Last year, Penn men's basketball finished third in the Ivy League during the regular season before losing to eventual Champions Princeton in the semifinals of the Ivy League Tournament. Then, the Quakers went through an offseason that saw the transfer of last year's Ivy League Player of the Year, Jordan Dingle, the medical retirement of guard/forward Max Martz, and the graduation of key pieces such as Lucas Monroe and Jonah Charles. Now, on the cusp of a new season, coach Steve Donahue sat down with The Daily Pennsylvanian to discuss the offseason and expectations for the upcoming campaign.
How do you feel just about the team right now? What's the general atmosphere like?
I think it is a little bit unique since we had such a big turnover. You lose seven and then bring in five, that's just not typical of the Ivy [League] and Penn. I'm just more conscious of really being engaged to each and every guy, and making sure the freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors are getting personal time with me so they feel if there are any issues, I can kind of nip it in the bud.
Last year we had two new guys and we were able to really do what we wanted to from day one. This [year] has been a little slower pace, but it's been good in some ways. It's like anything else when you do something; When you go back and start from scratch, you forget some things, and this way, you really make sure that you're covering every aspect of your program. I think it's been a fun first six weeks to do that.
Due to the influx of freshmen, are you worried about that inexperience factor?
I don't know if worry is the word. Here's what I think will happen: The guys who are returning will have an impact and probably play more of a role overall than the younger guys. At some point, do some of the younger guys jump in there because now they're experienced and they're talented? I don't know, but even though we have these new guys, the things I've been really pleased with are the returnees and their improvement.
Obviously, [senior guard] Clark [Slajchert] and [senior forward/center] Nick [Spinoso], to me, have taken another step and they played a lot [last year]. But also, [junior guard] George Smith and [senior guard] Andrew Laczkowski have taken a big step, and then two guys that really didn't play at all, [junior guard] Eddie Holland III and [sophomore guard] Cam Thrower, have taken a big step. That is extremely important if we're going to be good and challenge for a championship. I think you need guys who have been in your program and understand what it takes.
Is it safe to say that your juniors and seniors are a lock for the starting rotation?
I told the guys today we probably have 11 guys that are in the rotation and 11 can jump to four really quickly. If you looked at our starting lineup from our first game and looked at our starting lineup [during] the last game of the season, [it looked] pretty dramatically different. What I think is important for me is that I reward really good play and practice. Those guys deserve an opportunity. There's young guys that are playing really well too, so that is really up for grabs.
With Dingle gone, how do you think that void is going to be filled? Do you think it's going to be a combination of guys like Spinoso, Slajchert and Laczkowski?
I think we can run better offense now, with more guys sharing the ball, doing different things, not strictly figuring out how we can get Jordan in good spots. Not that that was awful, it's just the way that was best for us to win last year. I think we can win quite differently this year moving the ball with a lot of different guys and probably playing better offense — getting good shots, good cuts, and sharing it between multiple guys. I've been pleased with that. I'm excited to see where that all goes.
Is there someone that you think has had a great offseason that we should watch out for?
I think Cam Thrower is probably the obvious choice there. He was at times, in practice last year, one of our best offensive players, if not the best. He was behind real experienced guards and his skill set didn't fit exactly what we needed, but he continued to get better last year. I think he's taking a big step and he's the guy that you'll see is a really different player than I think people saw in games last year.
As a coach, part of the job is making sure your players gel and build chemistry. With so many new faces in the building, how are you managing that?
Outside the top 20 real talented teams, everybody wins essentially with chemistry. Playing together and toughness — that's the beauty of college basketball. You look at Florida Atlantic and San Diego State, and you look at even Princeton — there's a level of togetherness, tightness, and competitiveness and not caring who or how it got done. That's why we developed our leadership council this year. I wanted the pulse of the young guys and to figure out if they are seeing stuff. Are they not liking it? What do they like? We met each week to figure that out. I think it's been good. I feel I’ve got the pulse of the team better than I would have, if I hadn't done that.
What are you most looking forward to this season?
Every year I'm excited. That's the beauty of what I do for a living. There's a beginning and an end. For us specifically, I'm so excited because we can turn the page. I don't think people expect as much from us. We were picked to win it last year, but it's a slightly different role [now], so I'm excited to really go out and kind of play with the chip on our shoulder and play the way Penn basketball should play all the time. I think if we do those things, in that process, each and every day, then I think we're going to be challenging for a championship.