The Donahue era of Penn basketball has never been closer to starting than right now.
The Red and Blue play their first game under Steve Donahue in a matchup with Robert Morris, a team coming off an NCAA Tournament bid last season. The Friday night matchup at the Palestra will begin at 5:30 p.m. on ESPN3. The Quakers follow that up with a home game against Central Connecticut State on Sunday.
The Colonials bring a familiar face to the Palestra. While the Quakers haven’t faced the squad since 2011, Robert Morris’ coach is none other than Andy Toole, a Penn basketball alum who won two Ivy titles with the Quakers shortly after the turn of the century.
Toole, who transferred from Elon to Penn as an undergrad, was recruited by Donahue, then an assistant under Fran Dunphy. However, the Penn alum isn’t excited to face off against his alma mater despite his appreciation for the Red and Blue.
“There wasn’t really any desire on our part to schedule Penn, in all honesty. I didn’t enjoy playing the game the first time we did at the Palestra,” Toole admitted to Ivy Hoops Online. “You know, it’s hard. You want your alma mater to do well and you root for them and now you have to compete against them.
“Sometimes it’s a lot easier to compete against a university that’s basically people you don’t know and respect and like.”
On the other sideline, Donahue will come full circle. Shortly after recruiting and working out Toole, he left for Cornell, losing all four games against his recruit from 2001-03. Now, after three Ivy titles at Cornell and a stint at Boston College, Donahue returns to the Palestra with the hope of raising the current profile of the program, similar to Toole at Robert Morris.
“It’s great when in the business, guys who work hard and have a passion for it get an opportunity and do well,” Donahue said. “Andy’s done that and it speaks volumes about what the program was like then. He was a leader in this program. We had a lot of really good people and players.
“That’s what we want to get back to. Similar to what Andy had on those teams is similar to the way we want to create here as we move forward.”
While both coaches admitted that season openers are tough to prepare for, Donahue has certain expectations going into the game, saying he believes Toole will stick with the 2-3 zone defense that has suited the Colonials well. Attacking that 2-3 zone will be a new starting lineup, featuring just one senior in center Darien Nelson-Henry.
Sophomores Sam Jones and Antonio Woods will join Nelson-Henry as well as junior Matt Howard. However, the spotlight may be on freshman Jake Silpe, the highly touted point guard from Cherry Hill, N.J. Silpe has drawn significant praise and many expect him to be a favorite for Ivy Rookie of the Year.
The 6-foot-2 point guard isn’t the only freshman expected to get significant minutes this weekend. Donahue said that he would likely go with 10 players or more in his rotation. Freshman forward Max Rothschild is one of those players ready to go off the bench as he attempts to shake off the inevitable nerves that come with his first collegiate game.
“I think being anxious is the same thing as being excited,” Rothschild said. “You can convince yourself that you’re too nervous or you’re freaking out a lot, which is true, but it’s the same thing as being excited.
“Playing in the Palestra the first time, there’s going to be a lot of jitters, but once those first-game jitters get out of the way, our team has something special that no one else has.”
The Palestra figures to play a factor for the Red and Blue after the team spent much of the last few weeks trying to hype up the weekend games. The Quakers, along with the women’s basketball team, threw t-shirts and handed out posters during the Homecoming football game in order to raise awareness about the games.
“I think we’re doing a good job of hyping ourselves,” Rothschild said. “We want to get as many students out there. We want to gain the support from the community as much as we can, so that’s what I’ve been trying to do. That’s what our team’s been trying to do every day this fall.”
Before the weekend’s games even begin, the team will go through its pregame routine for the first time under Donahue. Toole said he plans on doing what previous Penn squads have done, eating at Smoke’s before the game (he’s also trying to order Koch’s sandwiches for his team). However, Donahue smiled when asked about the team’s pregame plans, deciding to keep that a secret for now.
But when the team moves from its pregame meal to tip-off, that’s when the real games will begin.
Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The Daily Pennsylvanian.