Picking up the pieces after Jordan Dingle leaves Penn men’s basketball behind

Jordan Dingle has entered the NCAA transfer portal, a seismic move that dramatically lowers expectations for Penn’s 2023-24 campaign and suggests the task of getting top talent to stick around could get taller for other Ivy League programs. (Photo by Erica Denhoff)

April 28, 2023 will go down as one of the darkest days in recent Penn basketball history.

That was the day news broke that reigning Ivy League Player of the Year Jordan Dingle had opted to enter the transfer portal instead of returning for his senior season and making one last run at an Ivy title and NCAA Tournament appearance with the Red and Blue.

This writer frequently looks for some sort of silver lining or happy takeaway, even after the worst Penn losses. There is none this time.

If you’re pessimistically inclined, Dingle’s departure arguably closes the book on Penn’s 2023-24 season, six months before it even begins.

Bart Torvik’s preseason 2023-24 rankings had Penn ranked 80th initially and 98th earlier this week as talent began to flow through the transfer portal. Sans Dingle, Penn now sits 150th, fifth in the Ivy League and only 36 spots clear of seventh-place Dartmouth.

With Dingle, Penn could reasonably have been called co-favorites for the Ivy title alongside Yale and an outside contender for a NCAA Tournament at-large bid with aggressive scheduling.

Now? It will be a battle to even qualify for the Ivy League Tournament.

The effects of Dingle’s exit — just a small handful of which are listed below — will be felt through not just the program but the Ivy League for years to come.

Penn’s offense will look totally different next year.

All of a sudden, a huge percentage of Penn’s shots is up for grabs. Dingle took 35.1% of Penn’s shots in 2022-23, fifth-most of any player in Division I and a huge outlier in coach Steve Donahue’s offensive structure.

Dingle took that high-volume approach to shooting because of his ability to create his own shot on all three levels. That was both a blessing and a curse for Penn. Dingle was both uniquely skilled at getting buckets and also often the only Penn player on the floor capable of doing so.

The best candidate to fill the void is 6-foot-1 guard Clark Slajchert, who will be a senior next season. Slajchert is the only other player on the roster who is capable of consistently creating his shot at multiple levels of the floor.

While Dingle would generate shots with his athleticism and first step, Slajchert creates shots through his craftiness. Dingle overpowered defenders. Slajchert flummoxes them.

Slajchert put up 30+ points twice last season but went through a bad slump that spanned a large chunk of Ivy play. It’s not fair to expect Slajchert to average 20 points a night, but could he average 15 to 18 points? That’s certainly possible.

Around Slajchert are some good complementary pieces. Nick Spinoso is developing into an excellent point forward. Max Martz should put up another efficient campaign and average 10+ points per game. George Smith is a great three-and-D rotational piece.

The ceiling for that team, though — unless an incoming freshman like Tyler Perkins steps up and makes an immediate Dingle-esque splash — is a diverse, solid offense. Not an elite offense with all those players serving as supporting characters to a star.

The Ivy League is no longer immune to the changing dynamics of Division I basketball.

One of Donahue’s quotes in a City of Basketball Love interview conducted late last month did not age well.

‘’We’re not dealing with all of the issues and the turnover that other programs in this country are,” Donahue said. “So I can dig in and I know what my team is coming back, and we can get to work and get better and grow as a group.”

He seemed confident that Dingle would be back.

Donahue in that interview also cited the fact that with some extremely rare exceptions, the only men’s players to transfer out of the Ivy League in the last few years have been players forced to do so because of the conference’s ban on graduate student athletic eligibility, like Harvard’s Chris Ledlum and Princeton’s Ryan Langborg.

That’s not true any longer.

The calculus that has kept players in the league is that the long-term value of an undergraduate degree from an Ivy League school outweighs the immediate financial gain of a one-time payment from boosters tied to power conferences. Dingle must have crunched the numbers and come to a different conclusion.

If the promise of a Wharton degree wasn’t enough to keep Dingle on campus, then who’s to say that the power five bag-droppers of the world won’t go after players like Kino Lilly Jr. at Brown or Caden Pierce at Princeton next?

Ivy League head coaches are facing enough of an uphill battle to compete as it is due to a lack of athletic scholarships, complex financial aid machinations and elevated admissions requirements. Adding “re-recruit your entire roster every offseason” to the list of tasks might make the job unsustainable.

Steve Donahue’s performance has become a rorschach test.

By many measures, Donahue’s tenure at Penn — now entering its ninth year — has been a success.

He raised the program out of the deeply sunken, near-KenPom-300 state it had been left in by Steve Bilsky, Glen Miller and Jerome Allen.

He ended Penn’s 11-year NCAA Tournament drought and delivered wins over Villanova, Miami, Alabama, Providence and New Mexico.

He recruited and developed Penn’s all-time leading scorer in AJ Brodeur and Dingle, who was the best pro prospect to wear Red and Blue since the days of Allen, Matt Maloney and Ira Bowman.

Most importantly, he has been an excellent representative of Penn and has consistently brought in high-character, conscientious players like Lucas Monroe and Jelani Williams, who represent the best the university has to offer.

But the departure of Dingle is the starkest reminder yet that for all the good Donahue has done, the program still has not yet reached the heights expected by the remaining alumni engaged with the team (and those ranks are shrinking, if message board sentiment is any indicator).

Penn has played a grand total of one game in Donahue’s tenure while ranked inside of the KenPom top 100 (a 77-45 loss to Toledo in December 2018). It has not beaten Princeton in more than five calendar years.

And now it has lost its best player, who looked at the talent assembled around him and decided his best chance to play in the NCAA Tournament would only arrive if he wore another team’s jersey.

If Penn had achieved anything near the postseason success that Princeton enjoyed this season, Dingle leaving wouldn’t have even been a question. He almost certainly would have stayed. That is what makes this situation so depressing.

You can’t blame Dingle for making the choice he did, but you shouldn’t sugarcoat it, either.

Dingle showed more loyalty to Penn than virtually any other mid-major star had shown to their program in the transfer portal era.

He withdrew from school in 2020-21, the season lost to COVID-19, while the vast majority of his teammates stayed, just so he could preserve four years of eligibility in a Penn uniform. He stayed out of the portal after 2021-22, when he was just as coveted by big-time programs as he is now. He battled through a myriad of injuries in 2022-23 to lead Penn to the brink of the Ivy title game.

Dingle’s choice to enter the portal is proof that everyone’s loyalty has its limits. He gave the university everything he had and owes it nothing.

His choice is also a calculated risk. Dingle is walking away from an offense that revolves around his talents and a coaching staff that saw potential in him in high school when power conference coaches that will be beating down his door now probably couldn’t have cared less.

He’ll have to learn a new offensive system and accept a lower usage rate. He’ll have to build relationships with new teammates from scratch that will only last a single season. Unless he’s able to complete his coursework over the summer, he’ll also be forfeiting a degree from one of the best colleges in the world.

Big-time programs often promise players like Dingle the world and deliver nothing.

Just ask Isiaih Mosley, who averaged 20.4 points per game at Missouri State in 2021-22, jumped to Missouri, was relegated to the bench and missed time for personal reasons. He didn’t play a minute for the Tigers after February 4.

Or Tanner Holden, who averaged 20.1 points per game at Wright State in 2021-22, transferred to Ohio State and proceeded to average 3.6 points per game on 13.5 minutes a night off the bench. Now he’s back in the transfer portal.

My mind keeps flashing back to a video the Penn athletic department put together during a timeout in the home game against Harvard back in January. One of the Penn staffers asked a bunch of the players what they’d do if they got a million dollars. Many players had humorous responses.

Dingle said he’d pay off his mom’s student loans.

Dingle has got a decent chance as a young man to get promised close to that amount this summer and make a huge difference for his family right now. You can’t criticize him for capitalizing on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, even if it might not wind up being what it’s promised to be.

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