on a limb and wager that he will be better than Bill Courtney. The constitution of his team resembles that of the Quakers in many ways (except Penn is better), and he has an exceptionally potent scoring duo in Hatter and Morgan (another law firm). If Evan Boudreaux gets hurt, Dartmouth could finish 35th in the league and I quite honestly do not know much about Brown except Steven Speith has a famous brother.
Overall, it will be an exciting year for Ivy hoops. The entire landscape of the league is changing rapidly, and fortunately, I think the Quakers will finally be in the thick of it. Of course, for Penn, much will depend upon how fast Steve Donahue can turn a caterpillar into a butterfly.
I Believe in Steve.
Stay Red & Blue my friends,