Penn isn’t going to win the Ivy title.
It was fairly apparent from before the season even started, and halfway through the Ivy slate it’s even more apparent. Honestly, that was never the point of this season. No one was expecting Steve Donahue to turn around the program overnight; it was always going to take a few years.
So if not by conference titles, how does one judge the success of Donahue’s first year? For me, I think it all comes down to how the team has handled adversity and grown.
This year has had its share of ups and downs. The departure of Tony Hicks, the 4-1 start to the season, the ineligibility of rising star Antonio Woods, the recent stretch of strong play in Ivy games.
And out of it, Penn has grown and adapted. The team that returned from Cornell on Saturday night isn’t the same team that started the season.
It’s not just the players that have left Penn basketball — though losing Hicks and Woods changed the team’s identity — but even those that have remained have grown and changed their game this season.
Junior guard Matt Howard has stepped into a bigger scoring role, increasing his minutes and aggressiveness on the offensive end. On Saturday night, it showed when he made it to the free-throw line 11 times in a game where his outside shot wasn’t falling.
Senior center Darien Nelson-Henry has grown into a willing distributor as the team looks to use his interior game to open up the rest of their offense. On a team flush with young players, the veteran has been crucial to the team’s gameplan.
And it isn’t just the older players adapting. Looking up and down the roster, it’s fairly easy to get excited about the future of Penn basketball.
Hidden beneath the 9-12 record is the making of a young championship core. It may not be enough to win a title next year or the year after that, but you can see the talent there and how it’s already beginning to coalesce in a way that it didn’t quite last season.
I know I probably said something similar last year, when we saw significant minutes from then-freshmen Darnell Foreman, Woods, Mike Auger and Sam Jones, but somehow it’s happening again.
Guard Jake Silpe has struggled at times with turnovers, but is a the best pure passer on the team and appears to have potential to be the point guard of the future for the team. Forward Max Rothschild has seen substantial minutes off the bench and, while rough around the edges, seems like he could be a key rotation piece for the future.
Freshman guard Jackson Donahue found himself thrust into a starting role midway through the season and has averaged 15.1 points per game as a starter. Touted primarily as aa three-point shooter coming out of high school, the past few weekends have seen Donahue take it to the rack more effectively and develop as an all-around scoring threat.
So what does this all add up to?
A team that might not contend for the title, but will continue to grow and develop as it finishes out the year. Considering that they nearly upset second-place Princeton in January, they could very easily play spoiler for one of the conference’s heavyweights.
A year from now, though, it should be Penn in that conversation. There are a lot of ‘if’s, but there’s also a lot of potential. After several recruiting classes that only produced one or two rotation players (see Penn’s upperclassmen), it’s encouraging to see immediate results from a young group.
Going into the second half of Ivy play, I’m going to be looking for them to continue to grow and develop — and for Penn to finish higher than the seventh-place tie that ended Jerome Allen’s tenure. With this core of players and the growth we’ve witnessed in the past month of the season, I think that shouldn’t be too hard to attain.
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