It has been a while since Penn basketball has been described a dangerous team. In the past years, they were considered an “easier” game. A team that could be pushed over when faced with adversity. They were the team that couldn’t string together 40 minutes of quality play. They were often the team that opponents licked their chops before facing.
But on Wednesday night, Thanksgiving Eve, the Quakers showed how they are a new and complete team.
On the ball, they have guys that can run the offense and avoid turnovers. They have perimeter players who can stick shots from NBA range. Down low, they might have one of the best big men in the Ivy League. And then off the bench, there are players who bring loads of fiery energy.
A huge reason for their 4-1 start has been the play of Darien Nelson-Henry. In the best shape of his life, the big man from Washington state has thrived so far in his senior campaign. This was most evident against La Salle, where he posted 31 points and 14 rebounds.
“After the Washington game, I thought we had to do a lot more with Darien and try to go through him some more,” reflected Penn head coach Steve Donahue. He also added, “I think we are selling ourselves short by not doing that. And get away from the offense I taught for three or four months and simplify the game. These guys played so well off of it tonight. And he’s a handful.”
“[Nelson-Henry] is big and good,” added La Salle head coach John Giannini. “He knows how to use his body and he doesn’t quit when you take away the first pass. He keeps working. And of course once he has the ball in his hands, he is absolutely wonderful. He would go down as one of the best men here in a long time if he had been healthier earlier in his career. He’s just been a little injury plagued, but when he’s been healthy, you could just see how good he could be. He could play a lot of places across the country with his size and skill level.”
Another factor has been the emergence of Sam Jones. When Tony Hicks decided he would not play the 2015-16 season for the Quakers, the immediate question was -- who would replace his scoring? Sam Jones has taken over that job, averaging 15.6 points per game. He’s been so good, he’s starting to scare opposing coaches as well.
“We called him a freakishly good shooter,” said coach Giannini. “Not a good shooter, but a freakishly good shooter.”
Jones’s scoring ability led the Explorers to avoid doubling Nelson-Henry, which opened up an array of opportunities for the big man.
The role players are also a major part of their success. Jake Silpe, the freshman out of Cherry Hill, has manned the offense with great efficiency. Darnell Foreman and Jamal Lewis bring energy, defense, and aggressiveness off the bench. Antonio Woods, although he hasn’t played up to the expected standards, has endured a team high 33 minutes per game. Matt Howard has played steady and averaged a much needed 10 points an outing.
In addition to the accomplishments of his players, the atmosphere coach Donahue has created allows the team to thrive. This squad is going into each game and thinking they always have a chance to win.
“If you remember the first game against Robert Morris, we got that big lead and we gave it up,” added coach Donahue. “I saw it in the body language -- almost like a ‘here we go again' type of attitude. I didn’t sense that in the first half today. I sensed like ‘alright, shots aren’t falling--we’re going to be grittier.’”
“I think people are enjoying the system coach Donahue has set up this year,” said Nelson-Henry. He added, “The way that coach Donahue approaches teaching is very different than coach Allen’s, not to say that one method is better than another, but personally I think coach Donahue's method for teaching suits me much better...Coach Donahue is such a positive guy, he believes in positive energy. ”
Now Penn fans also have something positive to be about: Penn basketball is back on the map.
Photo: Benjamin Simon-The Empire
The star at the beginning of the game was definitely not Darien Nelson-Henry. Although he was finding good positioning, he just couldn’t put the ball in the basket. With a little under 3 minutes left in the half, Nelson-Henry had only 4 points. But by the time 15 minutes were left in the second half, the Washington state native had 24 points.
After trading early baskets to begin the game Penn pulled ahead 10-9 going into the first media break. La Salle head coach John Giannini had to dig into his bench early and sub center Tony Washington into the game to match the size of Penn center Darien Nelson-Henry.
La Salle’s Cleon Roberts was the star of the first half with 14 points. Penn couldn’t find a way to slow him down as the former transfer was 5-6 from the field and 2-2 from three point range.
Penn’s Sam Jones got into foul trouble early and had trouble getting his game going. With only 2 points and 10 minutes of play, the Explorers did a good job of containing him in the first half.
The La Salle lead stretched to 10 in the first half and it looked like they would pull away with the win. Penn just couldn’t find the bottom of the basket and the La Salle offense was flowing well. After the 3 minute mark in the first half everything changed. Matt Howard hit a three and Nelson-Henry notched in 6 straight points to cut the La Salle lead to 3 points going into half.
Washington started the second half on the floor for the Explorers in place of forward Rohan Brown to continue to guard Nelson-Henry, but Washington’s 6-foot-10 frame did not make a difference in the eyes of the Penn senior.
Penn took the lead coming out of halftime 37-34, after a three from Jones and three point play from Nelson-Henry. Penn held the lead for the entirety of the second half, extending it to as large as 16 points. La Salle kept clawing, but could not find a way to regain the lead. Penn just wasn’t missing.
Part of the reason Penn began to pull away from the Explorers was Nelson-Henry’s hot stretch early on in the second half. Henry has scored 18 of his 31 points in the second half, as La Salle could not find a way to slow him down. He also was a dominant force on the rebounding end, completing the game with 14 rebounds.
Sam Jones also found his shot in the second half, finishing the game with 18 points on 6 of 8 shooting. Antonio Woods, who struggled in Saturday’s game against Washington, ended the game with 9 points and multiple big shots to extend the lead.
Go-to-scorer Jordan Price helped lead La Salle with 18 points while Roberts added a team high 20. However, this was not enough for the Explorers to come out on top as Penn scored 51 second half points.
-William Derry and Benjamin Simon
Photo: Benjamin Simon-The Empire
On Friday October 30th The University of Penn Athletics Department released a press release disclosing that team captain and star guard Tony Hicks will not play for the Quakers this upcoming season. If Penn were to build upon their nine-win 2014-2015 season, it would have been Hicks leading the team as far as he could take it. Now, with a new head coach in Steve Donahue and the loss of their leading scorer, The Penn Quakers are looking at a rebuilding year that likely will not produce much success. Another season of hovering at the bottom of the Ivy League standings is a reasonable expectation for this year’s Penn Quakers men’s basketball team. But, looking at the big picture, I have reason to believe that the Quakers will benefit long-term from this season’s loss of Hicks.
First, I want to touch on what Tony Hicks brought to the table last season for the Penn Quakers. Hicks was the leading scorer (13.2 PPG) for a Quaker team that finished with an abysmal 60.3 points per game, good enough for 325th out of 351 NCAA Division I schools. Hicks also averaged 2.5 assists per game, second on the team. In Jerome Allen’s offense, Hicks fit in well as a player that has solid athleticism and body control when driving towards the lane and using his basketball instincts to make the best play available. Coach Allen used Hicks as the number-one scoring option in many of his offensive sets, that included “floppy” action, where Hicks would start under the basket and come off of a screen for a three-point shot, as well as “flex” action, where he would set an off-ball screen and then pop out for an open three. When coach Allen’s offense was not working, isolating Tony Hicks was never a bad option and usually resulted in him getting either a tough lay-up, or going to the foul line, sometimes both.
Hicks was also greatly valuable to the Quakers on the defensive side of the court, often guarding the opponent's best wing-scorer. Hicks’ defensive rating per 100 possessions was 107.5, not a great number, but one attribute that the box score does not include was his ability to communicate with his teammates. In any sport, team defense is about how well the players cohesively work together as one. Hicks’ prowess at this is evident simply by watching game film and noticing the amount of pointing and directing of his teammates Hicks did on defense. This “defensive floor general” role for the Quakers will need to be taken up this season; I look for senior center Darien Nelson-Henry to be Hicks’ successor.
If Hicks did play, I honestly do not see his individual skills conducive to much more team success for the Quakers this season. Considering the team was returning the majority of their rotation from last season, only marginal improvement win-loss wise could have really been expected. In his senior season, we would have certainly looked for Hicks to grow cerebrally as a basketball player and become more offensively efficient, as do most players, as they get older. If this were the case, Hicks would look to show improvement in certain areas of his game like his turnover rate (3.2 per game last season) and FG% (.403). Hicks’ improvement would have made his individual stats look better, but sometimes having one player as the first scoring option during most possessions creates problems with the offensive continuity of the entire team. Remember when the Denver Nuggets traded Carmelo Anthony in 2010 and then became instantly, inexplicably better? Or when the same thing happened to the Detroit Pistons after getting rid of Josh Smith last season? Because basketball is a team sport and good ball movement is more effective than isolation basketball, loosing a number-one scoring option is not always as big of a blow to a team’s success as it appears to be at first. Not to mention that with new head coach Steve Donahue installing his brand of the motion offense, there will be an adjustment period offensively for the entire team, even if that had included Hicks. There were also concerns of Hicks not gelling well with coach Donahue and not liking the idea of the equal-opportunity offense that Donahue is imposing. Now that Hicks is done as a Quaker, coach Donahue can find the guy he wants to be his shooting guard of the future.
Next season, coach Donahue has a number of lineup options that I could see him implementing. There are three players that are definite starters, they are; (Guard) Antonio Woods, (Guard) Matt Howard, and (Center) Darien Nelson-Henry.
The last two spots on the lineup may see some mixing and matching from coach Donahue as the season starts, as he is still learning about his new team. Sophomore forward Sam Jones is a player that I could see cracking the lineup on a consistent basis this season. Jones is a 6’7” forward that can provide a scoring punch from either the small forward or the power forward position. He was a red-hot shooter last season, making 43% of his 3-point shots, best on the team. In a motion offense, a player who plays within the confines of the offense doesn't turn the ball over (only .5 turnovers per game) and thumps 3-point shots at a 40% clip is highly valuable.
Another player that could make an appearance in the Quakers starting lineup is sophomore guard Darnell Foreman. The Camden native started 16 games for the Quakers last season (3 of them alongside Antonio Woods) and averaged 21 minutes per game. The experience that Foreman gained his freshman year will prepare him for a role as either the starting shooting guard, or backup point guard. Additionally, a much-improved jump shot hopefully will help him on the offensive end.
Sophomore forward Mike Auger registered two starts last season and will have a great opportunity to have even more this season. Auger is a prototype college power forward at 6’7” and 225lbs. He scored 5.5 points per game and grabbed 4.4 rebounds per game in 19 minutes of work per game. If Coach Donahue does not start Darnell Foreman as the shooting guard, Auger will likely find his role this season as the team’s starting power forward, with Sam Jones at small forward and Matt Howard at shooting guard. This would be a traditional lineup that provides a balance of offensive punch, rebounding, and size.
The dark-horse candidate to start for the Penn Quakers this season is freshman Jake Slipe. Slipe is a hometown kid from Cherry Hill, NJ. Last season he was the South Jersey Player of the Year by the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Courier Post and no doubt, is the highest profile freshman joining the Quakers this season. Coach Donahue may be wise to find minutes for Slipe this season so that he can adjust to the college game. His development will be crucial to the success of the Penn Quakers the next four years.
For the Penn Quakers, losing a talent like Tony Hicks will not help in the Ivy League standings. The burden is now on coach Steve Donahue to implement his system and get his players ready to go by the time the season starts. More playing time for some of the younger members of the Penn Quakers will assist in their development as a team. Two or three years from now, we may see Penn giving Princeton, Yale, Harvard, and Columbia a run for their money in the Ivy League. As for Tony Hicks, he will finish his degree at the University of Penn and have one year of NCAA eligibility remaining to most likely become a graduate-transfer and finish off his college basketball career. I wish him only the best of luck for the rest of his career.
Photo courtesy of www.pennathletics.com
One would expect that after losing their most successful player, the Penn Quakers would be down and wounded. But it isn’t evident when attending their practice.
The excitement is through the roof. The energy is unmatched. Players are greeted with extensive high fives when they come off the court. There is laughter. There is positivity. There is a genuine belief that this team can win some games, regardless of the loss of All-Ivy selection Tony Hicks
Part of this stems from the lone seniors Jamal Lewis and Darien Nelson-Henry. On a younger team (11 underclassmen), the upperclassmen have an important role of teaching them the ropes of college basketball, so they can be ready to perform at a high level. Lewis and Nelson-Henry are a major part of it and help to set a strong platform for the less experienced players under them.
Jamal Lewis, who attended the Sidwell Friends high school, returns for the 2015-16 season after sitting out the previous year because of a serious medical condition.
“Returning to practice has been an adjustment,” the guard told the Empire. “Sitting out presents its own set of challenges, but having a new coach presents a whole new set of challenges. So it has definitely been tough adjusting to the new coaching style while also trying to get back to the level of play I expect from myself. It’s been tough, but it has come with ups and downs.”
In his freshmen and sophomore year, Lewis was a common commodity in the regular lineup. With 27 total starts under his belt and career averages of about 3 points per game and nearly 2 assists, Lewis has had the experience on the court. Off the court, he’s had to sit out an entire season because of a medical issue, which he says has made it a "long road." The 6-foot-0 guard has been through it all. But Lewis is using these prior moments to help guide the younger players on the team.
“I’ve had a lot of experience here,” said Lewis. “I’ve seen a lot of things happen in the program and elsewhere in college basketball. I think one of the main things I try to bring to the table is knowing that everyday matters and trying to get each of my teammates to understand that and trying to get them to give it their all everyday. Specific to my story, it may not always be there, so try to give it your all everyday…We are all blessed to be college basketball players and sometimes we take it for granted. That is one of the biggest things I try to bring. I try to get my teammates to experience that gratitude.”
He also added to the leader he tries to be each and every in practice.
“I try to lead vocally and by example. Vocally, I just try to encourage guys when they’re down. I was a freshman once, and I know it can be overwhelming, making mistakes in front of coaches and not knowing what they want from you. Sometimes it can be really tough. I just try to communicate with them and let them know everything is okay and that everybody makes mistakes...I let them know I have their back. When leading by example, I try and go out there and play as hard as I can every possession. Even off the court, I try to do the right things.”
The other senior is lone captain Darien Nelson-Henry. Originally from Washington State, the big man is 6-foot-11 and an intimidating 265 pounds. Nelson-Henry has been a contributor since his freshman season, when he averaged almost 8 points per game to go with 4 rebounds. But he has yet to enjoy a winning season. Hopefully, this can be the year that flips the script. He believes that not only is he in “great shape,” but he also expects to have the best season of his life.
“I know that coach Donahue has a had a lot of good bigs in his systems,” Nelson-Henry commented, “and that has been when his teams have been at their best, when he went to the Sweet 16 with Jeff Foote in 2010. He was a facilitator but also an offensive threat. I think that will be my role this year, to not only score the ball when I get in the post , but also use my presence in the paint and on the perimeter.”
He is neither fazed nor are his teammates. An Ivy League championship is attainable to them, which partly stems from the new coach and his methodology.
“People are enjoying the system coach Donahue has set up...Coach Allen is a great guy, and so is Coach Donahue, they are both stand up guys… I think their approach is different and their coaching style off the court is different, which shows in the game. There’s a lot more pace and a lot more patience. The way that coach Donahue approaches teaching is very different than coach Allen's, not to say that one method is better than the other, I just think that coach Donahue’s method for teaching suits me much better.”
Nelson-Henry, like Lewis, is additionally trying to step up as a leader in his final season here at Penn, to help properly prepare the team.
“We have guys that will yell and get in your face and hype you up and stuff like that...Coach Donahue is such a positive guy and he believes in positive energy and letting go of mistakes and moving on to the next play. I think that I have been able to be a good influence in that respect whereas I am not going to yell at kids, I'm just going to instruct them what to do better next time and hope they implement it. I think that I am very encouraging and I am going to continue to do that because I think it has very good results when you’re dealing with kids like this.”
But in the end, just like we saw two weeks ago with the loss of Tony Hicks, basketball is always up in the air. Just like when Wichita State went undefeated in the regular season. Just like when coach Billy Donovan bolted from Florida. Just like when Temple rebounded from a 9-21 season to finish the year in the NIT semifinals. The game is unpredictable
“College basketball is a lottery, anything can happen,” added Lewis. “ And everyone has to be ready for that opportunity and I think everyone on the team is ready for that opportunity.”
Thanks to their senior leadership, the Penn Quakers are ready to win that lottery and turn some heads across the country.
Penn finished last season with a 9-19 record, which led to the firing of head coach Jerome Allen. It was their third losing season in a row and their fifth in the past six seasons. But the 2015-16 season may be looking up. The team brings in a stacked freshman class and return most of their main contributors. Not without talent and experience, the team will look to compete for an Ivy League championship behind new head coach Steve Donahue. He began his City 6 career in 1990, where he helped Fran Dunphy at Penn for 10 seasons as an assistant coach. He later left for Cornell and after a successful Sweet 16 run with the team in 2010, he bolted to Boston College where he had an up and down four years. With 200 wins on his resume, the whistling Donahue looks to bring that winning attitude back to Penn.
First three games (Robert Morris, Central Connecticut, Delaware State)
Last year, the Quakers started the season 0-5, losing to some relatively small opponents like Wagner and Delaware State. It was not a good way to begin the season and it shot much of the team’s confidence. They will need to start on a good note and get some wins under their belt prior to Ivy League play.
vs. Temple, December 9th, 2015
The second City 6 matchup for Penn will be a big test. After playing with the Owls for the past four seasons, but never coming up with the win was extremely upsetting. Maybe the fifth year’s a charm? It will also be big test to see how far the Quakers have come since the 2014-15 debacle. A win at home versus a solid Temple team could get the team rolling going into the Villanova game and Ivy League play.
vs. Yale, February 20th, 2016
If the Quakers want to compete in the Ivy League, they are going to have to beat the best. That means winning against teams like Yale, Columbia, and Harvard. Penn actually does have a chance to win the Ivy League championship, but this will be a huge game. Nearing the end of the season, this could be a huge decider in who takes the crown. Even if Penn has another down year, at least a win versus a good Yale squad will make the season less of a disappointment.
Starting Lineup and Projected Statistics
G: Jake Silpe (7 PPG, 4 APG)
G: Antonio Woods (11 PPG, 3 APG)
G: Matt Howard (8 PPG, 3 APG, 2 TPG)
F: Sam Jones (12 PPG, .38 3P%)
C: Darien Nelson-Henry (12 PPG, 7 RPG, .55 FG%)
6th: Darnell Foreman (4.5 PPG, 2 APG, 1.5 SPG)
7th: Mike Auger (5 PPG, 6 RPG)
The Quakers return many former starters from last year's sub .500 team, but lose former star guard and All-Ivy selection, Tony Hicks, who has since left the team. The team finds themselves without a go-to scorer. His production (<10 points in each season with the team) will surely be missed.
Woods, as freshman, had a promising season and has emerged as a potential scoring punch for the team. He should see consistent minutes at the 1 or 2, and with Hicks’s absence, he also should be a primary scorer. Matt Howard, another common commodity in the Quakers’ starting lineup last season, will return as an upperclassmen. The South Carolina native was a consistent force and has a silky jump shot -- he should look to build off of steady year.
Jake Silpe, the freshman, rounds out the backcourt. The highly touted guard out of Cherry Hill East scored more than 1,500 points in his high school career while earning South Jersey Player of the Year honors courtesy of the Inquirer. With ideal size for a point guard, Silpe is intelligent and well-rounded. His offensive and defensive maturity should earn him minutes right away, especially after the departure of Hicks.
In the frontcourt, Darien Nelson-Henry is no surprise. At six-foot-eleven, 265 pounds, he has NBA level size. Always efficient, Nelson-Henry has shot 50% from the field in every season. Although he is solidified in the starting lineup, he will need to contribute more points (8.5 PPG last year) if Penn wants to compete. However, the power forward position comes in as the big question for the Quakers. Will it be Matt Auger or Sam Jones? Maybe Dylan Jones? How about freshman Max Rothschild? Sam Jones looks to be the best candidate for the job. As a team who has struggled scoring the basketball, Jones will be an important punch. Recognized as the better shooter on the team, the lanky forward can get red hot (19 against Marist and 23 points against Columbia). He could be the scoring punch that helps to replace Hicks.
Off the bench, there will be plenty of competition. From the looks of it, guard Darnell Foreman and forward Mike Auger seem to be the 6th and 7th men, respectively. Foreman can run the offense efficiently, has plenty of experience with the team, and is a great defender. In addition Foreman became a lot better as the season wore on (In the final 10 games he had only 6 turnovers and 3 games with more than 6 points). Foreman also seems excited and motivated to win, which has been demonstrated by his dedication to improve over the offseason. His shot seems to be the most refined part of his game. Take a look at assistant coach assistant Joe Mihalich’s Twitter:
Auger, a strong, undersized banger, will use his hard working attitude to earn himself minutes. With an additionally improved jump shot, he could make more of an impact on offense this year. Freshman sharpshooter Jackson Donahue (who has looked strong in practice), versatile big man Max Rothschild, and a much improving Collin McManus should see their minutes increase as the year progresses. Jamal Lewis, who returns from a medical condition that cost him his 2014-15, brings experience off of the bench. Don't forget that he has started just about 27 games in his Penn career. Lastly there is Texas native Dylan Jones. The athletic, long, and hard playing forward could see minutes if pieces aren't fitting.
It’s been awhile since Penn has tasted winning. It has become close to an expectation for them to lose. But this season might be an outlier. The Quakers return close to everyone from last season. Furthermore, Penn also has brought in a deep, accomplished freshman class that could produce instant contributors.
With a NBA sized center in Darien Nelson-Henry and an emerging Ivy League star, Antonio Woods, the Quakers are bound for a strong year. However, with the lack of a go-to guy, the Quakers might have trouble getting over the hump. The rest of their team is filled with fantastic role players in Matt Howard, Mike Auger, Sam Jones, Jake Silpe, and more assets. A deep team that will have plenty of options will look to win in Donahue's first season.
The hope is that Nelson-Henry can become that superstar. Coach Donahue has had a good history of developing big men and the bearded fellow from Washington state will look to gain from his wisdom. Not only does he now have the green light to shoot the three (which doesn’t look too terrible), but he will have the ball in his hands a lot more. Furthermore, his steady field goal percentage throughout his career leads us to believe that if he is given the ball more, he can produce at a high rate.
On the other hand, Justin Sears and Yale return from a successful season last year, but Harvard looks wounded after losing Siyani Chambers for the year and guard Wesley Saunders to graduation. Never, never, count Harvard out though. We’ve learned that many times. Maodo Lo returns to Columbia, after tearing up the Ivy League in the 2014-15 year. Princeton won’t be terrible either. It will not be easy, with some really good individual players in the league, but Penn, with their depth, experience, and talent, has a chance to push the best in the Ivies.
Obviously expecting a winning season from the Quakers might be an overstatement, but it honestly shouldn’t surprise many people if this team made a run for the Ivy League championship. With experience, talent, and immense positivity stemming from coach Donahue, this is a team that could make some noise.
Score. The Quakers are going to need to score. Last season, they averaged a mere 60 points per game ranking them 325th in the nation. With only one player averaging in double digits (who has since left) and four over 8 points per game, the team struggled. If Penn wants to be a force in the Ivy League, they are going to need to up that scoring production and find a way to get a bucket when necessary.
Photo: Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports