The Journey from South Carolina: Why Matt Howard chose Penn over big time programs and Merrill Lynch over professional basketball
Matt Howard scans the floor in 2015-16 game against Dartmouth.
(Luke Risher/The Empire)
Matt Howard should have recognized Jerome Allen the first time he walked into his high school gym. The two-time Ivy League Player of the Year in the mid-1990s. The former NBA player. The head coach at his alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania.
But Howard did notice Allen in the Penn vest, jeans, and pair of Jordans. Whoever he was, Howard thought to himself: this guy has style.
It was fall of Howard’s senior season and Allen was here at AC Flora High School to recruit the guard from Columbia, South Carolina.
About a week before, Penn’s assistant coach Scott Pera had reached out to Howard. Pera wanted him to consider Penn. Howard didn’t think much of it. He was coming off his junior season where he had averaged 20 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists, despite spraining his ankle, breaking his wrist, and catching mono. The entire summer he had competed with Team United on the EYBL circuit, playing around the country and garnering interest from big time schools like Stanford and Virginia Tech. Finally healthy, Allen and the Penn coaching staff were seriously interested in the straight A student.
After the workout, Allen came up to Howard.
“I’m Jerome Allen,” the Penn head coach said. And then he walked out of the gym. The more reserved Howard was awestruck.
Allen would be at the AC Flora gym many times in the next few weeks. Howard felt like it was everyday. Each time Allen walked in, he was fresh and clean. And each time he would make the two hour flight to see Howard, he was short to the point.
“What’s up Matt? You all good? Alright, I’ll see you,” he would say after practice. And then Allen would just leave, again. Howard thought he was cool.
“[Allen] speaks their language,” Matt’s father, Craig Howard, says. “The way he dressed. He dresses like them. I think that it just clicked…Matt would say, ‘he has swag.’”
The AC Flora star was instantly attracted to Allen, but still knew little about the university.
“Being in Columbia, you’re not going to hear about Penn, unless -- I don’t even know how, because all they care about is football and SEC football,” Howard says.
Howard too loved South Carolina football. South Carolina, the school, and the campus were embedded in his childhood.
“My favorite memory, 2012, I think October 6th, Georgia vs. South Carolina. South Carolina smacked Georgia 35-7...That was probably the most electric the atmosphere ever was in there...I mean that’s about as jumping as that city can get,” he laughs.
Until Jerome Allen showed up, Ivy League schools weren’t in the picture for Howard. Allen’s smooth talking swagger-filled persona convinced Howard to come up to Penn for a visit. It made him confident enough to do what many from the outside would see as absurd: turning down basketball powerhouses and leaving the South for an Ivy League school. And it would lay the framework for him to turn down another enticing option five years later: the chance to play professional basketball.
Howard grew up playing basketball with his sisters. It all started in the backyard, on the concrete slab, and on the basketball hoop Howard found under the Christmas tree when he was five years old. The only son and the middle child, Howard has an older sister, Alex, and a younger sister, Emily. The backyard games began between Howard and Alex. They would stay out until dark, where games could get intense quick.
“My older sister was probably beating up on me until I was at least eight or nine,” Howard remembers. “I mean, I have a few scars from her.”
Matt Howard (right) holding a basketball at his grandparents house.
(Photo courtesy of Matt Howard)
When he wasn’t in the backyard, he was playing in a local boys’ and girls’ league. At five years old, it was the first league Howard was a part of. He joined forces with Alex, competing in the league with 7-8 year old boys and 9-10 year old girls. And the girls weren’t bad. Other than his sister, who would cross him up on the daily in the backyard, there was Morgan Stroman, who would go on to be the 33rd best player in the 2009 ESPN recruiting class. It was in this league that Howard remembers his first basketball memories, where he was “just getting cooked.”
Years later, Alex went on to attend the University of North Carolina and Emily took her place.
“[Emily] used to play the best defense on me,” Howard remembers. They would stay on the concrete slab for hours, even playing a 1-on-1 game to 100, counting each score as a 1-pointer, on a random Saturday in his high school days.
But it was in middle school where Howard first found success in basketball. In seventh grade, he was a mere 5-foot-7. A year later, he was 6-foot, a middle school champion, and had dunked for the first time. While most kids at his skill level were playing travel AAU basketball, Howard wasn’t. His father didn’t see the point of 13 year olds playing basketball year around. Howard instead spent his summers in New York City, where his dad was originally from, enjoying time with his grandmother and family. As a result, going into high school, within the larger Columbia basketball scene, “Matt was an unknown commodity,” as his father remembers.
In the summer going into his junior year of high school, Howard sat in the passenger seat as his dad drove him to church. Howard’s phone rang and he looked down to see a number he didn’t recognize. It was Scott Pera, an assistant coach at Arizona State. He wanted Howard to know he was on their radar. It was one of Howard’s first calls from a Division 1 basketball coach. Division 1 basketball hadn’t even been on Howard’s mind. But on the phone, the always humble Howard kept his cool. He spoke with Pera and hung up.
His father didn’t hold anything back.
“Let’s go boy! It’s go time now!” he exclaimed.
During the weekend before Pera called, Howard had played some of the best basketball of his life. Back-to-back 30-plus point games for his travel team, the Carolina Ravens, sent college coaches sprawling. They even called his father, who would answer unsure of who was on the other line, only to hear desperate college coaches.
“What is your son doing down there? Who is Matt Howard? Why didn’t anybody tell me about Matt Howard?” they would ask him.
People have always been asking those questions. Howard entered AC Flora as an athletic, raw, and quiet freshman. Most talented basketball players from the area didn’t go to AC Flora, but his older sister had success in the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, and it was understood that he would attend the same high school and jump on the same academic tract.
On the court, Howard had impressed enough in summer workouts that the coaches knew he would play varsity basketball as a freshman. Instead of regular PE, they placed him in a weightlifting program with the school’s new strength and conditioning coach, Micah Kurtz. However, his mother, Felicia Howard, was hesitant to the idea of her son lifting. Even more, Howard wasn’t totally invested in it either. His attitude would change over time.
“I remember those first two weeks when he started to get comfortable and started to realize how much this could help his game, he bought in,” Kurtz says. “I really noticed a lot of gains in his first 8-10 weeks and after that, he was hooked. I don’t think of him missing any workouts or me having to get on him for not doing a good job. He was one of the hardest workers on our team.”
After coming off the bench in the first game of his high school varsity career, he scored nearly 20 points. The next game, he jumped right into the starting lineup, notching multiple 20-point games in the process. For the next two years, Howard would be known for his high flying dunks and explosive scoring outings. His body was developing too. While he would drop the IB courses, his full load of Advanced Placement (AP) classes conflicted with scheduling for the weightlifting class. Instead, he made time out of his own day and came before school at 6 a.m. to work out with Kurtz.
As a result, Howard played well. His team, however, struggled and the Division 1 interest was sparse. That is, until phone calls like the one he received in the car started to roll in during the summer of his sophomore year. The calls, the interest, and the excitement built up. Pera’s was only the beginning.
In the next 10 days, Howard found himself with 15 offers. He was being pursued by small local schools like Citadel, Furman, and Presbyterian and bigger schools like Wake Forest, Clemson, and VCU. Howard’s parents helped him censor the schools; they wanted to make sure academics remained a priority. His A’s in AP courses had earned him the right to play almost anywhere.
The University of South Carolina quickly found Howard as well. They wanted “the kid from around the corner.” The son of South Carolina alums. So they brought him on campus for a visit and pitched him hard.
In their meeting, the South Carolina coach, Darrin Horn, pulled up a map to show Howard just how close his house was to the South Carolina campus. A 10 minute drive. His school, just 8 minutes away. A star from that close had to go to South Carolina. It was only right. They offered a full-ride scholarship.
“They told him the only thing that he could be here, no where else,” his dad says, “was a hometown hero.”
But Howard couldn’t accept the offer just yet. He wasn’t even a junior. There were still two seasons left to play. After the weekend he had had, with the back-to-back 30-point games, no one knew just how far he could reach. And so Howard played out the next year. He played well his junior season, averaging 20 points per game, but injuries hampered him. In the meantime, South Carolina fired its head coach in favor of former Kansas State coach Frank Martin. With the new coach brought uncertainty around an offer that once seemed clear.
The offers still piled up from other schools, but Howard was waiting for the right match. It took until Jerome Allen’s Jordan brand sneakers to walk the AC Flora hardwoods, early in his senior year, for that to happen. As a matter of fact, Allen was a little late. But in late August, Pera, one of Howard’s first phone calls from Arizona State, was hired at Penn.
The day after his hiring, upon seeing Howard had not committed anywhere, Pera went to AC Flora.
A few days after Pera, Allen emerged in the AC Flora gym as well. In the next week and a half, the Howards were on Penn’s campus. They loved it. The Wharton School of Business, the team, the coaches, the campus set up. It all fit.
“I go up there and Miles [Jackson]-Cartwright is like, the coolest kid ever,” Howard remembers of the then Penn sophomore. “This dude’s acting like he’s known me my whole life... After my visit to Penn, it just felt right. I visited Harvard. This was when I was a huge [South] Carolina [football] fan. And [South Carolina] beat Kentucky on my visit to Penn. I went up to Harvard two weeks later, [South Carolina] lost, and I didn’t have as good of a time. I just knew Penn was where I needed to be.”
And so the leading scorer in AC Flora history, ahead of former NBA players Tyrone Corbin and Xavier McDaniel, chose the Ivy League school he barely knew just a few months ago. In late October of his senior season, the day Howard decided to announce his decision, South Carolina’s coach, Frank Martin, came to express interest. This time, there was no second thoughts. He picked up the phone and called Allen after practice.
“Yo coach, I’m coming to Penn,” he told him over the phone.
“That’s what I’m talkiinggg about,” Allen responded.
His senior year, Howard would lead AC Flora to a 22-7 record, their first conference title in 25 years, and a regional championship. It was a big deal. Howard still even has the newspaper cutouts in his house. Most basketball players in the area didn’t openly choose to attend AC Flora. It was Howard who started that trend. He had established himself as the sixth best player in the state of South Carolina, according to ESPN, and brought a winning tradition to the high school. The year after he left, they would win the state championship with many of the guys who had initially come to AC Flora to play beside Howard. That’s why Kurtz has crowned him “The Godfather of AC Flora Basketball.”
And now “The Godfather of AC Flora Basketball” was on his way to Penn.
Howard wasn’t the biggest fan of 5 a.m. workouts. Luckily, they weren’t everyday -- they were only punishments -- but similar hard experiences happened on the daily.
“I would be lying if I didn’t say after those workouts, where I could barely walk up a full flight of steps to my dorm room, that I didn’t want to quit,” Howard says.
Whether it was showing up to practice an hour early or the supreme talent level at Penn, the university wasn’t totally what Howard had expected. After the team had finished 9-22, Howard assumed he would come right in and play.
On the first day of summer pick up games, it was Howard’s task to cover Simeon Esprit, a player who had combined for 5 total points in his first two seasons before an injury had derailed his sophomore year. So here Howard was, in a city he didn’t know, in a gym he didn’t know, struggling to cover a player who appeared minimally in games and was coming off injury. Esprit went for 16 straight points on Howard.
“It was crazy. I was getting cooked. It was the first time I guarded a 6-foot-6 dude who could move like that,” Howard says.
The freshman quickly grew accustomed to the new pace of the game. He got in better shape and toughed out the 5 a.m. practices. He saw the light at the end of the tunnel. If all of the other players were doing the same workouts and surviving, he could do the same. However, he was still getting used to living in Philadelphia.
“Cultural shock was one of the biggest things with me in terms of going into a city,” Howard remembers. “Being from [Columbia], where it seems like the biggest thing to do is to go to Charlotte, it was just different. I feel like the diversity of the people threw me off also. Columbia isn’t that diverse and Penn is very diverse. It was just adjusting to meeting and talking to different types of people. Walking everywhere. Being in a big city.”
While he struggled with the culture shock, he slowly worked his way into the rotation during his freshman season. To begin his career, Howard would emerge off the bench for a couple minutes here and there. He appeared in 15 of his first 17 games, but only reached double-digit minutes twice. That built up to two back-to-back games, where he would score 7 points against Cornell and then 8 the following day against Columbia in a combined 30 minutes of play. It was Penn’s first and only winning streak of the season.
At the beginning of the year, Howard wouldn’t shoot a three. Allen “ripped” him apart over his unwillingness to attempt the shot. Halfway through his freshman season, he wasn’t just scoring in college basketball games, but he was finally taking threes. The next practice, he fed off that momentum and while running to the corner for a three, he felt something pop in his foot. He caught the ball and made the three but walked off the court after. It was a stress fracture. Howard wouldn’t play another game during his freshman season.
That evening, Howard crutched to his fourth floor dorm room. There he found his roommate and teammate, Preston Troutt, who had missed practice that day after injuring himself earlier in the season. He was on crutches too.
Instead of a greeting Howard, Troutt just started cracking up. Howard did the same.
They were both on the fourth floor of their dorm, far from their homes in Texas and South Carolina, and on crutches. How would they do their daily tasks? It made them laugh. But Howard’s laughter would cease in the ensuing weeks as reality set in.
“It’s the middle of winter,” he says, “I’m on crutches in the ice cold, crutching to class. Just miserable.”
On the court, his game was finally starting to come together. Once he suffered the foot injury, that was gone. He was without basketball and his family, alone in foreign space. He had no routine. That winter was one of the toughest periods of his life.
The following summer, Howard became determined to return to Penn as a new beast. He worked with Kurtz on “ankle mobility and stability,” while easing his hip tightness, which may have led to some of the injuries.
“It was a gradual process,” Penn assistant coach Ira Bowman remembers from his time working with Howard. “But it was something that he went through and managed and carried the right way. I think by the time he got back, he was stronger and little bit better conditioned.”
His sophomore year, Howard saw a big jump in his production and playing time. He appeared in every game, averaging 8.4 points in 26 minutes per game. But before the second to last game of the season, he learned Allen would be fired as Penn’s head coach. They hadn’t won more than 10 games in the past three years, a disappointing product. The reason that Howard went to Penn would be gone.
From left, Preston Troutt, coach Jerome Allen and Matt Howard attend an Eagles versus Cowboys game.
(Photo courtesy of Matt Howard)
However, at this point, Howard was embedded at Penn. The administration would hire a former assistant from a decade ago who had success coaching at Cornell before jumping to Boston College. He was looking to get back on the sidelines after struggling at Boston College. He was Steve Donahue.
The transition for the Quakers wasn’t easy. Donahue preached the fundamentals, running them through drills that they did as kids. For a while, practices were sloppy with players making basic mistakes. Donahue also wanted to institute an analytical minded, selfless three-point shooting system. He pushed even harder than Allen did for Howard to develop his three-point game. Howard did just that. In their first double-digit win season in four years, Howard played an integral role as a junior, averaging 12.3 points in 30 minutes per game.
“Without Donahue, his game would have pretty much been a slasher,” his dad adds. “I think that Donahue forced him to work on weaknesses that weren’t as viable of a threat as his slashing ability.”
Despite injuring his ankle and missing the preseason, next year would be even better. As the only senior rotational player on a young team, Howard put up similar numbers, while shooting a career high 37% from three. Penn would win 13 games, their highest total in five years and would sneak into the Ivy League tournament after starting conference play 0-6. A 6-2 finish, where Howard would score double-digits in all but one game, propelled them into the tournament.
“I think Matt realized that his days were numbered here,” former teammate Darnell Foreman says, who played with Howard for three years at Penn. “He took advantage of that. After that 0-6 start, he started to go on a rampage.”
Their matchup in the conference tournament was a Princeton team that went 14-0 in Ivy League play and was considered one of the best teams in Ivy League history. Still, Penn led for nearly the entire game. It was Howard who propelled them with 17 points, carrying the Quakers into a potentially unbelievable upset.
With 12 seconds left in the game and Penn leading by two points, Howard was fouled after grabbing a defensive rebound. As a result, Howard would shoot a one-and-one with the opportunity to ice the game and send Penn to the Ivy League championship. The free throw fell short. Princeton ran down the court and tied the game on a tip-in shot with six seconds remaining. The two teams headed to overtime, where the Quakers would fall. It was the end of Howard’s career at Penn.
His parents tried to comfort him after the loss, but Howard didn’t want to talk to anyone. The game had been within grasp and slipped away. That stung.
That night, Howard walked to his apartment by himself. He threw pillows around and dropped a few tears.
“After that I was straight. [The game] wasn’t at the center of my mind. I mean it’s basketball,” he says.
He had to decide what he would do next: play professionally or head into the workforce. From the outside, the choice seemed obvious. It’s most basketball players’ dream to make money playing the game. Howard had that opportunity. Agents called him. They knew he could play at the top international levels. His parents didn’t think it would be a bad idea to give it a try. They were attached to his basketball as well.
“Basketball has been a part of our life with this guy [for a while],” Craig says. “My wife didn’t miss but one [Penn] game...She felt like she could have a couple overseas trips to watch him play.”
From left, Alex, Craig, Felicia, Matt and Emily in a family photo.
(Photo courtesy of Matt Howard)
Still, Howard’s body was beat up following the season. The four years of college basketball had taken a toll on him. The constant years of work and losing wasn’t much fun either. And then there was going overseas. The NBA wasn’t an option and he didn’t want to leave the states and adapt to a new culture again. He had also gone to Penn and the top business school in America for a reason. It wasn’t just to play basketball.
It was an ongoing conversation. He attempted to gain a medical redshirt year from his freshman season, but he was denied by the NCAA and by graduation, he knew. He was done with basketball. Some were surprised, like his parents, but others weren’t, like Foreman. For Howard, it was time to jump into reality. Time to get a job.
Every morning Matt Howard -- Matt Howard the financial advisor -- wakes up at 6 a.m. Work starts at 8, but he likes to get a lift in before he begins. After work, he goes back home and returns for another workout, often running. Sometimes he’ll have games in the adult league he plays in. Sometimes he’ll just watch NBA games, get dinner, do some work, and go to sleep early. He enjoys the daily routine.
“That’s an exciting life,” he jokes. In actuality, he is thoroughly liking his latest destination.
In the summer of 2017, when Howard returned home from Penn’s graduation knowing basketball was over, he began to search for jobs and reached out to a Wharton alum on LinkedIn. He was certain he wanted to be in Dallas, Texas, a big city, just like Philadelphia, and in the South, just like Columbia. “It was Dallas or bust,” his dad says.
That led him to Merrill Lynch, a banking company, where he’s expecting to stay for a while. Maybe he’ll start his own business at some point in the later future too.
“He loves it there. I can’t see him moving too many places from there. I can’t see him coming back this way,” his dad says, who still lives in Columbia.
Foreman adds that Howard’s “thriving.”
Howard is no longer playing in front of thousands of fans. He’s no longer being recruited by a plethora of Division 1 schools. He’s not making money playing basketball. But he’s content. He did everything his way. No one from the outside saw him going to Penn and no one from the outside saw him passing up professional basketball. But Howard wasn’t interested in the “outside.” He prides himself on doing things his own way. The Matt Howard way.
“[I’m] just trying to seperate myself,” he says.
Even though he is a working financial advisor, Howard still plays basketball in two different recreation leagues. Foreman jokes that he has lost a step. Howard disagrees. In one league, which actually features former Ole Miss star, Marshall Henderson, they don’t keep stats but he counted 46 points a few weeks ago. In the other, he’s third in the league with 31.6 points per game.
“It’s a recreational thing for now, but like I said, if I get in enough shape and keep killing these dudes,” Howard says, laughing, “you never know.”
Penn guards senior Caleb Wood and junior Antonio Woods stand behind the arc during a free throw attempt during the Ivy League tournament final at The Palestra.
(Benjamin Simon/The Empire)
Avi Cantor, Benjamin Simon and William Derry
Kansas Jayhawks (27-7 overall, 13-5 conference)
Senior guard Devonte’ Graham (17.3 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 7.5 APG, 1.6 SPG, .403 FG%, .412 3P%, .834 FT%)
Senior guard Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk (15.1 PPG, 4 RPG, 2.6 APG, 1.1 SPG, .442 FG%, .453 3P%)
Sophomore center Udoka Azubuike (13.7 PPG, 7.1 RPG, 1.8 BPG, .774 FG%)
Redshirt sophomore guard Malik Newman (13.1 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 2.1 APG, 1.1 SPG, .461 FG%, .409 3P%, .812 FT%)
Junior guard Lagerald Vick (12 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 2.3 APG, .489 FG%)
Summary of Season:
The Kansas Jayhawks competed in several early season showcases and got off to a fast start winning seven straight games to begin the season. The stretch included a defeat over #7 Kentucky during the State Farm Champions Classic in mid November. Kansas then suffered back-to-back double-digit losses to Washington and #16 Arizona State before going 9-1 in their next 10 contests, only coming up short against #18 Texas Tech. During that stretch however, the Jayhawks defeated two ranked teams (#16 TCU and #6 West Virginia). Kansas would double their loss total to six over their next six games, losing to #12 Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Baylor. Despite those losses, the Jayhawks had a 5-1 record over a six-game span to end the season. Entering this year’s Big 12 conference tournament as the #1 seed, Kansas got revenge against Oklahoma State, who beat them twice during the regular season, by defeating them in the quarterfinals. Kansas would go on to win the Big 12 tournament, taking down Kansas State in the semifinals and then West Virginia in the finals to earn an automatic NCAA tournament bid.
Penn Quakers (24-8 overall, 12-2 conference)
Sophomore guard Ryan Betley (14.5 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 1.3 APG, .425 FG%, .389 3P%)
Sophomore forward AJ Brodeur (13.1 PPG, 7.1 RPG, 2.5 APG, 1.3 BPG, .546 FG%)
Senior guard Darnell Foreman (10.7 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 3.6 APG, 1.1 SPG, .447 FG%)
Senior guard Caleb Wood (10.1 PPG, 2 RPG, .472 FG%, .382 3P%)
Junior guard Antonio Woods (7.6 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 2.1 APG, .424 FG%)
Summary of Season:
After opening the season with two single-digit losses, one coming in double overtime against fellow Big 5 school La Salle, the Penn Quakers won five of their next six games. Throughout the 2017-18 regular season campaign Penn would go on six different win streaks with a loss sprinkled in every so often. Those rare losses did not come against average opponents, as the Quakers fell to quality competitors like #4 Villanova, Temple, and Harvard, to name a few. What really put Penn over the top was their play during the conference season. The Quakers went 12-2 in the Ivy, only losing to Harvard and Yale, who finished second and third respectively in the league. Penn ranked first in the Ivy in limiting opponents from behind the arc, only allowing them to shoot 27% from three, second in the Ivy. In the second ever Ivy League tournament, Penn defeated Yale in the semifinals, eight days after losing to them on the road. In a game that will go down in the history books, Penn beat Harvard in a tightly contested battle to clinch their first NCAA tournament berth since 2007.
What Penn will need to do to win:
The key to beating Kansas is something that the Quakers work on quite often and is constantly preached by head coach Steve Donahue. Donahue is notoriously pesky about having his team run their opponents off of the three-point line. This skill will come in handy against a Kansas team that shoots 40.3% from beyond the arc. This tactic was exposed by Washington head coach Mike Hopkins who handed the then number 2 ranked Jayhawks their first loss of the season after holding them to 25% from three. Since then, Kansas’ six other losses ended with the Jayhawks carrying a less than average three-point shooting percentage.
What Kansas will need to do to win:
Three words: Shut down Brodeur. Massachusetts native AJ Brodeur is one of the best forwards in the Ivy and is an integral part of both Penn’s offense and defense. The sophomore forward places in the top 20 in the Ivy in several categories, according to ESPN, including points per game (11th), rebounds (2nd), field goal percentage (3rd), assists (13th), steals (16th) and blocks (3rd). Shutting down a threat like Brodeur eliminates passing to perimeter shooters like Ryan Betley and Caleb Wood, puts more work on Max Rothschild, who is known to have issues with fouling, and gives point guards Darnell Foreman, Devon Goodman, and Jake Silpe less people to pass to.
Devonte’ Graham vs. Darnell Foreman and Penn’s backcourt defense
Devonte’ Graham is Kansas’ leader, a Naismith Trophy finalist and bonafide playmaker. Penn’s senior guard Darnell Foreman, along with fellow Quaker backcourt teammates, will be tasked with slowing down Graham. Graham has scored in double-digits in all but three games this season and when he’s not efficiently scoring, he is distributing the ball and creating opportunities for teammates. While Graham’s scoring is impressive, his growth from last season can be seen in his assists per game, which has increased from 4.1 to 7.5. Foreman and the Quakers’ backcourt must force the other Jayhawk players to beat them by forcing the ball out of Graham’s hands. If Penn wants to win this game, they must limit Graham’s impact on the offensive end by disrupting his timing and giving him different defensive looks, which Donahue does a strong job of doing throughout the course of games.
Malik Newman and Caleb Wood
Malik Newman’s decision to return to Kansas after entering the NBA draft has paid off this year as he has put together a solid sophomore year. Newman is a 6-foot-3, 190-pound guard who can score from all three levels. While opponents primarily focus on Graham and Mykhailiuk, Newman takes advantage of that by attacking open lanes and knocking down open shots. When Newman is forced off his spot or has to put the ball on the floor he flourishes with his instinct to attack the rim off of a quick first step. When given the time to spot up from deep he is as lethal as they come, as he averages about 41% from downtown. The former top 10 national recruit is someone to watch out for, especially if Penn decides to double-team Graham or focuses a lot their attention on Mykhailiuk.
Caleb Wood’s journey as a Penn Quaker can be summed up in one word: resilience. Wood was head coach Steve Donahue’s starting point guard when he first arrived last season but that did not last. Wood found himself on the bench and struggled to find consistent playing time during the later parts of his junior year. That lack of substantial playing time carried over into this season until Wood put together a string of decent performances midway through this year. Although he did not get inserted into the starting lineup, Wood’s minutes began to increase as a result of his play. In 12 of Penn’s last 15 games, Wood has scored in double-figures, shot 47% from the field and 36% from three. With Donahue coached teams being known to take a lot of threes, expect Wood to be a big part of Penn’s offensive attack against Kansas.
Despite ESPN analysts’ prediction that Penn will lose by 14 and that the Jayhawks have a 93% chance of winning the game, Penn has been exceptional at shutting down offenses (specifically three-point driven ones) and sparking their own within two or three plays. This game won’t be the blow out that many fans are expecting and the Quakers won’t go down without a fight as they look to ride their momentum into Wichita. Additionally, Kansas head coach Bill Self said that he is “optimistic [Udoka Azubuike] can get in the game tomorrow. I’m not overly optimistic he can play significant minutes, be a real positive force inside.” The 7-foot, 280-pound center would be a matchup nightmare for the Quakers, but if he is indeed limited in minutes, Donahue’s squad doesn’t match up too poorly on paper. Azubuike’s health will be a huge factor in Penn’s ability to keep up on Thursday afternoon.
Penn senior guard Caleb Wood attempts a three-pointer against Harvard in the Ivy League tournament final at The Palestra.
(Benjamin Simon/The Empire)
Devon Goodman settled for a three. It was the Friday before the Ivy League tournament and the Penn Quakers were going through their shootaround routines. As they put on a show for the fans that sprinkled the arena, while getting ready for their biggest weekend of the year, the smiles, constant chatter, and joking overshadowed the daunting task ahead.
Assistant coach Nat Graham was on the right outside of the lane when Goodman shot the three. He eyed Goodman down, who had the option of attacking the basket with a contest from Graham or shooting a three. Goodman had decided to shoot and Graham smirked at him. It’s the face one gives their friend when they avoid the paint: you’re scared, you don’t want to come down here and see what I’ll do to your shot.
Just a few minutes before, Goodman had the tough task of following up an Eddie Scott double clutch reverse dunk. In the drill that required players to finish at the rim, often with the coaches working to alter the shots, it was Goodman’s turn. He ran down the baseline towards the basket, rose up above Graham, and dunked the ball home.
Graham had playfully been waiting for revenge, payback. His expression in the moment that Goodman avoided him for the three, minutes after Goodman’s dunk, was pure fun and games. It was the kind of humorous exchanges that are shared in a light hearted pickup game. But the Quakers were one day away from playing Yale and two days away from possibly reaching the NCAA Tournament. In the eyes of many, humor has no place for the shootaround before a game thousands of fans will come to see. That’s not the case at Penn. Not under this coaching staff. Not with this team. And not within this culture.
“[They’re] goofy kids,“ coach Steve Donahue said. “[They play] video games, they aren’t really caught up in all of the stuff that goes on, [and they] kind of bust on each other.
“And that’s what you have to be. You have to be loose.”
This is the identity Donahue has helped to mold. On a young team full of millennials, there are moments like Graham’s and Goodman’s all of the time.
“With this group there’s an innocence and a refreshing attitude that ‘we just love to play basketball with each other. It’s fun,’” Donahue said. “There’s an intrinsic value they get with coming to the gym, working hard, and being with each other.”
It’s how Penn wins, through that sense of community, unity, and genuine joy of being around each other. It’s also been a catalyst for unselfishness.
Two years ago, before Antonio Woods was forced to sit out a year and a half, he was called one of the best guards in the Ivy as a sophomore. He was a go-to offensive option, scoring double-digit points in more than half of his 13 games. When he left, the team’s identity was still formulating. He returned to one fully formulated and had to find his own role in the mix.
And now, that has become defense, as the junior has turned into the perfect upperclassman to complement the talented play of his younger counterparts.
“I think what he’s brought is a defensive mentality,” Donahue said. “He can guard a Miye Oni and Seth Towns. And he can guard a quicker guard at the same time. He has made us a much better defensive team. That’s where I think he’s helped us the most. I thought he’d be a good defender, but he’s really elevated that part of his game and is versatile on the defensive end.”
Miye Oni is 6-foot-7, 205 pounds, and a unanimous first team All-Ivy selection. It was Woods responsibility at 6-foot-1, 195 pounds to slow down the Yale star heading into Saturday’s semifinal Ivy League tournament matchup.
Woods, along with fellow upperclassmen Darnell Foreman, made Oni uncomfortable, playing towards the gameplan. Oni looked shook, visibly disturbed by the defense. He badly hit the front of the rim on shots, missed an open fast break layup, and failed to convert one three throughout the entire game. The key was forcing Oni into long two-pointers. While Woods quietly dictated the tone of the game with his defensive effort, AJ Brodeur stood in the spotlight.
Brodeur didn’t plan on having 25 points against Yale. From the get-go, Penn’s first team All-Ivy selection was patient. He would pound out a few dribbles as his teammates cleared the way and, when he noticed that he had an opening, he would turn for a little hook shot. When that wasn’t there, he’d use power to beat down on his man and lay it up on either side of the basket. He even hit a three, causing the bench to erupt into a frenzy and show off their youthful spirit with playful celebrations.
With five minutes remaining in the second half, Max Rothschild hit Brodeur for another bucket. It gave him point number 15 as the Quakers were rolling to a 36-17 lead. It was clear that if Yale wanted any chance at getting back into the game, they would have to slow down Brodeur. But there was no double-team, so Brodeur kept working, finishing with a game-high 25 points in 27 minutes. Brodeur was ready to pass, however, if they made an adjustment.
“Early on in the game, I found I was being single covered in the post,” Brodeur said. “I was able to get to my go-to moves with relative ease. My teammates saw that, they kept feeding me and normally we expect a defensive change like a double-team. We’ve been great at passing out of it and making open shots so I think that’s a part of our strengths. Down the stretch, I didn't feel too much of a change defensively on Yale’s part.”
It’s the Penn mentality these days. Always make the extra pass. The Quakers are second in the Ivy League in assists, with 211 total or 15 per game. The starting frontcourt of Rothschild and Brodeur combines for nearly 5 assists per game, an impressive feat, and a testament to the culture Donahue has built.
“I thought we shared the ball tonight,” Donahue said after their 80-57 win over Yale. “We’ve done it, probably, for the past eight games...and we’ve really gotten efficient offense.
“We’re the number one effective field goal percentage offense and defense in the league.”
Darnell Foreman stared at the Ivy League championship trophy.
Just minutes ago it had been in the Palestra, suffocated by hundreds of players, coaches, administrators, media, and fans, who all wanted to feel a part of the history the 2017-18 Penn Quakers had just created. But now it was just Foreman and the trophy. Forget that he was actually on stage, sitting on a long table, with about forty reporters, fifteen photographers, and three imposing TV cameras in front of him. The questions had finally shifted away from him and he had a moment of peace.
He looked at the trophy, took his hand, and wiped it off, top to bottom. He was grooming it, cleaning it, and just remembering that it was real. Just making sure that the shine wasn’t going away. Just making sure everyone saw the glisten he saw.
A day after their drubbing of Yale and 30 minutes before Foreman sat at the podium, Penn took on Harvard. The Crimson were the Ivy League’s number one seed, led by Player of the Year, sophomore Seth Towns, and 6-foot-9 double digit scoring big man, Chris Lewis. Harvard, despite their success, did not have a senior that played regular minutes. That’s where Darnell Foreman came into play.
From the opening tip, Foreman played like that senior. Despite not practicing over the past month due to a stress fracture in his foot, no one in the crowd could tell. After Lewis scored on the team’s second possession of the game, Foreman answered with two back-to-back floaters from the same spot on the right side of the hoop. Two minutes later, he would drive to the hole hard and draw a shooting foul. The gym erupted. Foreman was clearly beginning to take over this game.
As Foreman rose from the foul, he stared down Harvard’s guard, Christian Juzang, who had fouled him. It wasn’t an angry stare. It was a "I’m not playing games today" stare. Foreman wasn’t joking like the shootaround two days ago. He was serious and locked in, as only a senior can do.
Foreman carried the team, putting up 19 points in the first half, as his teammates combined for just 15 points. He raced off the court after he hit a pull-up three at the halftime buzzer. The Palestra boomed. Down 13 with five minutes left in the half, Foreman had once again sparked a run, outscoring the Crimson 17-2 over that span and putting the Quakers in prime position to win their first Ivy League tournament championship.
“Me personally, I was looking for that type of spark from our leader,” Brodeur said of Foreman. “I’m a young guy. I’m a sophomore and I’m still trying find my way up that ladder of being more confident and more assertive out there, but when we went down, I knew [Foreman] was going to be there. We were all looking for him and he delivered in a big way.”
But Foreman wouldn’t score again in the second half and this time it was Caleb Wood’s turn. The quiet senior who doesn’t break anything but a straight face on the court gave the Quakers the push they needed. The Nevada native had struggled in the first half, going 1-7 from the field. With Harvard up three points and less than five minutes on the clock, it was Wood who hit a three to tie the game. The next possession, it was Wood again, not only hitting a three, but being fouled on the play, as the Quakers headed into the final media timeout of the game ahead three points.
“(Wood’s) demeanor is very flat-lined, so those guys are really good in those moments typically, because he’s not up-and-down,” Donahue said.
The Quakers would not look back and when the buzzer sounded, with Penn ahead 68-65, the team rejoiced. The same exuberance that radiated throughout the Palestra on Friday was back.
Foreman couldn’t hide his giddy feelings following the game. He had been serious for the entire contest, but now, he couldn’t hold it in any longer. After interviewing with two media members on press row following the game, he took off the broadcast headphones, shook their hands, and excitedly galloped towards his teammates on the other side of the court. He was stopped not much further, turning towards Michael Mahoney, the director of athletic communications at Penn. Mahoney gestured to the TV cameras beside them. Foreman sighed. He wanted to celebrate. He wanted to be a kid. But he smiled at Mahoney and jumped into the ESPN postgame interview with absolute ease and maturity.
“It’s unbelievable. It’s unbelievable,” Foreman told ESPN’s Dalen Cuff.
A minute and a half later, the senior happily galloped again, this time to fight his way through the crowd of fans and media to rejoin his blissful teammates.
Penn junior Max Rothschild and sophomores Ryan Betley and AJ Brodeur regroup against Princeton at the Palestra.
That’s what the blue banner at the top of the 2017-18 Penn Basketball Media Guide states. As cliche as these themes may seem, the Penn basketball team managed to represent all of these values in their routing of the Yale Bulldogs in the 2018 Ivy League Tournament semifinal game. Their commitment to the five words was clear before the clock even ran.
The Quakers’ began with their regular pregame warmup routine. It includes a plethora of sporadic drills that emphasize many skills, including three-point shooting, full court passing, free throw shooting, post moves, and jump shooting. Penn seemed locked and loaded heading into the game. There was no telling just how ready they actually were.
When senior captain Darnell Foreman wove his fingers together, signaling his teammates into the huddle, they rallied into a circle. It was game time, as the unified mass of white jerseys erupted into cheers shortly after being brought together.
The players then proceeded to shake the hands of each coach, player, and team personnel member, cultivating a melded culture that is evident everywhere in the program which ultimately allows the team to be successful.
Minutes later, the contest between the two Ivy League titans commenced and Penn would start the game red hot.
Within just 11 minutes, Penn led by 15, riding a 7-3 run at the time. A large part was due to the defensive wall Penn had built in front of first team All-Ivy selection sophomore Miye Oni.
Head coach Steve Donahue tasked 6-foot-1 guards Darnell Foreman and Antonio Woods and sophomore forward AJ Brodeur with guarding the always dangerous Oni, who’d been on a rampage recently. The 6-foot-7 guard had just notched his fourth straight double-digit scoring game against Princeton and his 21st of the season.
However, the trio was well prepared to handle Yale’s prolific scoring threat thanks to an extensive scouting report that highlighted Oni’s weaknesses.
“The emphasis was to cut off his downhill drives to the basket because we feel like that’s where he’s best,” Brodeur explained after the game. “But at the same time, getting him off the three point line, making him take contested twos, long jumpers. I felt like we did a good job of that, so I feel like that’s why their offense was stagnant at a lot of times.”
Oni would end the first half with a season low of no points, shooting 0-10 from the field and 0-3 from behind the three-point line. He struggled to find his rhythm in large part due to the pestering defense of Foreman, Woods, and Brodeur.
Donahue has especially been impressed with Woods’ defensive performances throughout the year. He has taken on various difficult defensive assignments, including the bigger Oni during Saturday’s contest.
“I think that what [Woods has] brought to us is a defensive mentality,” Donahue explained. “He can guard a Miye Oni and a Seth Towns [caliber player]. He can guard a quicker guard at the same time. He’s made us a much better defensive team. Really that’s where I think he’s helped us the most. I thought he’d be a good defender, but he’s really elevated that part of his game and is versatile on the defensive end.”
Woods’ counterparts in the shutdown of Oni, Foreman, and Brodeur, are also known to be pesky defenders. Foreman is seventh in total steals in the Ivy, top 15 in defensive rebounds per game, and surprisingly, top 40 in total blocks despite being slightly above 6-feet. Brodeur, on the other hand, is first in total defensive rebounds in the Ivy, third in total blocks, and 14th in total steals.
With the effective shutdown of Oni, Penn went on an offensive rampage in the first half, but did so with absolute humility.
This behavior was exhibited when senior guard Matt MacDonald made a putback layup for an and-1. The crowd roared as did teammate Darnell Foreman, who pushed MacDonald with excitement. Despite averaging under two points per game for much of the year, the New York native showed absolute modesty as he watched a sea of red erupt from his impressive feat. Instead of making arrogant gestures, MacDonald walked right over to the free throw line and calmly sunk the free throw.
MacDonald would be substituted out after nailing the free throw and, per the Penn culture, was met by a standing line of bench players all waiting to high-five him.
The Quakers would go on to end the half with 44 points and a 19-point lead that would be too much for the Bulldogs to climb back from.
The game finished with Penn on top, 80-57, giving them a shot at the Ivy League title against the Harvard Crimson.
If Penn is able to exhibit their five core values tomorrow, they will have more than a chance to take down Harvard. But Saturday’s game, more than anything, was a clear example that the basketball and communal culture of the Penn basketball program is in the right spot.
Penn guard Caleb Wood drives to the basket against Navy at The Palestra.
(Zach Sheldon/The Daily Pennsylvanian)
There were about 25 seconds left in the game. The shot clock was running down. The Quakers had the ball leading Harvard 67-65 in the final moments of a game that could decide the #1 seed in the Ivy League.
With a few ticks left on the shot clock, Penn was desperate for a bucket. Handing the ball back to Harvard could allow them a chance to steal this one on the road. Last year, it had been then sophomore Jackson Donahue whom the Quakers called upon to seal a win. This year, it would be the senior guard, Caleb Wood, whom they found on the right wing. Without hesitation and in one motion, he squared his hips, set his feet, and released the basketball at the highest point of his jump.
The second of silent watching was as deafening as the pandemonium that would break out a few moments later.
Caleb Wood had put the Quakers up by 5 with less than 20 seconds remaining, effectively sealing the game for Penn and securing their 11th win of Ivy League play, something they haven’t done since the 2011-12 season.
After finishing last year’s final 10 games with two total minutes and eight DNP’s, it would have been unlikely for anyone to foreshadow that Wood would be playing a major role in one of the biggest and most electrifying games in Penn’s more recent history. Flying under the radar and serving the underdog role is nothing new for Wood, who had made the unusual transfer from Lassen, a community college in Susanville, California, to the history ladden University of Pennsylvania, one of the top schools in the country.
Wood didn’t intend to slow down at Penn after averages of 23.2 points per game on 49.1% from three in his one year at Lassen. Expectations were high from the start.
In his first season with the Quakers, Wood got off to a solid start, as the 6-foot-4 guard would begin in the starting lineup and immediately deliver offensive production. He scored in double figures in three of his first four games, including a dazzling 25-point, seven three-pointer performance in his third game of the season, a win over Central Connecticut.
It was only a few games later on November 29, 2017, against the reigning champion Villanova Wildcats that Wood would be removed from the starting lineup. The benching was short lived, as head coach Steve Donahue would implement him right back in the lineup in the next game against Temple. Wood, however, struggled to find his rhythm from there on out. Wood failed to reach double figures in the next three games, shooting 21% from three and 27% from the field over that span. The poor shooting stretch would cost him his starting spot in the lineup for practically the remainder of the year.
Coming into this season, in his final year of eligibility, Caleb Wood was doubted after struggling down the stretch during his junior campaign, but came in ready to prove himself once again.
“He’s a very unique story,” said coach Donahue in a postgame press conference following the win against Harvard. “He’s a junior college player and a 4.0 student and when you make a choice to come for two years there’s a lot of trust. I know last year didn’t go exactly like he planned and this year didn’t necessarily start out how he planned but he proved that he was mentally and physically tough enough to help us win games.”
While embracing his new role, Wood has thrived and grown into a valuable sixth man for the Quakers. Although he is not starting as he did last year, his role has been just as important, specifically providing Donahue with a knockdown shooter. As a spark plug off the bench, Wood has also given the Quakers a consistent scoring cushion to complement the starters.
“I think he is one of the most talented kids in the league,” Donahue said following the Harvard game. “He doesn’t usually get that type of recognition because of his role on this team.”
This season, he has played within Donahue’s system perfectly, nailing 57 threes and, in games that he has played 10 or more minutes, he has notched at least one three in all but five games. Additionally, his field goal percentage of 48% and three point percentage of 39% shows just how efficient he has been when on the floor.
His highlight performance this season came in early December when he went off for a career-high 26 points, while adding 6 threes, against Howard. 10 games later, he added another big outing, defeating Brown in an overtime battle where he hit big shot after big shot, banging home 4 threes and leading the team in scoring with 22 points.
Fast forward to Saturday, February 24th, and Senior Day at the Palestra. In Wood’s final regular season game, he ended it not too differently than how he started.
In one of Penn’s biggest games in the last decade, Wood’s 10 points and game deciding three will live on forever.
Although it wasn’t a straight or perfectly smooth path to get there, it’s safe to say that in his short two year stint as a part of Penn men’s basketball program, he has made a difference. If he wants to continue defeating the odds and making history, Penn will need him in full effect this weekend to capture their first ever Ivy League Tournament title.
Penn senior guard Darnell Foreman distributes the ball against Yale at The Palestra.
(Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Before the start of Penn’s game against Harvard last Saturday, the two halves of the historic Palestra court looked strikingly different.
The robotic Harvard team, all wearing the same maroon long sleeve shirts, rotated one by one taking the same shot over and over again until they switched to a new one, wearing that one out as quick as the first.
Penn, on the other hand, wore mismatched warmups and looked ironically coordinated and in disrepair at the same time. While junior forward Max Rothschild seemed solely focused on hitting his free throws, guards Devon Goodman, Matt MacDonald and Jackson Donahue had teamed up with forwards Sam Jones, Jarrod Simmons and Collin McManus for a game of who had the better quarterback impression when throwing a football pass to the teammate across the court.
Simultaneously, sophomores AJ Brodeur and Ryan Betley took turns dishing each other passes for three pointers while guards Tyler Hamilton and Jelani Williams danced to Bam by JAY-Z and Damian Marley, in the midst of it all.
However, as soon as fans started steadily filling the arena and No Limit by G-Eazy, A$AP Rocky and Cardi B came on, the Penn basketball team oozed swagger and utter focus. Alternating fancy layups and dunks in their layup line, the team showed everyone why they were first in the Ivy.
The kings of the Palestra had successfully meshed, having fun and goofing off with intimidating concentration on the task that lay before them. This fusion showed true maturity from all members of the team and justifies their most effective tool: passing.
Penn is one of the best passing teams in the Ivy league rankings, as they are first in assists per turnover ratio, second in total assists, and third in assists per game. In addition, four Penn players rank in the top 20 in the assists per game column, including senior guard Darnell Foreman, who places sixth in the league. However, stats aren’t the only indicator of how effective Penn’s passing is.
“I think we have the chance to be the best offensive team [in the Ivy] and I think we’re starting to see our ability to play small and throw in Devon Goodman and Jake SIlpe with Ryan Betley at the four at times,” proclaimed head coach Steve Donahue after Penn’s rout of Dartmouth on February 23rd.
This strategy that Donahue mentions is a blueprint for offense on command.
In Penn’s games against Dartmouth and Harvard, coach Donahue played four guards on the court at once for a combined 48 minutes and 21 seconds, more than half of both of the games. The guards also combined for more than 20 assists in the two games. Add on post threats AJ Brodeur and Max Rothschild into the mix (both of whom have averages that hover around 2.5 in assists per game) piles on how dangerous of a weapon Penn’s ability to pass the basketball is.
However, one might wonder why a team wouldn’t want to pass. After all, assists equal points and the more ball movement a team creates, the more space and scoring opportunities they create. Despite the counter intuitiveness that some may think not passing might institute, teams can actually have success without high assists numbers.
One of these teams is Ivy League heavyweight Harvard.
The Crimson nearly beat Penn on February 24th, all the while just compiling just nine assists. However, successful nights with few assists isn’t a new phenomenon.
Of Harvard’s 15 wins, eight have featured less assists than their average of 12.3 assists per game. Despite the fact that this is tied for the worst average in the Ivy, Harvard has the second best record in the Ivy, a .833 winning percentage against Ivy teams, and places just one game behind Penn in the standings. While Harvard embraces their inability to create offense from the assist, Penn becomes impatient at times and tries to score off of one-on-one isolation plays, something that doesn’t fit their game.
This impatience showed itself against a struggling Harvard defense that places fifth in the Ivy in defensive rebounds and sixth in steals.
By the end of the first half, the score was tied, but Penn wasn’t playing effective basketball. Their largest lead of the half was just three points, they committed four turnovers and averaged just 4.75 passes per possession (including just one possession with above 10 passes). However, this would all change in the second half.
After an exhilarating second half jam packed with ten lead changes, 41 combined points in ten minutes and the feeling of your chair falling apart at the screws from a deafening crowd, the Quakers finally prevailed over the Crimson.
Penn’s second half featured nearly six passes per possession, including a beautiful cross court football pass to Caleb Wood for the dagger after several speedy passes.
Penn losing and gaining confidence in their passing ability seems to be a phenomenon this year against Harvard.
In Penn’s loss against Harvard on February 10th, the game became close when Penn started to pass more effectively.
In the first half, Penn dished out just four assists, scoring just 24 points. However, as soon as they started to pass effectively, they started to generate much more offense.
In the second half of that game, Penn scored nearly double their amount of points in the first half and subsequently dished out 9 assists in the half.
In fact, in all of the Quakers’ losses, they’ve dished out less assists than their average of 15.59 assists per game.
Penn’s ability to pass the ball is vital to their success in the Ivy and has been recognized by many, including Daily Pennsylvanian columnist Brevin Fleischer.
Fleischer applauded Penn’s big men on their ability to pass in their win against Cornell on January 12th, saying “Matching the outstanding passing acumen of Rothschild was fellow big man Brodeur who contributed six helpers of his own. Throughout the game, Brodeur proved himself adept at finding cutters, timing his passes perfectly and hitting his teammates in stride.”
With two games left against Ivy opponents, Penn not only has a chance to beat Yale and Brown, but the opportunity to conquer Ivy Madness using their favorite tool.
Penn guard Caleb Wood attempts a three-pointer against Yale at the Palestra.
(Sam Holland/The Daily Pennsylvanian)
19 points, 7 rebounds, 2 fouls, and 1 turnover in a total of 54 minutes.
This is the statline from Penn’s City 6 battle versus Saint Joseph’s where head coach Steve Donahue fully utilized one of his favorite tools: his bench.
The game was a perfect representation of Donahue’s value for his bench. The Quakers’ coach substituted nine players in and out of the game 38 times. That was eight more substitutions than St. Joe’s.
While some fans may be wondering why it’s beneficial to substitute as frequently as Donahue does, Penn’s ring leader prides himself on rewarding players who impress him in practice.
One player that Donahue has started to integrate into the rotation after struggling to find time this season is Cherry Hill native, Jake Silpe.
“I have incredible respect for how [Silpe] handled the last year and a half not playing,” Donahue stated after the St. Joe’s game.
Donahue specifically has admired Silpe’s work ethic and his ability to not sulk or get down on himself. These traits have allowed him to sharpen his basketball IQ by creating an exceptional understanding of Penn’s offense.
Because of this, the third year coach awarded him the title of Penn’s most effective cutter and continued to applaud his ability to create spacing, move the ball, and shoot.
He also complimented the junior guard on his defensive play saying that Silpe is “tough as nails” and “get every loose ball.”
SIlpe’s ability to create opportunities for the Penn offense through undervalued hustle plays is one of the most prominent aspects of his game. This showed up in their matchup with the Hawks on a consistent basis.
From the 12 minute mark to the 7 and a half minute mark of the first half of the St. Joe’s game, Silpe guarded three different people, including 6-foot-10 forward Anthony Longpré and even got a rebound over the Hawks’ big man. Then, just minutes later, Silpe forced a travel by forward James Demery by staying in front of him as he attempted a spin move towards the basket.
As a result, Silpe is staying on the floor and has compiled season highs in four of his last five games in two categories, three pointers attempted and three pointers made. In fact, one of his best games of the season was against Temple, where he exemplified hustle, dishing out 2 assists, collecting 3 steals, and playing for 15 minutes (all of which were season highs).
However, one quality that is often overlooked about Silpe are his leadership qualities.
The 185-pound guard has terrific communication skills on the court, constantly unifying and encouraging his teammates. Donahue acknowledged this attribute well before the St. Joe’s game.
“He’s always been like that and [giving Silpe playing time] just feels fair. He builds our culture the right way,” the head coach explained after the St. Joe’s game.
This leadership characteristic is something that Penn will desperately need when senior guard Darnell Foreman graduates.
On the other hand, Foreman’s future departure will also allow Donahue to deploy a bigger and more physical lineup. With Rothschild and Brodeur as threats in the paint, some extra shooting when Brodeur can’t finish or some muscle at the rim when Rothschild gets into foul trouble will be crucial. The potential for this dual threat presents itself in the form of current freshman Jarrod Simmons.
The 6-foot-8 forward has played in all but one game this season including three games where he played double digits in minutes and eight games where he played for 8 or more minutes. The multifaceted Pennsylvania native has also had two games where he scored in double digits.
Despite Simmons’ streakiness throughout the year, Donahue has kept his faith in the young forward.
“I think Jarrod’s got a chance to be a really good player. One, he can really shoot and he’s got a really good feel for the game. As he gets stronger and more confident, I think he’s gonna be a handful,” he explained after Penn’s game against Penn State Brandywine where Simmons exploded for a career high of 16 points. Another addition to Penn’s dangerous bench is fellow Pennsylvania native, Devon Goodman.
The 6-foot tall guard has appeared in 16 of Penn’s games, averaging above 9 minutes per contest. Unfortunately, Goodman has played in spurts. In Penn’s loss against Fairfield, the sophomore guard scored 8 points, dished out 3 assists, grabbed 3 rebounds, and even snuck in 2 steals in 28 minutes of play.
However, in Penn’s next game, which went into overtime, Goodman didn’t step up and struggled to generate offense against Navy. The Germantown Academy alum scored zero points, produced just 1 assist and 1 steal in 13 minutes of play. But, because of Donahue’s substitution system, Penn can milk as many good minutes as they see fit to help him find his way back into the rotation on a more regular basis. It was just a few weeks ago, in their Ivy League opener against Princeton, that Goodman was granted 12 minutes of play after logging three DNP’s in the five games prior. Goodman provides energy, quickness, and defense, but with Penn’s deep bench, Goodman will have to outplay another guard who is being eased back into playing time.
Junior guard Jackson Donahue, who is coming off of a back injury, has been one of their most consistent players coming off the bench, averaging 12.4 minutes per game when healthy.
However, consistency doesn’t always mean productivity as Donahue has struggled to put up double digit scoring games this season, especially as his three point shot hasn’t fallen on a consistent basis. Donahue is an able three-point shooter (37.8% his freshman season) who has thrived in the last season and half off of his leadership and defensive ability. Most importantly, he has provided toughness and that attribute, regardless of his scoring woes, has proved invaluable to Donahue.
Penn’s electric bench wouldn’t be complete without the shooting abilities of senior guard Caleb Wood. The soft spoken “secret weapon” can catch fire at a moment's notice. Even despite his recent struggles from beyond the arc, Wood has shown an incredible ability to shoot from three, averaging 1.6 made threes per game.
Wood especially caught fire during a recent five-game stretch starting with Temple, where he averaged 14 points per game, shot 40% from the three point line, and even tallied 3 rebounds per game. It included a much needed 22-point outing in an overtime win against Brown.
Senior Sam Jones has also complemented Donahue’s system well, appearing in 18 games this season for specific three point shooting situations. Jones has shot a career high 41% from beyond the arc but hasn’t seen consistent minutes due to the log jam of players in front of him. Freshman Eddie Scott, who is out indefinitely with a wrist injury, was a constant face in the lineup when he was healthy. He brought unique versatility offensively and defensively to the Penn bench in the nine games he played in. If and when he returns, his multifaceted skill set provides an interesting twist to the Penn lineup.
Ultimately, Donahue’s constant substitutions have allowed players who have worked hard to show him they can help the team, while also giving the starters small breaks to help them catch their breath.
In fact, sophomore Ryan Betley was subbed out five times in the first half of the St. Joe’s game, averaged a little over a minute on the bench per substitution, and still got to play around 75% of the first half of the St. Joe’s game.
The Quakers’ depth has given them the upper hand on a nightly basis, helping to define a spectacular season for the Quakers and giving the fans a blanket of comfort when the teams’ stars are given a break.
Penn guard Jake Silpe fights for a loose ball against former Univeristy of Washington guard Dejounte Murray.
(John Lok/The Seattle Times)
Before the start of Penn’s game against Temple last Saturday afternoon, junior Jake Silpe had played in just two games where he totaled more than ten minutes. Those games were against Division Three Penn State-Brandywine and 2-20 Delaware State, as the Quakers, who were heavily favored, won both games by more than 50 points. Silpe’s role in the regular rotation was nonexistent.
That is, until Silpe and the Quakers squared off against Big 5 rival, Temple. Silpe posted a season high in minutes, assists, and steals against a then 9-9 Temple team that had just won two of their last three conference games.
Despite Temple’s clear ability to win against prime time opponents, the Cherry Hill East Hall of Fame inductee didn’t seem too fazed and for good reason.
Head coach Steve Donahue made it crystal clear that he had the utmost confidence in Silpe coming into the game.
“That’s how our program is. If you [put in the work], I’m going to reward you if it makes us better, and I think Jake makes us better,” Donahue explained after the game.
Within four and a half minutes into the game, Penn’s head coach subbed out captains Darnell Foreman and Max Rothschild, who had struggled early on against Temple’s defense. They had missed two shots combined, turned the ball over twice, and fouled once. Instead of bringing in exceptional shooters and rotational players like Jackson Donahue or Caleb Wood, Donahue shocked many, putting in Silpe. The 185-pound guard hadn’t played more than 14 minutes in a game this season while Wood and Donahue had both played 14 or more minutes nine times each.
However, after a brief stint, Silpe was taken back out.
While many Penn fans may have thought that Silpe’s only opportunity to show why he deserves a higher spot in the rotation had passed, the guard came in once again, this time for sophomore guard Ryan Betley with eight minutes left in the first half. Donahue wasn’t just playing Silpe for a minute to spill Foreman. Silpe was going to be a part of the rotation. In a game against one of the top programs in the country, the Quakers were going to need the energy that Silpe brought to the floor during his freshman year at Penn, where he had stepped in for star guards Tony Hicks (transfer) and Antonio Woods (academically ineligible). Silpe had to step up and play point alongside one of Penn’s best players in recent memory, Matt Howard, managing to prevail against all expectations, including his own, with energy and defensive intensity on the floor every night.
Silpe acknowledged how hard it was to play point guard at a college level in an article written by Matt Fine of The Daily Pennsylvanian.
“The physicality and the mental toughness is so different [from high school],” Silpe said. “Playing a lot of minutes as a guard is pretty tiring and mentally fatiguing. That, and I should take more of a role as a leader on this team in the future, even as a freshman.”
And this weekend, Silpe had to step in again, but this time as a veteran junior in an important Big 5 game. He exceeded expectations and played the best half of his season. The 6-foot-2 guard’s play looked like an impersonation of the Road Runner in a Wile E. Coyote cartoon.
Silpe sped across the floor, trying to both evade and outsmart the Temple offense and defense.
In one play, he snuck through defenders on the baseline into an open spot. After being slung the ball from Max Rothschild, Silpe dribbled up the baseline and slipped a pass through defenders at the basket for an AJ Brodeur layup.
Seconds later, he returned the favor to Rothschild and contested a Quinton Rose layup, who had beaten Rothschild to the basket.
After a media timeout was called, he got back to work, promptly stealing the ball from Temple guard Alani Moore II.
Later, after missing a contested layup, the former Mid-Atlantic Maccabi Games Gold Medalist sprinted down the court to guard 6-foot-7 forward JP Moorman.
He then quickly hopped out to contest a Nate Pierre-Louis jumpshot, managed to snatch up the rebound, and threw the ball to Ryan Betley for an open three.
After Betley missed, the junior guard sped down the court to intercept a pass to the corner. He dribbled the ball back up and threw another pass to Betley for yet another three. This time, Betley sunk the shot.
The sea of Quaker red and blue roared for a full minute until a media timeout was called.
Still riding his Road Runner-esque adrenaline high, Silpe now had the confidence of coach Donahue to run point. Again, he didn’t disappoint.
Within the next three minutes, Silpe would dish out a beautiful pass into the lane to Antonio Woods for an easy bucket, help force a turnover, and cross up Temple guard Quinton Rose to break a double team in order to feed Betley for a buzzer beating three-point opportunity.
Silpe also played impeccable defense on an always dangerous Josh Brown. While he guarded the senior guard, Brown scored zero points and dished out zero assists during the first half.
This feat is especially impressive because Brown averages four points and nearly two assists in the first halves of his games. Being able to shut down someone who leads his team in assists and is fourth on his team in points per game is crucial to limiting a Temple offense that can heat up out of nowhere.
Being able to contain dynamic players at a moments notice is something that Penn is going to need a lot of if they want to do well in Ivy Madness this March, especially with the plethora of impressive guard play in the Ivy. Princeton guard Devin Cannady and Brown guard Brandon Anderson are in the top 100 in points per game in all of Division 1 basketball. In addition, Dartmouth has two guards in the top 75 national three-point field goal percentage column, with Aaryn Rai coming in at 11th. Given the talented guards in the Ivy, having someone as dynamic on the defensive end as Silpe is a great sight for Penn fans. In the second half, Silpe kept up the efficient play.
Throughout the rest of the game, Silpe focused mainly on locking down Josh Brown.
He forced a shot clock violation and nearly caused another one that ended in a badly missed shot from Brown.
Silpe continually put pressure on Brown picking him up at either half court or well before half court. He chased the senior down relentlessly, leading him to another scoring drought. Silpe’s incredible defense contributed to the lack of offensive production from the Newark native. Brown would end the night with eight points and two assists, shooting 33% from the floor.
Silpe would finish off his night by committing his first foul, putting his body on the line diving on the floor for a loose ball and minutes later feeding AJ Brodeur for a three-pointer that would slash Temple’s eight point lead to just five points.
Even though Temple would etch out the win over Penn, Silpe was an integral part of the team’s ability to hold Temple to just 60 points, about seven points shy of their average. Despite failing to score, Silpe’s contributions went past just the box score.
It’s been a long and sometimes bumpy road for Silpe during his career at Penn and Donahue finds his journey admirable.
“[Despite what] he’s been through, starting as a freshman and then not playing at all for a long time, [he never lost] his perspective on what he needs to do in whatever role he’s in,” Donahue said.
Donahue’s confidence in Silpe throughout the game served as a confidence boost for the former South Jersey Player of the Year. With a strong game under his belt and providing the fans a taste of the possibility of a revived Jake Silpe, the Quakers have the opportunity to add more guard depth come Ivy Madness.
Penn guard Antonio Woods at the Palestra.
(Ananya Chandra/ The Daily Pennsylvanian)
There was 7:45 left in the game when Princeton’s Devin Cannady scored a layup to cut Penn’s lead to three. The Palestra was starting to get tense. Would Penn allow Princeton to storm back and steal another win from them, just as they had done in the Ivy League Tournament almost 10 months ago? 15 seconds later, Antonio Woods would answer that question. He sliced through the defense, powering through a foul from Princeton’s Myles Stephens.
Woods was not going to let the Tigers have this one.
Following the bucket, Woods didn’t show much emotion. Per usual, he was cool, calm, and collected as The Palestra roared with enthusiasm. Woods sunk the free throw, killing the Tigers momentum, and giving the Quakers a 5-point lead with 7:30 remaining. The Quakers never looked back.
Antonio Woods was sitting in his family friend’s house in the Philadelphia area. He shouldn’t have been there though. He should have been at the Palestra. He should have been playing against Princeton. He should have been competing with his teammates. Instead, he didn’t know when he would be able to play college basketball again.
That night, January 9th, 2016, was warmer than usual. It was 54 degrees outside. Even though the weather said one thing, it felt cold outside for Penn fans. Really cold.
Without Woods, one of their best players, the Penn basketball team fell to Princeton. It wasn’t an upset. Actually, many thought the young Quakers couldn’t keep up with the experienced Tigers, who were 9-4 heading into the game. But head coach Steve Donahue’s team came out ready to play. Led by freshmen Jackson Donahue and Jake Silpe, along with loveable senior big Darien Nelson-Henry, the Quakers took Princeton to overtime, surprising much of the Ivy League. In place of Woods, the freshmen guards fought until the final second, as Silpe totaled 11 points, 7 rebounds, and 7 assists in 42 minutes and Donahue put up 16 points on 4-6 from three in 41 minutes. The Quakers shouldn’t have even been in the game, let alone nearly won. This one hurt more than most. Not only had they lost their starting point guard, but they had had the game in their hands. The warm weather, at that point, was irrelevant. It felt cold.
Following their loss, coach Donahue fought back tears in the press conference when asked about Woods. The sophomore guard, who had been one of the most talented in the conference, was deemed to have made “insufficient academic progress under University policy” the Friday night before their Ivy League opener against their long time rival.
Fast forward two years and Antonio Woods is back on the court and playing some of the best basketball of his career. And this time around, he wasn’t going to take a loss to Princeton for an answer. A few days before this year’s game against Princeton, Woods made it clear in a speech to the team just how important this game was for everyone involved.
“I basically told them that this is a big one,” Woods said of his speech. “Penn [versus] Princeton. Rivalry. Don’t take it for granted. I guess for me, I didn’t take it for granted but just being out, missing the opportunities of actually playing against them, being a part of the rivalry, it was eye opening not being able to suit up. Street clothes, watching from the bench. I just told them don’t take it for granted, embrace the opportunity because you’ll remember these moments.”
After having to sit out the second half of the 2015-16 season and the entire 2016-17 season, Woods earned a redshirt year. Each time sat and watched his team compete against the Tigers without him, it ate at him. That made this year’s game against Princeton, when Woods returned, different than just a regular game.
“I definitely had this one marked on my calendar just because I’ve only played them twice in my career and I’m a junior now, so I missed them...five times,” Woods said.
The 6-foot-1 Woods showed up ready to play Saturday afternoon against the reigning Ivy League champions. Despite being covered by last year’s Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year, Myles Stephens, the Cincinnati native notched 13 points, 4 rebounds, and 0 turnovers, in addition to shooting 4-9 from the field in 35 minutes of play. In the 76-70 win, his first ever career win against Princeton (and everyone on the team’s first win versus Princeton for that matter), Woods stood out, making big plays when the team needed it most. Whether it was his and-one layup with 7:30 remaining, or a flip shot with his left hand with 1:49 remaining to put the Quakers back up five, Woods was a veteran leader out there on the court.
“I think Antonio Woods brings a lot of experience in the backcourt to them,” Princeton head coach Mitch Henderson said after the game.
With Woods back, the Quakers are on their way to having their first winning record since the 2011-12 season. The guard looks notably bigger and is now listed at 195 pounds after being listed at 180 pounds during his sophomore season. He’s attacking the basket with ferocity and providing another scoring option for Donahue.
“What I do like, as opposed to last year, is that we have different ways to score,” Donahue said following the win. He cited one of those ways as Woods’ ability to get to the rim.
After starting the season slow, posting only one game with five or more points in his first four games, Woods has turned it up recently. In his last four games Woods has scored in double digits three times. Woods has also been more aggressive, averaging 8.25 shots per game in the last four games. In the 11 games before that, he was averaging just 6.8 shots per game.
“My teammates encourage me to be aggressive,” Woods said. “My coaches encourage me to be aggressive. So for me, I am coming out with that mentality of being aggressive night in and night out, just to help my team win.”
Donahue has seen the same aggression in Woods’ game recently, especially as he gets more acclimated to playing again.
“He has [been getting more comfortable],” Donahue added. “I think, one, the rust is off. Two, he’s in better shape. Three, he’s just getting used to college basketball.”
Woods is still focused on improving and getting back up to speed on offense, working on the little things and citing “ball movement” as a major area for improvement.
Woods has been a stronghold on the defensive end as well. Penn often goes small, sometimes even with three point guards on the floor. Woods has taken on the role of guarding taller and bigger players on opposing teams when this happens. Against Toledo, Woods was tasked with covering their top scorer, 6-foot-7 Tre’Shaun Fletcher. Against Princeton, he had to play up to competition once again, as he was called upon to stick the 6-foot-4 Amir Bell whom he held to 12 points in the entire game and just 5 points in the first half.
Two years earlier, no one knew if Woods would still be playing basketball at Penn. Now, with the heart of conference play right around the corner, Antonio Woods is a big reason why the Penn Quakers have their best record in a long time.
Penn guard Darnell Foreman dribbles up the court at the Palestra.
(Ilana Wurman/ The Daily Pennsylvanian)
Chris Hadfield, who was the first Canadian astronaut in space, said that “leadership is not about glorious crowning acts. It's about keeping your team focused on a goal and motivated to do their best to achieve it, especially when the stakes are high and the consequences really matter.”
Penn's senior guard and team captain Darnell Foreman displayed these values with his ability to bounce back from a personally underwhelming first half in Penn's game against Toledo last Friday.
Foreman ended the first half with just 4 points, 4 rebounds and 2 assists. These numbers are especially frustrating because Foreman is one of the pillars of Penn's team. This trend of shaky first halves has, unfortunately, plagued Foreman throughout the past five games.
Since Penn's game against Howard (12/4), Foreman has scored an average of roughly 28% of his total points per game in the first half. As for assists and rebounding, the Camden native dished out an average of around 42% of his total assists and about 45% of his total rebounds within the first twenty minutes as well. The rest has come in the second halves.
Foreman's numbers don’t stack up well against other premier Ivy guards. Princeton's Devin Cannady and Brown's Brandon Anderson are two guards who have similar skill sets and styles of play as Foreman, but have played much more effectively in the first halves of their last five games.
Since Brown's game against Central Connecticut (12/2), fellow 6-foot-1 guard Brandon Anderson, has totaled an average of around 45% of his total points in the first 20 minutes of the game. In addition, Brown's sophomore guard produced roughly 57% of his total assists and snatched up approximately 53% of his total rebounds in the first half.
Even though Anderson's numbers would indicate that he is a good first half player, fellow 6-foot-1 guard Devin Cannady’s numbers reveal that he blows his competitors out of the water.
Since Princeton's game against Cal Poly (12/16), Indiana native Devin Cannady has scored an average of 54% of his total points before halftime. The former All-Ivy Honorable Mention typically passed 60% of his total assists and collected close to 65% of his total rebounds during this period of the game.
While establishing a lead in a game is important, fighting to grab the lead from behind is a feat that proves what kind of player you are. The second halves of the last five games, when the Quakers have gone 4-1, have been where Foreman has shined brightest. More importantly, he has been a spark plug for the team when the pressure has been on.
Foreman's ability to lead by example is uncanny. The former South Jersey Times Player of the Year has scored more second half points in the last five games than Dartmouth guard Miles Wright who sits nine places above Foreman in the Ivy's points per game category. Wright also measures four inches taller and 40 pounds heavier than Foreman.
However, being a leader isn't just about personal success. Foreman is more than willing to incorporate his teammates in possible scoring opportunities as well.
Foreman has been one of the best passers in the Ivy since his sophomore year. The former Ivy League Rookie of the Week has placed in the top 15 of the Ivy in assists per game in his last three years of play. This year, he placed fifth in the Ivy, averaging more than 3.5 assists per game, and fourth in assist percentage with 24%.
Looking back at his last five games, Foreman had more second half assists (9) than anyone on his team and even Brandon Anderson, who is a place above him in assists per game category in the Ivy.
Even more impressive, Foreman has more second half assists in the last five games than Boston College's star guard Ky Bowman, who has found his way into the NCAA's top 50 players in assists per game. Bowman also managed to lead his team to victory over a No. 1 ranked Duke team. Foreman's ability to be a playmaker down the stretch has proved important for head coach Steve Donahue, providing him with stability at the point guard position.
In addition to second half statistical achievements, Foreman showed what coach Donahue means when he says he “needs a certain amount of grittiness” from his players. Foreman took this into his own hands in their most recent battle against Toledo.
Down for much of the half, Foreman took charge and even put his body on the line when he flew into his bench in an effort to recover a basketball. He fought until the last possible second, scoring Penn's final point of the game. He tallied a team-high 12 second half points, along with 2 rebounds, 2 steals, and 2 assists in 16 minutes. While Penn came up short, Foreman's energy was one of the few bright spots down the stretch. His aggressiveness and ability to create was a large reason why the Quakers stayed in the game even as Toledo shot the ball well from the field in the second half (72% from the field).
The bottom line is that Foreman is the floor general of the Penn Quakers, and rightfully so. He leads his team through adversity while overcoming his own struggles and seamlessly manages to incorporate his teammates into successful scoring situations. And even though Penn may have lost against Toledo, they know that they can rely on their selfless leader “especially when the stakes are high and the consequences really matter.”
-Penn loses to Kansas in the first round of the NCAA tournament