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The Palestra awakens after 19-month slumber as Penn finally gears up for a new season | Mike Jensen

The Ivy League was the only Division I league to cancel last season. But basketball returns to Philadelphia's iconic arena when Penn's season begins.

The Palestra is back in action this winter.
The Palestra is back in action this winter.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

Rumor has it -- one certainly worth checking out -- that the Penn Quakers plan to play basketball inside the Palestra this winter.

Sure enough, a quick visit last week confirmed it. There were basketballs and ballplayers and even new windows, making the old barn maybe a little more stylish, yet without taking away any ambience.

Go back 19 months … to the last time any meaningful hoops game was played inside the place. There was no way to know obviously that the cancellation of the 2020 Ivy League tournament would precede the cancellation of the entire 2020-21 Ivy season, the only Division I league to sit out.

“The Palestra is amazing,” said Penn junior Lucas Monroe, sitting on a bleacher seat the other day. “No one really got to say their goodbyes.”

» READ MORE: Collin Gillespie back at Villanova

What’s interesting on the men’s side is that no opponent can really put a proper Penn scouting report together.

“That’s the crazy thing,” Quakers coach Steve Donahue said this week. “Only three guys played college basketball 20 months ago. A bunch of new guys.”

New, but not in the traditional sense. Michael Wang is listed as a senior, but he hasn’t played since a flashy start to his freshman year in 2018-19, when the 6-foot-10 forward had to be central to every scouting report, especially after scoring 14 points and adding six rebounds when Penn took out Villanova at the Palestra. That season, Wang was Ivy League rookie of the week three times and Big 5 player of the week once, all before Christmas. Tendinitis put him out for the entire next season, before the pandemic took out another year. What to expect of Wang? We’ll see.

He isn’t even the biggest mystery. Jonah Charles showed up in 2019 and looked like a game-changer, an instant starter at a wing forward. Then Charles broke his foot in preseason, never played. What to expect? We’ll see.

Then there’s Jelani Williams, who was tagged with being someone special, a guard with a big-time future, except he’s had three ACL tears, going back to his senior year of high school.

“I just thought that he would be the guy we’d build the program around,” Donahue had said last year.

Four years later, maybe he will be. Williams is not only playing, he’s a captain.

“There’s definitely some parts of his game that have benefited greatly from all he’s been through,” Donahue said, speaking about his ability to see a game, and just his overall poise and maturity. “It’s fun watching him in the last month or so, kind of chipping away at what he’s really going to look like.”

A bunch of the Quakers players stayed in the city last year, finding games where they could, often at the 76ers Fieldhouse in Wilmington, where a strong collection of overseas players was often also there working out.

“Only three guys played college basketball 20 months ago. A bunch of new guys.”

Steve Donahue, Penn coach on his roster of unknowns

“It’s not the same, no crowd -- everything that goes into a college basketball game, we weren’t getting that,” Monroe said. “It’s just pickup, but at least we were able to play with our teammates. We’d have five every time, play with each other, run our stuff.”

That part is interesting, that they’d try to run as a team.

“Most of the time,” Monroe said. “Sometimes they would split us up. They would get annoyed about us, split us up at times.”

During the spring semester, Donahue explained that Penn had essentially a three-month training camp.

“That never happened in my career,” Donahue said. “We actually got better. I’m curious what I feel about it a year from now. I think the best way to get better is not to worry about games.”

But, he added, they still mostly scrimmaged.

“We tried to do as much game simulation … we did most of our coaching through games, scrimmaging,” Donahue said. “We figured we played as many as 15 to 18 games, the equivalent. Same this fall. We had referees in twice a week. We’re not just checking the ball up. It’s different, for instance, when there is pressure D, getting the ball inbounds.”

In some ways, Donahue said, he believes basketball has an advantage over a lot of other team sports.

“These guys play 365 and they weren’t going to stop because of the pandemic,” Penn’s coach said, ready to see what this all amounts to as the games get closer to counting.