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 loses to Kansas in the first round of the NCAA tournament