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.