Penn is an Ivy contender in Steve Donahue's third season
Penn's stretch run last season was no mirage. They lost at Harvard by 10 in February and won by three in March.
If you evaluate Penn off its entire 2016-17 season, you are going to be confused. If, however, you evaluate the season when everybody was healthy and the concepts coach Steve Donahue was teaching had taken hold, these Quakers are Ivy League contenders in the coach's third season.
After starting the league season 0-6, the Quakers finished 6-2, with the losses (at Columbia and to Dartmouth) by a combined five points. They won at Yale by 16 in a breathtaking performance. They beat Harvard at the Palestra in the regular season finale on a shot at the finish. Then, they outplayed regular-season and tournament winner Princeton in the Ivy Tournament semis before losing in overtime.
The Quakers lose Matt Howard, who was a critical player for them in February and March, but have everybody else back to go along with a very talented freshman class. So, if they were good enough to play with Harvard, Yale, and Princeton then, there is no reason to think they won't be able to do it again.
That said, this might be the strongest Ivy ever, with the Big Four having top 100/NCAA tournament potential. So, this will not be easy. The old Penn-Princeton league ownership is gone forever, now that Harvard and Yale are taking basketball so seriously.
The good news, however, is that Penn is not looking up from a position of weakness anymore. The Quakers are young, talented, deep, and beautifully coached by a man who took Cornell from absolutely nowhere to Ivy dominance a decade ago.
Penn's sophomore stars AJ Brodeur and Ryan Betley played much older as freshman. Each is multiskilled, with games that are difficult to categorize. Both can go off offensively at any time. And you only have to watch them go up and down the court a few times to see how competitive they are. These two really look like the exacta that is going to get Penn back in the Ivy hunt for just the second time in a decade. They love the game like Zack Rosen loved the game, but he didn't have a sidekick like they do when he nearly willed the Quakers to the title in 2011-12.
Here is Brodeur playing AAU just before he came to Penn.
Darnell Foreman is the definition of a solid point guard. The return of Antonio Woods after nearly two years away will also change the equation, giving Penn a potential starting backcourt that is fast, skilled, and motivated.
Big man Max Rothschild played so well in the preseason that Donahue thought he was likely to start, but Penn has enough depth that the coach can play big or small, depending on the opponent and the situation.
Penn's offense was just 209th in offensive efficiency last season. I think that could improve dramatically, maybe even more than the analytic website kenpom.com projects (152nd). Penn's defense really did improve last season and has the potential to get even better with more athleticism throughout the program.
Freshmen Eddie Scott and Jarrod Simmons come with good reputations, but they don't need to be saviors with veterans Jackson Donahue and Devon Goodman ready to contribute. It is unclear when freshman Jelani Williams (ACL) will be ready, but he is very highly touted and comes from Sidwell (Md.) Friends, the same high school as Villanova's Josh Hart.
Penn's stretch run last season was no mirage. They lost at Harvard by 10 in February and won by three at home in March. They lost at home to Brown by 12 in January and won at Brown by 24 in February. They lost at home to Yale by 8 in January and won at Yale by 16 in February.
By mid-March, Penn was a dangerous team. These Quakers are going to be dangerous all season. Kenpom projects 16-12, 8-6 Ivy. I think it is going to be better than that.