A 2-4 record through their first six games of non-conference play may not be the ideal start for Penn, but the Quaker's play should fuel optimism for their fans. They have competed well and have shown signs of being a complete, two-way basketball team that will be formidable force in Ivy League play. Besides the two-point loss on the road to a Navy team that uncharacteristically shot 47% from three (the Midshipmen average 35% on the season), Penn's losses have been to teams that simply out match the Quakers on size and skill. Nothing to be ashamed about with that.
The Quakers schedule has not been on their side. Not only have they played big-time programs like Villanova, University of Miami, and Temple, but five of their six games have been on the road, and their home opener was against the defending national champions. While this is a challenging way to start the season, it may benefit the Quakers in the long run.
“Playing on the road is such a challenge,” said head coach Steve Donahue, “it lets us figure out who we are. It's normal now. The crowd is against you and it almost helps you focus more.”
As Penn's schedule becomes more friendly, they still have a chance to enter Ivy League play with a winning record.
“We've had a tough stretch of games, but I imagine we're going to start winning soon,” A.J. Brodeur reflected following the Villanova loss.
For their next five games, the Quakers play at the Palestra against Lafayette, George Mason, Drexel, and Fairfield, with a trip to Orlando to play UCF wedged in the middle. This is certainly the favorable portion of the non-conference schedule for Penn.
Home court advantage and a lighter schedule is not the only reason Penn can start getting some wins. They have received exceptional play out of two newcomers, in A.J. Brodeur and Caleb Wood. When expectations are as high as they are for Brodeur, a guy who Steve Donahue has been courting since his days at Boston College, playing up to the expectations while acclimating to the new school is a challenge. With the potential that Max Rothschild had shown last season, it was unclear how Brodeur would impact the team this year, but he has rose to the opportunity.
He currently leads the Quakers in minutes played with 29 per game, points with 13.7 per game, rebounds with 6.5, steals with 1.6, blocks with 2, and player efficiency rating with 22.4. It is safe to say, that five games into his collegiate career, Brodeur is the best player on his team.
Caleb Wood was also another question mark for the Quakers as the season started. Part of the reason being that he is a transfer from junior college, and unlike fellow starting transfer Matt MacDonald, Wood did not benefit from already being with the program for a whole season.
While Wood was a high-level Junior College player, playing teams like Miami, VIllanova, and Temple is an entirely different experience. Wood, however, has adjusted very nicely to Division I ball with 11.2 points per game on 43% shooting from three and a perfect 10-10 from the free throw line.
“Terrific three-point shooter,” Donahue said of Wood after Penn's throttling of Central Connecticut State. “It's been him getting used to us and us getting used to him. If anything, I want him to be more aggressive.”
While the Quakers are limited physically on paper, Coach Donahue would prefer his team to be more tailored to skill rather than size anyway. Penn's shooters have rewarded coach Donahue's trust in them by shooting 36% from behind the arc. While that may not put them in elite company as far as perimeter shooting, if the law of averages kicks in, and normally solid shooters like Jackson Donahue and Sam Jones can get their averages closer to their previous seasons, Penn will be in a much better position to win close games.
“This group is way more committed to winning,” coach Donahue remarked following the Central Connecticut win. “They are making priorities and making sacrifices on and off the court to be a better basketball team.”
Even when the shots are not falling, coach Donahue will take the way Penn has competed.
“After watching the film,” Donahue told the Daily Pennsylvanian after their loss to Villanova, “I thought we competed really well. We competed hard when nothing was really going our way in terms of balls falling, so I am encouraged and pleased, but we have to keep working to get better.”
Certainly, the Quakers have room for improvement, as do all other teams this early in the season. But they have been trotting out a starting lineup with three players new to the program, and have grinded through a schedule that had them away from the Palestra for 5 of their 6 games. As the Quakers become more familiar playing with one another and find their identity, more wins are sure to come their way.
Photo: Ananya Chandra/ The Daily Pennsylvanian
-Penn loses to Kansas in the first round of the NCAA tournament