They say in sports, teamwork makes the dream work. If that's true, Penn men’s basketball has notable cause to dream.
After an offseason full of roster turnover, the Red and Blue (1-0) opened the 2023-24 campaign on the right note, rolling Division III John Jay (0-1) 102-57 behind a full team effort that included big contributions from the team’s newcomers. While no Quaker scored more than 16, every player scored at least once, providing an early example of the balanced roster that the team hopes will carry them through the season ahead.
"We knew we had really only four guys who had really played college basketball," coach Steve Donahue said. "So I thought it was really important, almost like a dress rehearsal … I thought we made good decisions on the offensive end, as the game went on I thought we guarded a little better. And all those things, for young kids who haven't played, that's good experience."
The differences in this year’s Penn team were clear from the opening tip. Three Quakers made their first career start — junior forward Ed Holland, sophomore guard Cam Thrower, and freshman forward Tyler Perkins, who was recently named Blue Ribbon’s preseason Ivy League Newcomer of the Year. The trio replaces Max Martz, Lucas Monroe, and Jordan Dingle, a group that had become faces of the program during their time in the Red and Blue. The last game that did not feature Martz, Monroe, or Dingle was on March 16, 2019.
But it was not long before this year’s group made a mark of their own. All three new starters scored within the first five minutes, part of a 30-9 opening barrage that buried the Bloodhounds before they could blink. Penn converted 11 of its first 12 field goals, including five of the first six looks from the three-point line.
"When we're passing the ball and we're all moving around, we get good shots, and more than likely it's gonna go," Perkins said of the early run.
The parade of fresh faces continued to the bench unit, with freshmen forward Augustus Gerhart and sophomore transfer forward Johnnie Walter each seeing significant action. Both players also got the Palestra crowd rocking during their first run at the historic arena, with Gerhart recording a tough and one for his first career basket and Walter jamming a thunderous fast break jam that gave the Quakers a 45-18 lead in the first half.
Despite John Jay’s not leveling up to the degree of talent the Red and Blue are slated to face for the rest of the season, Donahue says Monday’s effort typified the brand of basketball that Penn will look to employ throughout the 2023-24 campaign.
"I do," Donahue said when asked if he thinks Penn will try to carry this style of play onward. "I think we're a pretty good offensive team in terms of having a lot of guys who score in different ways. Tyler's a different type of scorer than we've had, he scores in different ways. Cam [Thrower]'s a very good shooter, and obviously Nick [Spinoso] and Augie [Gerhart] can score in the low post."
The second half was less competition, more domination, as the Quakers continued to gel in all aspects of the game. In the end, the Red and Blue outshot, out-rebounded, and outworked the Bloodhounds. The Quakers recorded more assists, fewer turnovers, and most importantly, more points in a game that was never truly in question.
The early contributions from this year’s freshman class are especially notable given Penn’s typical aversion to giving newcomers significant playing time. The last two freshmen classes averaged under 10 minutes per game, and Perkins’ start made him the first Penn freshman to start in a season opener since Dingle in 2019.
While the success of the new names was a welcome sight for Penn, it was not always supposed to be this way.
Last season, when the Quakers fell to Princeton in the semifinals of Ivy League Tournament, the general attitude was one of continued optimism for what the group could still accomplish. At that point, Penn was set to return four of its five starters, including the team's two All-Ivy selections in Dingle and Martz.
But when Dingle, last season’s Ivy League Player of the Year, transferred to St. John’s in May and Martz, an All-Ivy honorable mention, announced his medical retirement in September, Penn’s plans were suddenly thrown into flux. The season was going to be different, different than any they’d had in recent memory, and different than Penn expected as recently as a few months ago.
But one game into the new journey, the Quakers are hoping it will be different for the better.
"I'm always looking at every team differently. But we thought we had four starters coming back from a team that lost in overtime in the championship game, essentially," Donahue said. "That being said, I'm ready to turn the page completely now."