There was plenty of reason to question AJ Brodeur’s decision-making when he committed to play for coach Steve Donahue at Penn before his senior year of high school in July 2015.
Not only had Brodeur sported offers from high-major programs like Notre Dame, who was coming off a trip to the Elite 8, but also Penn men’s basketball was simply in a bad place. Just three months earlier, Donahue’s predecessor, Jerome Allen, had been forced to resign following a dismal 9-19 season that saw the Quakers tie for last in the Ivy League. And it wasn’t just one down year.
Allen had failed to bring Penn to the NCAA tournament in any of his six seasons stalking the Palestra sidelines — the same Penn that had dominated the Ivies for the better part of four decades and the same Allen who was twice named Ivy League Player of the Year during his legendary playing career with the Red and Blue.
Fans were optimistic that Donahue’s coaching pedigree would help restore the prestige Penn basketball once held, but even Donahue knew that it would take special kinds of players to bring Penn back to relevance.
“We’re going to recruit high-character kids that play an extremely fast, skilled, gritty and smart style of basketball,” Donahue said after being hired.
In Brodeur, Donahue found a star forward he could build the future around, but the team still had major flaws. Shooting was of particularly high concern, as the Quakers had shot under 35% from behind the arc the past season, and just 67% from the free throw line.
Enter Ryan Betley — a wiry, baby-faced wing who in high school was seen as one of the best shooters in the state of Pennsylvania.
Just eight days after Brodeur tweeted his decision, Betley made his commitment to Penn official on July 14. At the time of Betley’s commitment, there were plenty of concerns about the low level of competition he faced at his nearby high school Downingtown West. Perhaps as a result of these concerns, his only other offers came from Brown, Lafayette, and Holy Cross.
But Donahue saw enough potential in Betley that he was willing to take a chance.
“We kind of put a metric to each kid and [Betley] had a high rating, an All-Ivy rating,” Donahue said of Betley’s recruitment. “I felt strongly about that.”
The pieces were starting to come together for a brighter future on 33rd Street, but Donahue was not satisfied with just Brodeur and Betley. He wanted a point guard, too, so he set his eyes on Devon Goodman, an undersized speed demon from local Germantown Academy.
Goodman was also being actively recruited by Yale, but Donahue had a special in: Goodman was AAU teammates with Betley.
In Betley’s eyes, though, committing to a school was a personal decision. He would have loved to keep playing with Goodman, but Betley did not want to put too much pressure on him.
“We didn’t talk much about recruiting,” Betley said. “I didn’t push him or anything.”
Despite Betley’s hands-off approach, Goodman still cited him as having a big impact on his eventual decision to commit to Penn in that October.
“I think Ry definitely had a role in me coming to Penn. We’d been good friends even before AAU, because we’re both from Philadelphia, and we played in the same area,” Goodman said. “He definitely influenced me to come to Penn.”
The three high school seniors would still have to wait a year to actually don the Red and Blue on the court together, but there was finally a light at the end of the tunnel for Penn men's basketball.
Finding Their Feet
There was plenty of reason to be nervous about the state of Penn's program midway through the 2016-2017 season. Things were simply not going as planned for the first three commits of the Donahue era — the commits who were supposed to be the ones to turn Penn’s long-disheartening fortunes around.
Brodeur, who had averaged 16 points and seven rebounds in non-conference play, had proven that he could produce at a high level, but his production was not translating to wins for the team when the games mattered most. After six Ivy games, the Quakers had failed to pick up a single victory.
Fans’ once-high hopes of being able to cheer Penn on at the inaugural Ivy League Tournament — in the Palestra no less — were dissipating rapidly.
To make matters even worse, Betley and Goodman had both struggled to build any kind of momentum.
After beginning the season towards the bottom of the rotation, Goodman was finally given the starting nod in the team’s two winter break matchups with Drexel and Fairfield. While Penn managed to win both games, Goodman’s performances were ugly. His combined stat line for the two games: 28 minutes, three points, 1-7 shooting from the field.
“I think he likes to fit in, feel comfortable, and when he does, he’s very confident,” Donahue said of Goodman.
In those two starts, it was clear Goodman was not comfortable yet.
Betley’s season also got off to a slow start, but for different reasons. After leading all players in scoring at the team’s annual open scrimmage, there was plenty of reason to be excited for Betley’s first official appearance in the Red and Blue. Instead, Betley’s debut was delayed by nine games after he fractured his hand.
When Betley eventually did get healthy, his results were mixed. He would have a couple solid games where he scored double-digits, but he’d have other games where he seemed to disappear on the offensive end. It was the kind of inconsistency you would expect from a freshman just a few games into his college career, but Betley’s injury forced him right into the unforgiving fire of the weekly back-to-back games that define an Ivy League schedule.
Both the freshmen’s and the team’s struggles came to a head in Penn’s early-February home game against Princeton. In front of a raucous crowd that was eager to see the Quakers get their first Ivy win against a bitter rival, Penn was embarrassed. The Tigers dominated the entire second half on their way to a 64-49 victory, and Penn’s three highly-touted freshmen seemed frazzled, combining for only 16 points.
After the loss, Donahue was blunt in calling his players to task.
“Mental toughness — Princeton has it. We’re trying to get it. That had a lot to do with this game.”
Coming of Age
There was plenty of reason to give up on the season after Penn’s 0-6 start in Ivy play. The team’s performances had offered little inspiration and fans wondered how much one could realistically expect from three freshmen who had never even played this long a season before.
Apparently, a lot.
Instead of crumbling, the Quakers responded to Donahue’s challenge with a string of five straight dominant victories to put themselves back in contention for an Ivy tournament bid. Leading the charge was none other than the threesome of Brodeur, Betley, and Goodman, who combined for an average of more than 38 points during that winning streak, good for nearly half of Penn’s total points.
Once again, the Quakers would respond by doing the unexpected, but this time, the expectation was for them to win. Instead of making things simple and winning their next two games to wrap up their spot in the postseason, the Quakers lost both, including a head-scratching defeat to lowly Dartmouth at home.
The loss to Dartmouth put Penn in a precarious position heading into its final regular season game against Harvard. Upsetting the Crimson, who beat Penn earlier in the season by ten, would be a huge boost, but even with a win, the Red and Blue did not control their own destiny. Donahue could have cared less about the results of the other games, though.
“We got to win tomorrow night,” Donahue said the day before the game. “That’s what we got to do and that’s our sole mentality right now.”
And from the opening tip against Harvard, Penn showed just how much its mental toughness had improved since that fateful loss to Princeton four weeks earlier. In a thrilling win that was tightly-contested from beginning to end, it would be the senior Matt Howard’s 24 points and sophomore Jackson Donahue’s game-winning three-pointer that received most of the credit for the victory. But just as key to the triumph were the 34 points that Brodeur, Betley, and Goodman combined for.
Those points not only kept the Quakers in the game, but they also matched the 34 points that Harvard’s four starting freshmen put up, who were part of a recruiting class that 247sports rated as the 25th best in the entire country. Penn’s recruiting class for that same year was ranked 126th.
"I would take those three over anybody"
The Red and Blue’s monumental win over Harvard ended up being just enough to get them into the Ivy Tournament. Penn came up heartbreakingly short in its semifinal rematch against Princeton, but the overtime loss gave the sold-out Palestra another taste of just how good Penn’s three freshmen were, as they combined for half of the team’s 64 points.
Heading into this season, the expectations — and the pressure — will be even higher for the trio. They now all have a year of experience under their belts, but that experience also serves as a double-edged sword. Opposing coaches will now have a full season of game-tape to study their tendencies and impatient fans will know just how much is fair to demand from them. Still, Donahue is confident his star sophomores will take another big leap this season.
“Obviously I’m biased, but I would take those three over anybody in the league,” Donahue said. “I feel strongly that they’re going to be really productive players in this league.”
The sophomores are confident too.
“I think we have as good a shot as anyone in the league to win a championship, and I really think that everyone in the locker room believes that,” Brodeur said.
The team clearly has high expectations for itself this season, but those lofty goals seems to be fully within reason.
Of course, you can never be sure with Penn men's basketball, but with Brodeur, Betley, and Goodman leading the way, there is plenty of reason to be optimistic.
All comments eligible for publication in Daily Pennsylvanian, Inc. publications.