Steve Donahue probably didn’t have to start a freshman at point guard in Penn’s season opener at Alabama. He did, though, and Jordan Dingle did more than just play. He scored a team-high 24 points, including a game-winning drive through the lane with six seconds to go.
Dingle has remained the starting point guard since then, and has kept the job on merit. Through three games, he’s averaging 35.7 minutes, 17.0 points, 1.7 assists, 1.3 steals, and 5.3 rebounds.
This is not normal stuff at Penn, or in the Ivy League generally. Seniors usually lead the way. (And this Quakers team has plenty of them elsewhere.)
But it’s not entirely surprising. When expected starting point guard Jelani Williams tore his right ACL over the summer, Donahue decided he’d rather put Dingle on the ball than move off-guard Devon Goodman over, even though the senior can play the point.
At one point in last Wednesday’s win over La Salle, Penn had three freshmen on the floor at once: Dingle, Lucas Monroe and Max Martz. (La Salle had three freshmen out there at the same time, by the way. Six freshmen at once in a Big 5 game doesn’t happen often.)
“It means the world to us, to have his confidence," Dingle said. “He’s a really great basketball mind, and just knowing that he believes in us to put us out there in a Big 5 game ... it gives us all the confidence we need to play.”
Dingle gets some of his hoops IQ from his family. Father Dana played with Marcus Camby on UMass’ 1996 Final Four team, and uncle Daniel was a stalwart at Temple earlier this decade. Dana now coaches an AAU team in New York whose products include Daniel, former Villanova star Corey Fisher and former Seton Hall star Angel Delgado.
As Jordan made his way to Penn, Dana and Daniel gave their share of advice.
“They told me that it would be a learning experience, that I would have fun,” Jordan said. “They told me to stay dedicated, stay within myself and what I’m used to, and that it would be an easy road from there.”
There are more big tests coming for Penn in the next few weeks. The Quakers visit Lafayette on Tuesday and Providence on Saturday, then go to Anaheim for the Wooden Classic. Central Florida is up first (Nov. 28), then Arizona or Pepperdine (Nov. 29), then Wake Forest, Long Beach, Charleston or Providence (Dec. 1). After returning home, Penn goes to Villanova (Dec. 4), then breaks for exams.
Don’t overlook this among all the big-name opponents: Dingle and the other freshmen will get a taste of back-to-back game days before they come every week in Ivy League play.
“To play that level [of opponent], and play on an honest, neutral floor,” Donahue said, "and for our league, to know what it feels like to wake up the next day [and] you put the one game behind you and prepare for this other game? That’s a big learning curve, and it’s something that I’m glad we’re doing now.”
It might matter in other ways, too.
“If for some reason, we’re fortunate like [at] Alabama, to continue to win some of these games, we just hope that if the opportunity comes down the road in the Ivies, that we can get a second team in if we don’t win the Ivy tournament,” Donahue said. “I think that’s kind of how we think at Penn.”
He’s already won one gamble starting a freshman at point guard. Why not go for another?