One thing Saturday’s win against Harvard doesn’t change is the fact that there are still more questions about this young Penn basketball team than there are answers.
Coach Jerome Allen said it himself to start off his press conference following the win.
“I don’t know who they are,” he admitted, bluntly.
But after defeating one of the two best teams in the Ancient Eight, a squad unquestionably a cut above the other six Ivies, at least Allen’s own vision has become clear to the world.
Freshmen Tony Hicks and Darien Nelson-Henry led the scoring charge, putting up 24 and 18 respectively, while Allen rotated numerous other players to maintain a high-energy defensive effort against Harvard’s big stars, freshman guard Siyani Chambers and sophomore guard Wesley Saunders.
On defense, it’s the mentality that all five guys on that floor have to be thinking as one unit. The Quakers double-teamed Chambers and Saunders at times and switched between man and zone.
But they never lost a step.
Penn held the Crimson to just over 25 percent shooting in the first half and played with such intensity on defense that the Crimson had trouble even getting a shot up, as the Quakers forced Harvard into two shot clock violations and numerous other desperation attempts.
While that intensity slowly faded over the course of the game, the Red and Blue maintained it long enough, and that’s thanks to the number of players Allen rotates into the game.
Harvard runs a tight, seven-man rotation. Four of Harvard coach Tommy Amaker’s five starters played at least 34 minutes. And the Crimson paid a price for that, as the Quakers shot over 50 percent in both halves.
On the offensive end, Allen doesn’t focus on the stat sheet. Sophomore guard Cam Crocker, who is a brilliant passer and strong defender, didn’t score once. He took one shot and had three assists in 22 minutes of play. And while such a stat line may perturb some, Crocker plays a valuable part of Allen’s offense. On many plays, he isn’t credited with an assist, but he jump starts the offense.
Allen was quick to praise the rest of his team rather than Hicks and Nelson-Henry, since that’s the foundation upon which his principles are based. But so often this year, without Hicks and Nelson-Henry scoring the basketball like they did on Saturday, those very same ideals, of large rotations, of everyone helping out on the offensive end, came up short.
Hicks and Nelson-Henry brought the intensity on the offensive end, the final piece in a puzzle that has seem to confound players, coaches and fans alike this season.
“Miles kept saying, ‘We’ve grown up,” Hicks said. “It’s a big deal for us to close a game, since most of the time we’ve been playing to not lose rather than to win.”
That’s the blueprint, one that was hinted at early in the season when junior forward Fran Dougherty was putting up big numbers. But back then, the team was still young.
Now, they seem to acknowledge that it isn’t just playing good defense, or sound offense, or even a hot hand that will get a win. It’s a cumulative effort.
And while they have grown up enough to at least acknowledge that fact for 40 minutes and beat a very good Harvard squad, the next step is to put this effort together for not just 40 minutes, against a touted team like the Crimson, but for 80, next weekend against the lesser Browns and Yales of the Ivy world.
If the Quakers can do that, then the slow yet steady momentum this team is picking up will be warranted. Then thoughts of competing for an Ivy title next year will be less of a hope and more of a logical conclusion.
After all, like Allen said, “Good teams are consistent in their effort.”
Penn isn’t there yet, but at least Allen’s vision is clear, albeit with only three games left in the season.