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Coach Steve Donahue speaks with the men's basketball team during their game against Cornell at the Palestra on Jan 7. Credit: Sukhmani Kaur

The beginning of the Penn men’s basketball season is almost underway, and hopes are high for the Quaker team, ranked first in the Ivy League preseason media poll. Last season, Penn rattled off a 9-5 conference record en route to the Ivy Tournament, and Penn returns all but one key contributor from that roster.

With Penn’s opening contest at Iona just days away, The Daily Pennsylvanian spoke with coach Steve Donahue to gauge his thoughts on this year’s team.

Last season, you remarked on how Penn was literally the most inexperienced team in the country. This year, coming off an Ivy Tournament berth and having some more experience, how do you see that manifesting into the season?

Well, I think the first thing is just how the preseason has gone. We're really just kind of jumping in where we left off. We don't have to go through all the minutiae of why we're doing something; guys get it. Now, we have two freshmen that we're kind of pulling along with us, and it allows you to start figuring out how you're going to win games, not just what you need to do to survive at this level. And I think that's something that will help us right away.

You mentioned the two freshmen coming into the team. What do you expect from them minutes-wise, and what have you seen from them so far?

I think they're both really progressing nicely. I think a lot of it has to do with the competition in front of them. So in some ways, Cam [Thrower] is further along, so he can come in and help us on the perimeter. We have some bigger guys up front, and Christian [Ubochi] has had some injury issues here in the preseason, but I would hope that as he continues to really work at it … that he's someone that at some point, whether it's this year or next, that he's going to help us.

Last season, eight guys cracked 450 minutes on the season. The season before that, only five did. Is this going to be a team that utilizes its depth more and changes things up based on the situation, or is there going to be more of a set rotation given the added experience?

It's a couple of things. One, we're going to play more games this year. We could play more guys than we did, but maybe it's nine or 10 closer to 400. So I do think we're deep. I think we're going to be able to play fours and fives as a group, and perimeters as a group. And whoever is playing well will play, and I sense that we're going to have, as the season goes, we'll probably start out early, maybe 10 or 11. As we get closer to the league, eight or nine, and in the second half of games, six or seven.

Max Lorca-Lloyd is back from injury. He was a starter last season before getting injured. What have you seen from him so far, and what do you expect from him role-wise this season?

I think Max showed early on what he could do for us defensively, and we really missed him. So I think he's gotten bigger, stronger, faster. He's more experienced, he's a very good defender. For a big guy, he can guard multiple positions, and he protects the rim. Now on the offensive end, he’s become really active on the glass. He's a very good passer. And I think he's finishing better than he ever has, and I think he would tell you, that's the next step in his progression, just going to a go-to move down on the block that he feels comfortable with and he can be consistent with.

Rebounding was a bit of an issue for the team last season, especially without Max. What have you done to try and improve in that area?

Part of our strategy now is playing two bigger guys pretty consistently, and then really putting an emphasis on it. … That's part of our defense, that's part of our offense. And it's something that we're going to be pretty critical in terms of holding ourselves accountable for the glass. That's everybody.

Across the roster every year, there's a number of different guys that step into the rotation. Who do you see getting a much bigger role than they did last season?

Well, we had a couple injured guys, so Max is back, and then the younger guys making a step, and I think in particular Nick Spinoso and Gus Larson in that class. I think they both, hence we're playing bigger, those are the two guys that I think you'll get comfortable saying that they're going to be a big part of the rotation.

How much does last season’s exit in the Ivy Tournament serve as a motivator for this season? 

I think we're all about building the habits that help us to be a champion. And a life lesson like losing to a champion on a neutral court with a one-possession game with a minute left is a hard pill to swallow. And I thought it's been motivation the whole year. We want to get back there, and we want to get back to the NCAA Tournament.

Jordan Dingle averaged the most points in the Ivy League last season and was undeniably the most valuable player on the team. What have you seen from him this offseason, and what do you think we can expect from him this season?

Well, for the most part, what I think you're going to see from Jordan is a better defender, better all-around rebounder. And then on the offensive end, I think he now knows that he can trust his teammates. We don't need him to get 30 every game. There's going to be times where he's going to have to score and do what he does. But it's going to be something based on the defense. And if he could be a better distributor, I think he's someone, to me, he's so talented, he can lead the league in assists. Because I think that's what we need more from him than we did. And then be a catch-and-shoot guy that shoots 40% from three.

Touching on the last season, Jelani Williams and four other players graduated. Can you speak to their legacy with the team?

I have so much respect for them because they went through so much with the pandemic, two of their championship seasons essentially taken away. And then, in particular, Jelani was like the uncle that we needed last year, kind of pulling the boys along. It was a rough road: Sure enough, we were 8-2, and he gets hurt. If he doesn't get hurt, I feel strongly that we would have really competed for a championship, and I think he should feel proud that he helped put us in a spot right now that we should be ready to challenge for the championship.

Penn was ranked number one in the Ivy League preseason poll. With those big expectations going into the season, what can fans expect from this team?

I hope they work out on the court and they see an identity that they feel proud of. They play really hard, they're really gritty, they guard, they rebound. And at the same time, there's a skill and a talent level that they enjoy watching. And hopefully, if we continue to build those habits every day, that results in a championship.