When Penn's players walked out of the Palestra on Feb. 7, after losing to Princeton to drop to 0-6 in the Ivy League, they knew there was a distinct possibility they would be locked out of their own building when the first Ivy postseason tournament began in 32 days.
So the Quakers did something about it. They won six of their last eight and earned the fourth and final spot in the event. Although they lost to Princeton in the semifinal to finish 13-15, they left the court with confidence, knowing that they could compete with the Ivy's best and do it again the next season.
"I think confidence has a lot to do with anybody's success," said Steve Donahue, beginning his third season as Penn's head coach. "That's always a hard one to put your finger on, what comes first — the confidence or the success. To me, going through all those failures early and then figuring out how to be successful, I thought that built our confidence. I sense that we have that now as well."
Senior guard and cocaptain Darnell Foreman said the Quakers carried that feeling into their off-season workouts, the preseason, and this week's start of the regular season.
"It just gives us that added confidence that, when we apply ourselves the right way and we do the things that we need to do on the court and off the court to prepare for each game, anything can happen," Foreman said. "We've brought that into this year, that level of intensity, basically."
With that, plus a year of experience for a team that lost just one starter, Matt Howard, Penn could be in a position to contend for a title this season. Two of their best players, AJ Brodeur and Ryan Betley, are sophomores. They welcome back junior guard Antonio Woods, who sat out last season.
Donahue is excited and hopeful.
"If you told me after two seasons and going into your third that this is where we would be, I'd be very happy," he said. "I think we recruit the right kids. I think we're playing the right way, and I think we're close to challenging.
"I hope we're a team that can challenge this year, but, more importantly, I think we're building the standards that we're going to have to follow to be a championship program year-in and year-out."
The Quakers were inconsistent on offense last season, shooting less than 34 percent from three-point range and 65.7 percent from the free-throw line. Donahue said it's "something that we've talked about a lot," and part of it is sharing the basketball, attacking the rim, and getting to the line more.
"It's being able to make sure people have to guard you more at the rim so those [three-point] shots are more open," he said. "Better decision-making and better passing can lead to more consistent shooting. Over those last nine games [last season], we shot almost 40 percent from three and 75 from the line. I think we're going to be a good three-point shooting team and … a good foul-shooting team."
The 6-foot-8 Brodeur, a second-team All-Ivy selection as a freshman, led the team in scoring (13.8 points per game) and rebounding (6.9 per game) and set a program record with 66 blocked shots (2.4 average). Donahue said Brodeur has extended his range to the three-point line and is playing more of a face-up game, in which he can take defenders off the dribble.
Betley, a 6-5 guard who in high school played at Downingtown West, missed the first nine games last season with a broken bone in his right (shooting) hand. But he finished strong, averaging 16.8 points in his final eight games. Donahue said Betley has improved his strength, flexibility, and athleticism to become a better finisher at the rim.
Woods, a 6-1 junior, was a five-time Ivy rookie of the week in his freshman year. He played in the first 13 games of his sophomore season before being ruled ineligible, and he is finally back.
"I think he's got some rust on him," Donahue said, "but he's played well at times in the preseason. I think by the time the league [starts], we're going to have a really good player."
Foreman, the team's only senior starter, compiled an assist-to-turnover ratio of nearly 2-to-1. Junior Max Rothschild, at 6-8, will be on the floor more with Brodeur to help defensively.
Junior Jackson Donahue provides three-point shooting off the bench. Three talented underclassmen – sophomore Dev Goodman and freshmen Eddie Scott and Jarrod Simmons – also are expected to be part of the rotation.
The Quakers learned a lesson last year in their Ivy season and know they need to come out strong right from opening day.
"I think it's important when you've been trying to get over the hump and getting a winning season and feeling confident about yourself, all those things are critical," Donahue said. "I do feel this is a team that is ready to start winning games, and figuring out how to win early would be a great lead-in to the season for sure."