The seniors on Penn men’s basketball have faced their fair share of adversity during their four years in University City. Losing records, a coaching change and transfers are not easy hurdles to clear. But three years later, senior point guard Darnell Foreman and the rest of the class of 2018 lead a team that is a legitimate contender in the Ivy League.
“When I first came here, the biggest thing was just finding out how to win,” Foreman said about his freshman season.
That year, the Quakers didn’t pose much of a threat and finished at the bottom of the 2014-15 standings. But in the ensuing seasons, there was a change, and with it came new success.
“Now we’ve carved out a way to win games,” Foreman explained. “And that’s basically to have a sense of urgency on defense while also having a poise about us on offense and having that combination is crucial.”
However, the change didn’t just occur on the court. The team grew tighter off the court as well, which contributed to their rise.
“The biggest culture shift has just been the bond we have right now,” senior forward Sam Jones said. “We’ve been through a lot, especially our senior class, new coaches new adjustments. When we came in the team wasn’t as close, freshmen through seniors, and I’d say this team right now is real close. We all hang out together.”
That closeness has allowed Penn men's basketball to take the next step and get back to the roots that made the program a perennial power in the Ivy League.
“We just got tired of losing, and there’s only one way to win. You’ve got to be together,” Jones explained. “We’re not going to be the most talented group on the floor every single night, but we can be the closest and know each other the best and that’s what’s going to make us good.”
Foreman, who is one of three captains this season, has seen the culture shift that Jones spoke of transfer directly to the basketball court.
“We’ve just matured,” Foreman said. “As the years went on we found different key components and ways for us to win games.”
Coach Steve Donahue, who won three straight Ivy titles with Cornell from 2008-2010, helped accelerate that evolution.
“For me and the guys that I came in here with, just that whole maturation process was big for us,” Foreman explained. “Coach just really instilling that process and giving us the opportunity to keep growing and growing and making mistakes, eventually we got to the point where we are now.”
The combination of growing older and Donahue’s presence helped accelerate the rebuild.
“I think there has been a dramatic change in culture from the first day I got here until now,” Donahue said. “I think that first year group there was still a hangover in terms of what we expected how they approached practices and games. I think our leadership over the last year and a half has gotten so much better.”
Last year, that leadership and maturity helped the Red and Blue to dig themselves out of an 0-6 hole to begin the conference slate and earn an appearance in the inaugural Ivy League Tournament. For the first time in their three years in University City, Foreman and his teammates found themselves playing meaningful games in February and March. More often than not, they succeeded in those contests, learning on the fly while leading a fresh group of players.
“We were a young team and the only way you go from being a young team to a more mature team is just going through the trials and tribulations of the season,” Foreman added. “If that’s being thrown through the fire in different aspects that’s fine because we’ve learned from it and we know what to do now when we get into situations similar to that.”
Penn surprised many last year with its brilliant run to the Ivy League Tournament, where the team narrowly lost to eventual champion Princeton in overtime. Undoubtedly, they will build on that experience, but the stakes are different this season as the Quakers won’t be able to sneak up on anyone. For the seniors, this is a chance to complete what would be a miraculous worst-to-first transformation.
Foreman believes the team is up to the task.
“Now we’re not thinking about just getting into the Ivy League tournament,” he stated. “We want to win the league, we want to win the Big 5, those are attainable goals if we stay on the process that we’re in."
The Quakers got their first taste of postseason basketball in 2017, but now they won’t be satisfied with just a seat at the table.
“When we were freshmen the first couple games we didn’t expect much from ourselves,” Jones added. “But it’s now or never. There’s no tomorrow. We’re not building for the future. It’s this year and that’s all we have.”
Last year, the Quakers won close games, they won elimination games and most importantly, they won more games than anyone on the team had before during their time at Penn.
This year, they don’t have to learn how to win, because for the first time in a while, they’ve been here before.