A cut to the basket on an inbounds play. Nothing but ordinary. Ryan Betley took the pass, went up for a layup. Ordinary. … Except, no liftoff.
“I never made it off the floor,’’ Betley said. “I kind of just crumbled.”
Five minutes into Betley’s 2018-19 Penn Quakers season, his season was over. Penn’s leading scorer from 2017-18, when the Quakers reached the NCAA Tournament, has a four-inch scar on his right knee to show for 2018-19. One fluky step changed everything, including where Betley plans to finish his college career.
Where’s that? He has no idea, knowing only that it won’t be inside the Palestra.
That’s getting ahead of things. Betley, second-team All-Ivy League and second-team All-Big 5 as a sophomore guard, will be in a Quakers uniform this season.
“I think looking back on it, it probably was best,’’ Betley said of the torn patellar tendon and surgery that took out his season.
He’s not saying any of it was easy.
“I guess you’re ready for the physical part of the recovery,’’ Betley said, sitting outside Penn’s practice gym. “Unless you go through it, it’s hard to imagine what the mental side of it is like. I think it took me a while to get out of a funk.
"Mentally, I wasn’t there for a couple of months. It wasn’t like I was super-depressed. You get off surgery, you get on medication for a little while. Then I was on crutches for six weeks. I had never experienced that. Then it’s hard just getting through everyday life.”
So why was it for the best?
“My body feels great now,’’ Betley said. “In a lot of ways, I feel better physically now than I have in my whole career here. … Last year, I was pretty banged up going into the season. I had tendinitis. I was also dealing with a tweaked back. So I wasn’t even close to 100% to start the season. When this happened, the thought was, ‘OK, I’ll give my body a lot of time to reset.’ I saved the year, which is good.”
His league being the Ivy, future options are different from most other conferences, so he can’t simply pursue a graduate degree while playing a fifth season. He could have slowed his graduation, pursuing a second degree, something like that. But you’re supposed to pay for that privilege?
“At Penn, there’s a whole academic plan that you have to come up with, a reason to stay five years,” Quakers coach Steve Donahue said. “It’s not fluff. You’ve got to really want to do it academically. I sensed right away that wasn’t what he wanted to do.”
Betley will always be Penn class of 2020.
“Graduate with his class,’’ Donahue said. “That’s why you come to Penn. I get it. I totally support it.”
“Obviously, it’s everyone’s dream just to play at the highest level. That’s something I took into account, too,’’ Betley said. “If everything had gone smooth, I would have loved to have played here four years. That was the ideal scenario. I couldn’t have imagined a more ideal fit for me than Penn. But, now, I have this opportunity to go try a fifth year somewhere else.”
“I think almost anyone in the country is going to want him,’’ Donahue said. “A [23-year-old] kid who is that good and that efficient from three, and understands how to play. Mature. I’m hopeful we’ll find a great place.”
That’s off in the distance. Betley said he doesn’t plan to spend any time figuring out the next stop until this season is over. And the year off, he said, should benefit in other ways.
“I think I’ll surprise some people, where I’ve come as a player,’’ Betley said. “I watched more basketball when I was injured than I ever have in my life. I couldn’t really do much. I was kind of stuck on the couch for a couple of months.”
So college, pro, he kind of took it all in, he said. Luca Doncic was his favorite viewing focus, seeing how the Dallas rookie played the game: “So mature, especially for how young he is. I think he’s younger than me.”
More than a year younger. Betley will turn 22 in December. Donahue sees the relief in Betley that he’s pain-free after working to get back in shape. The tendinitis issues haven’t cropped back up.
“When it really hurts with tendinitis is putting on the brakes, driving,’’ Donahue said.
Penn’s coach saw how Betley handled sitting out.
“He’s different than a lot of kids his age,’’ Donahue said. “He’s very even-keeled with everything. That’s a great quality to have at a young age. If it was other kids, I would worry about the emotional roller-coaster [after the injury.] You put so much in basketball and it’s ripped out of you right at the very beginning. It’s traumatic.”
While Penn won the Big Five last season, knocking off Villanova to do it, the Quakers ran out of gas in the Ivy season, even by their own estimation. The return of Betley is a step toward fixing that. Donahue talks about how Betley isn’t just an outside shooter, he gets his share of twos, and gets to the foul line, where he’s a career 80-percenter.
“I also think, he’s 25 pounds heavier, he’s older, he’s tougher,’’ Donahue said. “I’ve seen it in practice. He feels good, so now he’s attacking the rim.”
As for this being the end, don’t mistake Donahue’s words for easy come, easy go. Betley was Donahue’s first recruiting phone call when he got the Penn job. You think somebody can fit your system, and then he turns out to be better than that, closer to ideal.
“He’s going to have another year of college basketball,’’ Donahue said. “Unfortunately, it’s not going to be with us.”
Knowing it in advance — “In some ways, it makes it a little cleaner,’’ Penn’s coach said. “It makes it a little easier to handle for both parties.”
That’s the way Betley looks at it. Making the best of it is not some cheery cliché for him. Despite appearances, he’s declined to let the injury scar him. Maybe it was even for the best.