Penn guard Devon Goodman dribbles the ball at the Palestra.
(Photo courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania)
In the past few years, the University of Pennsylvania’s Men’s Basketball team has finished below the expectations of the players, coaches, and fans alike. Since Penn’s streak of first place finishes in the early 2000’s, the former Ivy League power house has had eight losing seasons, including two second to last finishes and one last place finish. Despite almost a decade long struggle to climb back onto the Ivy League throne, the 2017-2018 Penn team has a plethora of guards who have shown the potential to help Penn not only reclaim their crown, but also rebuild their once great dynasty.
Head coach Steve Donahue’s upperclassmen guards are undoubtedly some of the most effective players in the Ivy. This cast includes two seniors in Darnell Foreman, who placed in the Ivy League Top 30 players in five categories in 2016-17, and Caleb Wood, who was fourth on the team last year in 3-point baskets with 27.
Penn’s junior guards include Antonio Woods, Jake Silpe, and Jackson Donahue. Woods hasn’t played college ball in a year and a half due to academic ineligibility, but showed a ton of promise in his first two years on the team. Silpe had a strong season his freshman year, but struggled mightily in his sophomore year. Donahue is a sharp shooter, who can play both the ‘1’ and ‘2’.
But Penn needs more than just its upperclassmen guards to perform at the highest level. Freshman Jelani Williams is equipped with an arsenal of skills including an incredible ability to make sharp moves that allow him to get spacing for an open jumper.
Penn will also need the help of sophomores Devon Goodman and Ryan Betley. Goodman finished his freshman year in the Top 15 for Ivy players in assists per game while Betley finished his season third on the team in points per game while averaging over 28 minutes per game.
Here’s how these pieces fall into place for this year and the years to come.
Darnell Foreman’s career has been all about yearly growth. In his freshman year, he played in every game and averaged 3.5 points and nearly 2 rebounds in 21.3 minutes per game. In his sophomore year, he played even better, averaging 5.4 points per game, 2.7 rebounds per game, and placed second on the team in assists and third in steals. Last season was his best season by far. The Camden native racked up 12 double digit scoring games, led the Quakers with 96 assists, and snatched up 22 steals.
This yearly growth brought Penn from a last place finish in his freshman year to a fourth place finish in his junior year. During that same span, Foreman has also yet to miss a game, a feat that allowed Foreman to become team captain and the starting point guard. Antonio Woods will have to mimic Foreman’s unbroken streak of games if Penn wants to be a force to be reckoned with in the Ivy.
Before being put on academic probation, Antonio Woods was an integral part of the team. The last time Woods put on a game uniform he led Penn to more than half of their total victories on the season in his 13 games with the team. During that span, he averaged nearly 11 points per game.
Woods showed his ability to effectively run the offense by racking up 11 more assists than Penn’s star small forward Matt Howard during the entire season, who started in all of Penn’s games in the 2015-16 season. Even though Howard played small forward, his play resembled that of a guard. He would bring up the ball on a regular basis and could shoot and pass and dribble at a similar level as many of Penn’s guards at the time.
Woods may have a hard time rebounding from such a lengthy suspension. Coach Donahue will likely ease him back into more and more playing time until he proves he can at least compete at the level he did in his sophomore year. This system might also help ease his fellow junior Jake Silpe back into more playing time as well.
Cherry Hill, New Jersey native Jake Silpe had a tremendous freshman year playing in all 28 games and finishing in the top 15 in the Ivy for assists and steals per game and in the top 40 in rebounding.
Silpe’s sophomore year was much more of a struggle. He scored just 23 points in 10 games after scoring 24 points in his first six games as a freshman. Silpe won’t start, but if he can prove in the little playing time that he gets this season that he can consistently contribute, the Quakers will be a tough team to beat. Because of Silpe’s lack of playing time last year, someone had to step up in his place. That’s where Jackson Donahue comes in.
Donahue played in 27 of Penn’s games last year. Despite not starting, he managed to lead the team in 3-point baskets with 47, while averaging nearly 7 points per game. He also racked up 9 double-digit scoring games and was fourth on the team in assists. Donahue will likely come off the bench this year, but will no doubt add a much needed shooting presence at a moment's notice.
But of course, these explosive guards need people to pass to. That’s where freshman Jelani Williams and junior Caleb Wood come into play.
Jelani Williams is equipped with an arsenal of skills that includes a quick release on his jump shot and a quick first step. He can use that quick first step to get himself to the hoop where he can finish off his defender’s wide-eyed teammates with a thunderous one-handed dunk.
Although it is unclear how much playing time he’ll receive this year, the 6-foot-5 guard has the chance to become one of Penn’s next elite players due to the amount of talent that surrounds him. All of his fellow guards have something to offer him.
Antonio Woods can offer advice on how to man Donahue’s offense effectively, while also staying on top of one’s academic life. At the same time, Jake Silpe can show him how to rebound from a bad season and Darnell Foreman can show him how to maintain an injury free career which is specifically helpful considering the fact that Williams suffered an injury to a ligament in his left knee. Caleb Wood can show him how to walk softly and carry a big stick as Williams has a tendency to wear his heart on his sleeve.
The son of a former NBA player David Wood, Caleb Wood attended two California community colleges before arriving on Penn’s campus in the fall of 2016. He immediately made an impact dropping 27 three-point baskets (fourth on the team), 17 assists, and 10 steals.
Unlike Jelani Williams’ thunderous drives down court that end in the crowd yelling “OOOOHH” while pointing and laughing at the embarrassed defender, Wood keeps his plays short, sweet, and simple. He makes a quick move to the basket and either lays up the ball easily or throws a easy pass to an open man for the bucket.
This style of play resembles his personality on the court. During practice he is quiet but clearly focused. With no expression on his face, he makes jumpers rain from any part of the court.
The final member of this list of elite guards are two promising sophomores who flashed moments of greatness last year.
6-foot, 160-pound guard, Devon Goodman, is a bullet across the court that makes a living out of getting assists. He was one of the main players that ran the point for coach Donahue in the 2016-17 season. The Pennsylvania native finished third on the team in the assist column with 42, while also poaching 16 steals. He additionally had three double digit scoring games. Goodman’s game complements fellow Pennsylvania native, Ryan Betley.
Despite missing the first nine games of the season with a broken bone in his right hand, Betley averaged nearly 12 points per game and was sixth among Ivy players in 3-point field goal makes per game, averaging nearly two a game. He was third on the team with 35 three-pointers and tied for 3rd in double-figure scoring games with 12. He did all of this in just 18 games.
Goodman and Betley are in a similar position as Jelani Williams in that they have a lot of people around them that will help them improve themselves and the team in the future. While Goodman will likely see minutes off the bench this year, Betley will start and be a focal point of the offense.
The Quakers had their first game against the Fairfield Stags on Saturday where they fell 80-72. Coach Donahue went with a 13-man rotation that included a guard heavy lineup. This core of guards, however, will continue to shape itself throughout the year. Each brings different skillsets to the table and it will be interesting to see how they mesh. When coach Donahue does find that rotation and all of these pieces start working as one organism along with powerful forwards A.J. Brodeur and Max Rothschild, Penn has a chance to become the dynasty they once were and restore the Palestra as the palace of the Ivy.
-Penn faces Saint Joseph's this Saturday