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Junior Matt Howard (left), along with sophomores Darnell Foreman (center) and Antonio Woods (right) will play key roles in the Quakers' backcourt in 2015-16, particularly following the departure of senior Tony Hicks.

Credit: Ilana Wurman , Holden McGinnis

Guard Antonio Woods was going to be relied upon heavily by Penn basketball in his upcoming sophomore campaign. But when the news of Tony Hicks’ departure from the team broke, that burden grew tenfold.

Despite the setback to the team’s overall depth, Woods isn’t shy about his expectations for his team heading into the 2015-16 season.

“We have a very high ceiling,” he said “I feel like we have a lot of young talent, a lot of raw talent.

“I honestly feel like we are the most talented team in the league, and I feel like we’re going to prove that this year.”

Woods — who averaged 8.4 points per game overall and 9.4 in Ivy play last season — will have the ball in his hands more than his freshman campaign, one where he was a contender for Ivy League Rookie of the Year. Now, at least at the beginning of the season, he will be looked upon to become the chief playmaker in the Quakers’ offense.

Woods will be joined by a deep crew in the backcourt. Fellow sophomore Darnell Foreman, senior Jamal Lewis — who sat out last season for health reasons — and freshmen Jake Silpe and Jackson Donahue will all compete for minutes.

Their play will be the focal point of first-year coach Steve Donahue’s new gameplan, one that emphasizes a passing, cutting and motion offense. For the unit, skill, quickness and decision-making will be the key points of success.

Thus far, Foreman has had high praise for Donahue’s system.

“It gives you more responsibility,” the Camden, N.J., native stated. “Reading the right play, making the smart play — not always the fantastic play [but] the easy play. It definitely helps you with your I.Q. You look at the floor a little bit differently.”

Woods also appears excited at how his game will elevate this season because of the new offensive scheme.

“It’s helping me move better without the ball,” he noted. “I remember I would have a problem standing still a lot on the offensive end if I didn’t have the ball in my hands. So he’s trying to help me be a better off-ball player.”

Steve Donahue expects Woods to step up without the ball in his hands as well. Without Hicks, who was named a captain before he left the team, the void for a leader in the backcourt appears to be Woods’ to fill.

“I think all of us have to take more of a leadership role. But I expect Antonio to do the majority of that,” Steve Donahue said. “It’s another chance for him to take another growth in his game and part of that’s being a better leader.”

But a new scheme and an increase in Woods’ usage will not be the only changes this year.

A highly-touted recruit from Cherry Hill, N.J., Silpe has caught the coach’s eye throughout the preseason. In turn, Steve Donahue says he expects the freshman to start.

Of course, there is no shortage of capable players right behind Silpe and Woods, as Foreman brings 16 starts worth of experience to the table in his second go-around.

“It’s always competition, especially with Jake,” Foreman said. “We all just compete. The best player will play.”

On top of what the collection of guards bring to the table in Steve Donahue’s new offensive scheme, the backcourt’s defensive assignments will also have an important impact on the Quakers’ success this season.

Foreman explained that keeping opponents in front of each player is one of the defense’s key points, something that will be essential if Penn is to contain potent opposing backcourts, such as Columbia’s.

“Essentially, I don’t want to give up a layup, I don’t want to give up a three and I don’t want to foul,” Steve Donahue added. “And with that, I want to limit the team to one shot. So every drill we have is based off accomplishing those things.”

A final adjustment to the Red and Blue’s scheme in 2015-16 will be the role of junior Matt Howard. While he is listed as a guard on Penn Athletics’ website, Steve Donahue envisions using him slightly differently.

“I think the strength of Matt Howard is [that] he’s very versatile. He’s a tough person to guard in our offense if he’s guarded by a four man,” he said. “He’s got the ability to shoot the three. He takes bigger guys off the dribble. I think at this point in his career, he’s strong enough, athletic enough and tough enough to guard a four.”

One thing is for certain: This team will resemble the squad former coach Jerome Allen marched on to the floor in personnel only. The strategic changes implemented by Steve Donahue and his assistants will be obvious when Penn steps on to the court for the first time on Friday against Robert Morris.

So, led by their backcourt, will the Quakers indeed prove they are the most talented team in the Ivy League? Only time will tell.

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