You can debate for hours as to when Penn basketball reached its nadir last year.
Was it a blown 13-point lead against Rider with less than seven minutes to go that led to a one-point loss?
Was it Tony Hicks hiding his face under his jersey after being ejected for throwing a punch in a 74-55 embarrassment against Columbia?
Or was it the sudden departures of Henry Brooks and Julian Harrell from the program — coupled with the arrest of Tony Bagtas on burglary charges?
One thing isn’t grounds for discussion: The Red and Blue came into last year picked to finish second in the Ivy League and promptly crashed and burned, losing 20 games and limping home tied for sixth in the Ancient Eight.
This year, outside expectations are virtually nil for the Quakers. And they like it that way.
Calls for the head of coach Jerome Allen after a Penn loss have become a given on message boards and comment sections since the Red and Blue began to backslide in 2012-13.
Some critics point to Allen’s overall record ever since he took over for Glen Miller after seven games in 2009: The Red and Blue are just 56-85 in his tenure, and have posted a losing record overall in Ivy play (34-36).
Penn has never lost 20 or more games in three consecutive seasons. A repeat of last year’s 8-20 disaster would likely be devastating to the level of support from administrators and key alumni that Allen currently receives.
But if Allen is coaching for his job, he isn’t about to let that perception color his decision-making. And he certainly isn’t letting outside chatter penetrate the locker room, either.
“I can take it, I can manage it. I get it. It is what it is,” Allen said. “It’s business. This is what I signed up for. There’s really no need for me to complain right now, but to roll my sleeves up and get it done.
“The part that’s tough is that from [the players’] standpoint — I try to shield them from as much as I possibly can as a protector, so to speak. But what I will say with this group is that they are all excited. They’re happy.”
It won’t be on Allen alone to lead the new-look Quakers, though.
After assistants Scott Pera and Jason Polykoff moved on to a top assistant position at Rice and a head coaching gig at D-III Earlham, respectively, Allen brought on Nat Graham from Boston College and promoted Mike Lintulahti to fill their roles.
Penn fans should be familiar with both names: Graham played for the Quakers from 1993 to 1995 and coached for five years at Cornell. Lintulahti spent all of last season as the team’s assistant director of operations and was a fixture on the bench.
Both assistants, though loyal to Allen, have their own voice — and he insists that’s a good thing.
“We all look different and think different, and I think that’s the beauty of having a staff,” he said. “I never want to work with guys who want to tell me what I want to hear or always echo my same sentiments about the game.”
How Allen and his staff handle the new pieces on the roster will help determine whether or not the Quakers will throw last year down the memory hole.
Filling in the blanks
At first glance, Penn’s roster may appear to be a complete enigma. The Quakers only return eight players that were on the roster at the start of 2013, and some of the lettermen that left were program fixtures.
You won’t see Miles Jackson-Cartwright taking the ball up the floor anymore, nor will you see Fran Dougherty backing anyone down in the post. They’re both playing professionally in Europe now following their graduation in May.
Dougherty and Jackson-Cartwright were on the floor last year for an average of 28.3 and 31.1 minutes per game, respectively. It’d be difficult for any team to compensate for the loss of two key rotation players, let alone one with a roster as much in flux as the Quakers’.
“It’s a good and a bad thing,” said Allen about the reality of reshuffling the rotation. “From a players’ standpoint, for our younger players, it’s an opportunity for them to get on the floor right away ... and I think they’re going to step up to the challenge.
“The bad thing is: Their careers — Fran and Miles — have been documented. They did a number of things for us, but we can’t settle on their efforts because we haven’t gotten it done. Not to diminish all that they’ve accomplished individually, but the fact of the matter is, we have to find guys and get guys an opportunity that is going to definitely push us forward.”
The Quakers’ six-man recruiting class has certainly said and done the right things so far. 6-foot-7 Mike Auger looks as polished and physical as any forward entering the Ancient Eight. Forward Sam Jones looks capable as a spot-up shooter and should compete for minutes early on. Freshma n guards Darnell Foreman and Antonio Woods have impressed the coaching staff and will both get shots at running the floor from the point.
Most importantly, the freshmen have bought into each other and what Allen is trying to do for the program.
“I think we’ve come together really well. We do a lot together,” Jones said. “We’re not just playing basketball together — we’re like a family.”
Whether or not all of that freshman promise will come to fruition on the court will depend on the development of a player two grades above them.
‘A whole new number’
Who is the real Tony Hicks? Even a superficial look at the Quakers’ primary scoring option and possible long-term point guard reveals that it wasn’t the player we saw last year.
The low-top fade from Hicks’ freshman year is long gone. So too is the number “1” on his jersey in favor of "11." And in Hicks’ own words — good riddance.
“I chose ‘1’ for the wrong reasons,” he said. “It was kind of egotistical, and I just wanted to get away from that.
“I just wanted a whole new number.”
Perhaps it may indicate a new role for the junior as well. Hicks averaged 14.9 points a contest last year, but at the cost of suffering through eight games in which he posted a .sub-400 shooting percentage on at least 10 attempts.
For the Quakers to succeed, though, they’ll need Hicks to supplement his scoring ability with passing, on-the-ball defense and — most critically — leadership.
Penn’s three returning seniors — Greg Louis, Camryn Crocker and Patrick Lucas-Perry — all suffered through injury-plagued junior campaigns: They combined to post a grand total of 184 minutes of floor time in 19 games.
As they work themselves back into the rotation, it will be on Hicks and junior forward Darien Nelson-Henry to give this team direction and strength as it looks to defy a preseason Ivy media poll that has the Quakers slotted for seventh.
Oh, and about that media poll. Allen may shield his players from the voices on the periphery, but he can’t catch everything.
“One thing that we’ve always been staying connected to is the number seven because that’s where guys have us predicted in the Ivies,” Hicks said. “We break huddles; we say: ‘Seven.’ We commit bad plays during practice on offense or defense; sometimes coaches will say ‘Seven.’
“It’s just something that we can stay connected to ... to know that we have to work for something better.”
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