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.