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Penn vs. Cornell Credit: Joshua Ng , Joshua Ng

Penn basketball’s starting lineup was a puzzle last year. It took coach Jerome Allen 14 different starting combinations and 12 of 13 players getting at least one start to figure out how to handle a senior-less roster while enduring season-ending injuries to then-juniors Fran Dougherty and Steve Rennard.

Only for the final six games of the season did Allen settle on a permanent starting combo of Henry Brooks, Darien Nelson-Henry, Miles Cartwright, Tony Hicks and Cam Crocker. After embarrassing results against Columbia and Dartmouth, that lineup gelled together and played solid basketball in three of its last four contests, Yale excluded. And overall, the Quakers got significantly better offensively as nonconference action gave way to Ivy play and freshmen like Tony Hicks and Darien Nelson-Henry got acclimated to college basketball.

But just because the starting lineup was bound to be a puzzle with such a green roster doesn’t mean some of Allen’s choices for his starting five had to be so puzzling.

Hicks started the first three games of the season, averaging nearly 23 minutes per outing. He averaged just 11 minutes in the next two contests, coming off of the bench. In fact, he wouldn’t start again for another 17 games.

Simeon Esprit played a negligible 24 minutes last season and not surprisingly, isn’t on the team anymore. Somehow, though, he started two games in 2012-13.

Meanwhile in the backcourt, fellow freshman Jamal Lewis started 19 games despite offering little offensively. Lewis is a dependable team player and even more reliable on-the-ball defender, but don’t you want to give just a few of those minutes to an up-and-coming guard like Hicks or a spark plug like then-sophomore guard Patrick Lucas-Perry, who led the team in assist-to-turnover ratio and finished fourth in the Ivy League in three-point percentage?

This season, Allen’s lineups will automatically make more sense because his players’ roles are more clearly defined. Dougherty isn’t the question mark as an offensive threat that he was before the start of last season, and the other pieces of the puzzle around him are now familiar faces.

So there’s no excuse for the 2013-14 Quakers not to enjoy crucial continuity in their starting five, which will permeate throughout the rest of the roster and ensure Penn the on-the-court chemistry it so obviously lacked for much of 2012-13.

Will Allen pair Dougherty and Nelson-Henry up in the frontcourt? There’s no reason he shouldn’t, since that would give Penn one of the best frontcourts in the conference.

Still, a couple of Allen’s comments last season don’t fit together with the lineup puzzle. After Dougherty’s coming out party as an offensive powerhouse against Fairfield in Charlottesville, where he notched six offensive rebounds and 31 of the Quakers’ 53 points, Allen said, “I can give you 10 plays that Fran had that he didn’t execute.”

I could give you 100 plays that all the Quakers combined messed up that night, but why target Fran there? And why compliment the discipline of Henry Brooks in the same postgame interview after Brooks went 0-for-2 from the field, turned the ball over twice and played just 14 minutes?

Similarly, Allen called out Nelson-Henry after Penn’s 72-57 loss to Harvard on Feb. 15, the latter’s first game back from a low-grade MCL sprain.

“He played one end of the floor; he played offense. That’s it,” Allen said after the game. “Defensively, he had zero presence. Every time they threw the ball inside against him, they scored.”

That may be true, and perhaps Allen was desperate for some defensive chutzpah from Nelson-Henry knowing that he could be Penn’s greatest asset on that end of the floor. Nevertheless, Allen’s words exhorting defensive priority and offensive efficiency won’t come to fruition unless his lineup backs them up.

That entails letting Nelson-Henry and Dougherty play off each other as much as possible down low and getting more offense out of the backcourt rotation behind Hicks and Cartwright. The options are clearer now than they ever will be.

It’s time for the Quakers to fit together well enough to let Allen put the puzzle down.


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