Quakeaways from Penn men’s basketball’s 84-72 win over Columbia

There haven’t been too many happy moments for Penn men’s basketball over the course of the last two-plus months. But the Quakers got one on Saturday night.

Penn cruised to a fairly stress-free win over Columbia at the Palestra, 84-72. The Quakers (11-17, 3-10 Ivy) roared past the Lions (13-13, 4-9) on the back of standout performances from the two players they expected were going to carry the team on opening night: senior guard Clark Slajchert and junior forward Nick Spinoso.

Spinoso scored a career-high 23 points on 11-for-18 shooting from the field, while Slajchert added 22 and finished with an eye-popping KenPom offensive rating of 163 points per 100 possessions while on the floor. He crossed the 1,000 points scored barrier late in the first half.

For once, it’s all happy Quakeaways.

The team’s culture remains as resilient as ever.

This writer has tried to avoid speculating about coach Steve Donahue’s job security while fans on social media and on the internet have called for his head over the course of the Ivy season.

There will be plenty of time and space in the future to evaluate Donahue’s performance, but one irrefragable point in his favor is that he has recruited high-character young men who care for, support and play hard for one another.

A good example of the team’s strong culture happened postgame Saturday when Slajchert’s interview was interrupted by a water attack from a group of his teammates. You could tell just from that moment how happy Slajchert’s teammates were about his individual accomplishment and how much the win meant.

Nick Spinoso provided a tantalizing glimpse of the future.

For the better part of the season, Spinoso has looked like he’s been a player on the verge of a breakout.

He was dominant on Saturday night, consistently getting to good spots in the paint that allowed him to finish with his preferred left hand. Spinoso also added two vicious dunks.

There are times when Spinoso can be a frustrating player to watch. He’ll sometimes commit silly turnovers on overly hopeful passes. He’s a poor free-throw shooter.

But he’s also an immensely talented passer, post scorer and rebounder. He’s now posted a positive assist-to-turnover ratio in six out of his last seven games and has recorded a KenPom offensive rating above the breakeven line of 100 points per 100 possessions in four straight contests.

Spinoso will be a linchpin for Penn next year. The team’s Ivy Madness hopes will hinge in part on him finally being able to put it all together on a nightly basis.

The offense is finally coming together.

Penn has now finished four straight games scoring at least 1.09 points per possession. A large chunk of that has to do with Slajchert’s return.

But there are definitely other green shoots to be happy about as fans look towards next season. After a brutal stretch, the Quakers’ three-point shooting has improved. Penn is now shooting 35.8% from deep as a team against Division I opponents, good for 76th in the country.

The ball movement on Saturday looked good, with the Quakers finding ways to finish inside and outside. Slajchert won’t be around next season to break down opponents off the dribble, so Penn will need to play inside-out through Spinoso for stretches unless and until a primary ball-handler emerges.

As brutal as the Ivy campaign has been, the experience Penn’s young players have gotten should pay off down the line.