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Credit: Chase Sutton

Paradise doesn’t necessarily imply a vacation.

This weekend, Penn men’s basketball will travel to the US Virgin Islands to play in the Paradise Jam, an eight-team tournament featuring Northern Iowa, Eastern Kentucky, Kennesaw State, Missouri, Old Dominion, Oregon State, and No. 12 Kansas State. 

The Quakers (3-0) will take on Northern Iowa (1-1) this Friday, and then either Eastern Kentucky (2-1) or Kansas State (2-0), depending on the result of their game. Their third match, should they win their first two games, will be for the title of Paradise Jam champion.

“It will be a fun time, obviously going down to the Virgin Islands, and it will be a good test for us,” sophomore guard Devon Goodman said.

Starting the season undefeated, the team seems poised to make a splash in the Caribbean, with two of their wins being complete blowouts. Not everything has gone smoothly so far, though.

Senior guard Ryan Betley, a key part of the team’s success the last two years, went down with a season-ending knee injury only five minutes into Penn’s first game against George Mason. The Red and Blue managed to pull out a win, but the significant loss certainly put the trajectory of this year in doubt.

Three wins later, the success of the team thus far can be attributed to a multitude of players, ranging from freshmen to seniors, starters and bench players, stepping up in the place of Betley and for the sake of the team.

Bryce Washington, a freshman guard, has started in place of Betley, and fellow freshman forward Michael Wang has also gotten significant minutes off the bench. The two have provided scoring options for a team that needs to replace the 14.3 points per game Betley provided last season.

“We’re trying to see if we can get them more consistent every day, on offense and defense,” coach Steve Donahue said. “The older guys have done a good job of reaching out to Bryce and Michael.”

Credit: Varun Sudunagunta

Wang, specifically, assisted the team in topping George Mason when he hit 4 of 5 threes in the first half. When the Patriots’ defense stepped up to the arc, Penn simply banged it down low to last year’s first team All-Ivy selection AJ Brodeur.

Washington, on the other hand, has eased the workload at the guard position, proving himself to be a reliable catch-and-shoot piece in an offense that’s still finding its identity. Penn dropped 91 points against Lafayette, its biggest scoring mark this season, and Washington contributed 8 of those points with an efficient 3 for 4 performance.

Though still searching for an identity after losing a big part of its process, the team hasn’t lost hope, resorting not only to freshmen to pick up the slack, but role players as well.

Senior Jake Silpe, for example, who had a limited role off the bench last season, has shown himself to be a gritty defender as well as a capable scorer. In Penn’s big win over Rice, Silpe demonstrated his versatility, dropping 16 points and snatching five steals.

Other players such as Jackson Donahue, Tyler Hamilton, Eddie Scott, and Jarrod Simmons have also demonstrated their ability to contribute to the team’s success in their own unique ways.

The blowouts have certainly provided them with the opportunity to show their worth. For example, Simmons played 14 minutes against Lafayette, a season high, and made them count, efficiently posting 11 points and a couple boards.

“We were able to go with different combinations,” Donahue said. “It helps us as coaches to figure out going forward who can help us.”

Credit: Son Nguyen

With the injury to Betley as well as a brief scare with starting senior guard Antonio Woods, these role players – some of them, such as Washington, now starters – are not only ready for their names to be called but are expecting it to be. Donahue emphasized that individual performance drives upticks in minutes more than the injuries the team has faced.

“If guys play well in practice, they’re going to get opportunities,” Donahue said.

This team was defined by its cohesiveness in its tournament appearance just a year ago, and it has been relying on that attribute once again to scrape out and dominate. 

“We might not be the most talented team, but we’re gritty,” Goodman said.

The Paradise Jam will put that grittiness to the test, as the team faces its first back-to-backs before Ivy League play and possibly a top-15 opponent in Kansas State.

First, though, is Northern Iowa, who relies heavily on its guards to carry its offense. With perimeter defenders like Silpe ready to contribute, the Quakers will hope to shut down the Panthers' offense while thriving on the other end with Brodeur down low, Goodman attacking, and reliable shooters such as Washington and Woods on the outside.

“It’s just our job to go out and execute,” Goodman said.

Should Penn stick to its defensive game plan and continue to figure out its offensive identity throughout this slate, then the possibilities this season are endless.

And paradise might be one of them.

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