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Among the Penn basketball freshmen thrust into the spotlight is forward Max Rothschild, who has stepped up as senior Darien Nelson-Henry has been sidelined by an ankle injury.

Credit: Nick Buchta

Tony Hicks and Antonio Woods are no longer in the picture. Darien Nelson-Henry was largely sidelined with an ankle injury this weekend. Friday and Saturday, Penn basketball was handed 23- and 6-point losses by Yale and Brown.

And I was still excited by what I saw.

Max Rothschild, finally back from injury, showed flashes of potential to be the big man the Quakers are going to need down low once Nelson-Henry graduates.

Jackson Donahue, initially notable for his unwillingness to step inside the arc, has become a more aggressive inside scorer that can help open up space for Sam Jones and Jake Silpe to operate.

“He’s maturing as a player,” coach Steve Donahue said on Saturday. “I think he’s going to be a guard that is not just a shooter — and he’ll make decisions like you saw tonight.”

Silpe — thrust into a starting role far sooner than anticipated — is already taking charge of the Penn backcourt.

At the same time, Colin McManus and Tyler Hamilton are still in the process of settling into new roles on the team with Woods gone and Nelson-Henry and Mike Auger sidelined indefinitely with injuries.

It’s going to be a rough process getting the Quakers back to title contention. It took Donahue eight years at Cornell to shape them into the three-time Ivy champs they became in his tenure. But I don’t think it will even take that long at Penn.

So the Red and Blue lost both contests this weekend. That’s okay.

In both games, the fouls were decisive. That’s something that’s going to change. It comes with time.

“We’re so young and inexperienced — that’s probably the first step of getting my guys to play physically and mentally tough for 40 minutes is trying to foul a lot,” Donahue acknowledged on Friday. “Again, I was pleased with the physical part of this. The tactical part, the mental part is not there yet.”

Sure, Silpe struggles at times with ball control, Rothschild hasn’t yet had the chance to show off sustained success and Jackson Donahue is just beginning to assert himself as more than a three-point shooter. But all are trending in the right direction.

It’s going to be a rough haul in Ivy play, but it’s going to pay off. The Quakers’ struggles are not systemic and they’re not irreversible. Rather, they’re reflective of a young team having to do more, far earlier than anticipated.

Junior Matt Howard, the only upperclassman to see significant playing time this weekend, recognizes the change this team is going through.

“It gives us good experience, it’ll help us towards the end of the year definitely,” he said following the 81-58 loss to Yale. “Because these young guys are getting confidence — it means we’ve gotta step up our play.

“Guys like me, I’m one of the older guys now, so I’ve gotta step up.”

As the team is forced to take on a new identity, Howard’s role — along with those of Jamal Lewis and Nelson-Henry — will be critical in helping bring the youth movement at the Palestra to fruition.

It’s not easy for me to argue that a team not being in position to win right now is a good thing. I’m from Cleveland, so just about every year people want us to start tanking to ensure we get the next great draft pick. But for Penn basketball, I think that not being good right now is exactly what’s needed.

If it’s hard for fans to stomach, it’s an even more difficult fact for the players themselves to confront.

“It feels nice [to have individual success], but we lost, so it’s not the best feeling,” Rothschild said following the Brown loss.

Everyone wants to win now. It could still happen. And even if it doesn’t, this is a team positioning itself to win down the line.

I don’t know what we’ll see from this young squad in the final 11 games of the year, but win or lose, I’m excited for the growth that will come from these guys in the next five weeks.

Now, let the freshmen eat.

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