By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)For Quakers fans of a certain age, they grew up thinking Ivy League titles and the corresponding trip to the Big Dance were a god-given right. Throughout the early 2000’s, Penn and Princeton formed a true duopoly in the Ivy, with the winner of their regular season finale often deciding the conference winner. Unfortunately though, those glory days of Penn basketball seem like a lifetime ago, as the Quakers haven’t reached the NCAA tournament since the spring of 2007. As a result, the seat at the end of the bench occupied by Coach Jerome Allen is as hot as any in the city. The Quakers have finished just 5th and 6th in the Ivy the last two seasons, finishing last year with a record of just 8-20 (5-9 in conference play). New Penn athletic director M. Grace Calhoun will surely evaluate the coaching position if its another down year in the Palestra.
The most disappointing aspect of last season was that the Quakers were supposed to be in for a rebound, having returned all the main roster components from the prior year. Now, they’ll enter the 2014-15 season without the services of 5 of their top 8 scorers from a year ago. Most crucially, Penn graduated power forward Fran Dougherty, the team’s leading rebounder and second-leading scorer, in addition to swingman Miles Jackson-Cartwright. The versatile MJC led the team in assists and steals, was the best three-point shooter among the regulars at 38%, and was a stabilizing presence on the floor having tied the school record for games played.
The main men left to carry the torch are pair of juniors, 6’11” center Darien Nelson-Henry and 6’2″ guard Tony Hicks. Nelson-Henry can be dominant in spurts, as he recorded three double-doubles last season. With the Ivy League having a dearth of true big men, the Quakers center is in a position where he could really carry the team in some contests. It’s also crucial for Penn that Nelson-Henry remain healthy; he missed 4 games with a concussion last season, a stretch over which Penn went 0-4. As for the speedy Hicks, he returns as the team’s leading scorer last season, putting up some huge numbers on occasion, including a 33-point explosion against Niagara. He was tried as a point guard last season to ill effect, as he actually finished with more turnovers than assists. Hicks will slide over to shooting guard this year, so we’ll see if the change helps him become a more efficient player, while he also takes on more responsibility as a team leader.
Another holdover playing a prominent role includes senior Greg Louis, a stretch four with good size at 6’7″, who played in just 8 games last season due to a number of injuries. However, he did appear in all 31 games for the Quakers two season ago. Also, 6’4″ sophomore guard Matt Howard will likely be given the chance to start as the ‘3’ in what looks to be a three-guard line-up for the Quakers. Howard received minimal time last year before missing the final third of the season with a broken foot.
All that being said, it may be the new faces who more or less decide the Quakers’ fate this season, as Penn will have 6 freshmen on the roster. The best of the bunch looks to be 6’7″ power forward Mike Auger, who projects as a physical presence and strong post defender. Auger is said to have a relentless motor both on the glass and getting up and down the floor; he could push Louis for the starting position before too long. There were definitely be a freshman in the starting lineup from day one, as the point guard position is currently a battle of 6’2″ first-year players, Antonio Woods or lefty Darnell Foreman. The competition between those two appears razor close, and could continue throughout the season. The final freshman of note is 6’6″ small forward Sam Jones, a pure shooter with range beyond the three-point line. The Quakers were not exactly sharpshooters from the perimeter last season, and now especially with Jackson-Cartwright gone, Jones could provide a boost in that area.
It’s not out of the question for Penn to rip off some wins in their non-conference schedule. The Quakers travel to Vanderbilt, and have the usual Big 5 games, but outside of those contests there are plenty of winnable games out there. The team is positioned to really make some noise in the Ivy next year when Hicks and Nelson-Henry are seniors and this promising freshman class has a year to grow. However, whether they can return to respectability by winning some non-conference games and finish the year around .500 may ultimately determine whether coach Allen is still around to see that happen.